Recycled Paper Revelations!

Solid Waste Lesson Plan: Recycled Paper Revelations!
(Developed by the York County Solid Waste Authority © 2001) 

Grades:  4 and up
Group Size: Up to 60

Students will learn why and how we recycle paper. Students will investigate the history of paper, explore the important role paper plays in our modern lives, and consider all the products we use daily that would not be possible without paper.

Students will understand the environmental factors and influences that make the practice of recycling paper key to preserving natural resources. Students will compare pollution impacts resulting from paper produced from virgin versus recycled materials; and learn the step-by step process of how paper is recycled into new products.

Via an interactive presentation, students learn about the environmental benefits of paper recycling and actually make their own recycled paper out of scrap paper.

Overhead projector, screen or blank wall, blender, scrap paper, a piece of screen, a piece of blotter paper larger than the screen, a sponge, a dishpan, a towel, warm water. Materials provided by the Authority.

Science, history. Discussion, deduction, following directions.

30 minutes to 1 hour (adaptable to grade- appropriate length).

Indoors. Classroom, auditorium or all-purpose room.

Vocabulary Words
Renewable resource, papyrus, British Thermal Unit (BTU), paperboard, de-ink, pollution.

The first “paper” was made about 300 million years ago by wasps. They chewed wood into a pulp and used the paste to make the walls of their houses! Wasps still use this method today. Humans, on the other hand, have come a long way since their first writing surface. Humans first used stone as a writing surface before we had paper. The walls of caves and smooth rock surfaces were the writing surface of popular choice. Humans also used animal skins that had been cleaned and pounded and stretched to make parchment; silk woven into a fabric (especially used for painting); and papyrus reeds were layered and pounded together to form lightweight sheets.

Paper actually gets its name from the papyrus plant, because of the early use of papyrus. Writing on stones, smashing plants together to write on, and killing animals to use their skins for writing parchments is not only inconvenient for us today, but also not very practical or popular! Imagine sending rocks in the mail instead of letters — the poor mail carrier!

People in China were probably the first humans to make the first “real” paper out of material similar to what we use today. It was about 1,000 years after people in China started making “real ” paper that the first paper mill was built in Spain! Back then, paper was made by hand by dipping screens into large wooden vats of paper pulp, pulling the screens out, draining them and allowing the pulp fibers to dry. It took about another 600 years for someone to invent a paper making machine that could produce a continuous roll of paper! Paper mill machinery in use today is roughly the same process that was first used more than two centuries ago!

Today, most of the paper we make comes from trees. In fact the U.S. is the LARGEST producer and consumer of paper and paper products IN THE WORLD! Today, wood that is unsuitable for lumber and lumber mill waste is used to make paper.

The papermaking process consists of the following steps: 1. Trees are cut down and debarked. 2. Next, trees are chipped and placed into a large steam-heated pressure cooker and mixed with chemicals. 3. In the pressure cooker, the wood is broken down further into fibers. 4. These fibers are rinsed with clean water to remove dirt, wood contaminants and the chemicals. 5. The remaining wood-water mix is called a “slurry” and is fed onto a big screen and shaken to mix all the fiber together. The water drains through the screen and the fibers that remain on the screen are fed through a series of rollers to press them together to form sheets of paper and to squeeze out the water. The paper is dried and packaged into huge, continuous rolls that can be more than 16 ft. wide!

It takes 17 trees to make one ton of paper (500 sheets of paper weigh 5lbs. 400 packs of paper = one ton). Trees are a natural resource. When we make paper, trees are not the only natural resource used. Other natural resources that have to be used to make paper include water, limestone, and heat derived from various fossil fuels such as coal or oil. Paper mills use about 24,000 gallons of water to make one ton of paper! Powder in the form of limestone is also added to the paper pulp mixture. About 216 pounds of limestone are used to make one ton of paper.

Since the wood must be heated to blend ingredients into pulp, fossil fuels are also used to produce the heat value. It takes about 28 billion BTU’s (British Thermal Unit) of energy to make one ton of paper. A British Thermal Unit is a measure of how much energy (heat) it takes to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit.

