Twenty-eight percent of municipal solid waste in the United States is comprised of paper. Americans recycle about 66 percent of the waste paper they generate. Notably, requirements for paper recycling vary across the country. Only 19 of the 50 states have mandatory recycling of at least one commodity and of these, only nine target paper.

Mandatory Paper Recycling

Although the federal government doesn't mandate recycling, some states have taken steps to ensure that paper is recycled locally. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia have all passed laws requiring that all paper grades are recycled. These laws specify that all waste generators must comply with these regulations, including residents, businesses, government agencies, universities, waste haulers, transfer stations, landfills and combustion facilities.

Generator and Commodity-Focused Mandatory Recycling

In some cases, mandatory paper recycling requirements are targeted to specific waste generators or grades of paper. For example, California requires that businesses recycle newspaper. In Connecticut, it is mandatory that all waste generators recycle newspaper, magazines and white and colored office paper, while options for recycling telephone books and discarded mail are left to local jurisdictions. Maine, South Dakota and Virginia have also adopted targeted mandatory paper recycling requirements.

Cities with Mandatory Recycling

A growing number of cities are adopting mandatory recycling initiatives that include not only paper, but a wide range of recyclable materials. Recycling laws of this nature serve to increase diversion rates and preserve landfill space. In Seattle, diversion rates increased from 38 percent to 54 percent following its recycling mandate. Other cities, like Cleveland, have followed suit hoping that the revenue realized from the recycling program would provide enough funding to preserve jobs.

Requirements for Preparing Paper for Recycling

Although disposable napkins are considered paper goods, they are typically not accepted in recycling programs.
Although disposable napkins are considered paper goods, they are typically not accepted in recycling programs.

In the past, paper recycling was complicated by the presence of adhesives, staples, plastic windows and paper clips. However, paper mills that process recovered paper are now set up to remove common contaminants, making paper recycling easier than ever. Local recycling programs may still require some preparation like bundling or bagging paper recyclables and may not accept all paper types. Items that may not be accepted include carbon paper, foil gift wrap, leather-bound books, photographs, paper or cardboard contaminated with paint, chemicals or food and used paper towels, napkins, or tissues.