Key concepts

From National Science Education Standards: Populations, resources and environments

Do you recycle paper when you finish using it? New paper comes from trees, which are chopped into tiny pieces and then ground up, mixed with liquid and turned into pulp. The pulp is then flattened and turned into paper. But paper is easily recycled, which helps to reduce the number of trees that have to be cut down.

In the U.S., each person uses an average of 663 pounds of paper products each year. About 60 percent of paper gets recycled (the rest ends up in landfills or other trash-disposal areas). Where does that paper go when it gets recycled? A lot of it ends up as more paper!

The most commonly recycled type of paper is newspaper, and today we're going to recycle our own newspaper and turn it into new paper.

Paper is an easy material to recycle because, unlike plastic or metals, it doesn't require extreme heat to melt it down to make it into a new form, the way plastics and metals do. As we will see, however, it still takes some energy and water to complete the recycling process.

And paper can't be recycled too many times. After about half a dozen trips through the recycling plant, the small fibers that stick together to make paper become so small from repeated processing that they have a hard time sticking together. Recycling plants often make recycled paper stronger by adding some new pulp to each batch. Between this and the paper that is still made with only new materials, about two thirds of what we use to make paper products still comes from trees.

•    Newspaper
•    Blender
•    Metal coat hanger
•    Nylon pantyhose
•    Large mixing bowl
•    Paper towels
•    Warm water

•    Bend the metal coat hanger so it makes a rounded diamond shape. Use caution; hanger edges can be sharp.
•    Push the hanger into a nylon pantyhose. This will be your papermaking frame. (You can also use an old picture frame with a fine-mesh screen stapled to the edges.)
•    Layer a few paper towels on a surface that can get damp, and save these for later.

•    Tear newspaper sheets into small strips and place them into the blender until it is about halfway full. Use caution when operating the blender, and always keep the lid on when it is on.
•    Pour warm water into the blender about a half-cup at a time, running the blender after each pour. Stop adding the water when you have a soupy pulp with no big pieces of paper left. Try not to add too much water; super-wet pulp will take a long time to dry out into paper. What does your paper pulp look like?
•    Place the hanger-and-hose screen you made over the mixing bowl.
•    Carefully pour the contents of the blender evenly over the screen so that the liquid drains out below into the bowl and most of the pulp stays on top.
•    Once most of the liquid has drained down into the bowl, gently place a paper towel over the screen and press it down to even out the pulp (smooth out any lumps and close any holes) and absorb some of the water.
•    Pick the screen up and place it on the layer of paper towels that you set out earlier.
•    Place two more paper towels on top of the screen and gently press out some of the excess moisture.
•    Let the screen sit between the paper towels until it is dry to the touch. (It might take a while—you can speed the process with a hairdryer)
•    Carefully remove the paper towels and peel the recycled paper off the screen.
•    Now you have homemade recycled paper! How are you going to use your paper?

Read on for observations, results and more resources.

Observations and results
How much paper did you get? What did you have to add to get new paper? Did it take any extra energy, such as electricity, to make? What does your paper look like?

On average, people in the U.S. generate about 1,600 pounds of trash each year, much of which is paper. Recycling saves more resources than throwing things away (because they often end up in landfills). Recycling paper uses at least 40 percent less energy than making new paper. It also produces less water pollution (chemicals are needed to bleach paper to make it white) than making new paper. But recycling still requires energy—and some pollution—even if it is less than making something from scratch. So, try to use less paper—and other products—to save even more resources than recycling. What can you use less of?

For things that you can't recycle—and even some of those that you can—you can find ways to reuse them. Try decorating an old yogurt container to use as a pencil cup, for instance. What other things can you reuse at home or at school? 

Share your recycled paper observations and results! Leave a comment below or share your photos and feedback on Scientific American's Facebook page.

Dilute the water from the bowl with more water and pour down the drain. Use caution when cleaning out the blender. You can keep the hanger-and-pantyhose frame to make more recycled paper in the future—or find another use for it!

More to explore
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows of Sustainable Paper" from Scientific American
"Being Green: 10 Earth-Friendly Habits You Can Adopt" from Scientific American
"Recycle City" game from the Environmental Protection Agency
"Paper Recycling" overview from the Environmental Protection Agency
Don't Throw That Away! A Lift-the-Flap Book about Recycling and Reusing by Lara Bergen, ages 4–8
Recycling by Rhonda Lucas Donald, ages 9–12

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