There are more ingredients that go into making paper out of trees, but it clearly takes an awful lot of our earth’s natural resources to provide us with paper that we just throw away after we’re done using it. Our natural resources are finite (meaning there is only so much available–if we use it all up we can never replace it). Fortunately, trees are a renewable resource (because we can produce more trees by planting more), but they take a long time to grow and right now we’re using trees faster than we can grow them.

Some of our resources are not renewable — that means we have a limited quantity of that resource available and we can’t make any more of it. Besides using up natural resources, paper manufacturing impacts our environment in other ways. Pollution is one of those impacts. Producing one ton of paper from trees creates 84 pounds of air pollution, 36 pounds of water pollution, and 176 pounds of solid waste. Disposing of used paper creates pollution in the form of litter and trash that must go to either a landfill or an incinerator. If most of our paper was made from used paper instead of trees we would save more than 10 million acres of forest from having to be harvested. Also, the process of RECYCLING paper uses 60% less water, 70 % less energy and makes 50% less pollution! Right now only about 25% of our paper is made from recycled paper. Recycling paper results in less garbage because we throw less away!

Recycled paper is made in much the same way that paper that comes from trees is made, except that we use waste paper instead of trees. Used paper we collect for recycling has to be sorted to ensure the best quality end product possible. Certain types of paper cannot be recycled (i.e.: paper that has already been recycled before such as paperboard which includes things like cereal and shoe boxes). Other types of paper such as glossy coated paper (magazines), or books with glued spines are difficult to recycle into new paper because they can damage equipment, or they don’t make good reusable paper. In York County, you can recycle your telephone book every year because we have secured an end-user who has the process to manage the thick spines. Telephone books are recycled into low-grade paper products such as paper towels and tissues.

The sorted used paper gets put into a vat of warm water and is “cooked” and churned until it turns into pulp and fibers. Chemicals are added to “de-ink” and bleach the fibers.

A strainer is used to filter out contaminants such as paper clips and staples. Once the fibers are cooked and cleaned, they get dumped onto screens, sent through rollers and formed into finished sheets of paper.

Waste paper that gets recycled usually ends up as some form of a “lower grade” of paper than what it first started out as. This is because as the fibers are churned and cleaned they break and this shortens the fibers and makes the paper less “stable” than it was originally. For this reason, paper can only be recycled so many times.

Recycled paper can be used for many of the common products we all take for granted such as egg cartons, cereal boxes, tissue paper, newspaper, and even insulation for your house! Recycling paper enables us to reduce pollution, save natural resources, and throw away less garbage.

Using the overheads and provided materials, a speaker will combine a visual presentation with audience participation to communicate key areas of emphasis. Those key areas emphasize recycling, waste reduction, and include a hands-on demonstration of exactly how paper is recycled,

Evaluation Tool
Quiz questions (and answers) will be provided for teacher use. Students will be able to describe the paper recycling process, understand the environmental impacts of manufacturing paper from virgin materials versus recycled materials, and identify the reasons why recycling paper is key to preserving natural resources.


  1. Schedule a tour of a paper mill.
  2. Develop and implement a paper recycling program in your classroom.
  3. Have students brainstorm the many ways trees benefit the environment (food source for animals, shelter, shade, oxygen production, etc.).
  4. Make recycled paper and write a letter requesting that local establishments start a recycling program or use recycled paper or other products.
  5. Plant seedlings or a tree in a local park or on school grounds.
  6. If paper couldn’t be recycled, list a number of ways paper could be reused to preserve the paper we already have (scrap paper, bookmarks, coaster, etc.).

How to Get this Lesson Plan Into Your Classroom
This lesson is available at no cost to any York County school or civic group and is presented by a member of the Authority’s Education Center staff. All materials and handouts associated with this lesson plan are provided by the Authority. Call 717-845-1066 to schedule a presentation of this lesson plan for your class or assembly program.