Skip to main content

Unpacking Continuously High Paper Recycling Rates

Breaking Down What The 2021 Recycling Rates Mean 

The numbers are in! Paper is, once again, one of the most recycled materials in the U.S. Our industry has maintained continuously high recycling rates for more than a decade. In 2021, the paper recycling rate climbed to 68%, a rate on par with the highest rate previously achieved.  

The recycling rate for old corrugated containers (OCC) – you know these as cardboard boxes – was also an impressive 91.4%. 

Let’s break down the numbers. 

2021 Paper Recycling Rate 

More than 50 million tons of paper was recovered for recycling in 2021. That amount could fill rail cars stretching from New York to Los Angeles three times! 

The paper recycling rate has met or exceeded 63% since 2009. 

2021 Cardboard Recycling Rate 

Cardboard is the most recycled packaging material in the U.S. 

More than 35 million tons of cardboard – what the industry calls corrugated – was recovered for recycling.  

The cardboard recycling rate has met or exceeded 82% since 2009. 

What makes paper recycling work so well? 

The paper and wood products industry is inherently circular. Our products are made from renewable resources – trees – and they’re easily recycled.  

94% of Americans have access to community recycling programs.  

And the industry is investing billions of dollars in manufacturing infrastructure to increase the utilization of recycled paper in our products.  

What can you do? 

Keep recycling your paper products! Don’t be a wishcycler – remember to recycle properly.  

Here’s how you can help: 

  • Always check your local guidelines to find out what’s accepted in your area.  
  • Keep paper products dry and clean, and flatten your cardboard boxes before placing them in the recycling bin. 
  • If your community doesn’t accept pizza boxes or paper padded mailers, ask them to start! Send them our guidelines. 

Our industry wants your paper and paper-based packaging to be recycled to make new products. When you recycle correctly, you’re helping us advance a more sustainable future. 

The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) serves to advance U.S. paper and wood products manufacturers through fact-based public policy and marketplace advocacy. The forest products industry is circular by nature. AF&PA member companies make essential products from renewable and recyclable resources, generate renewable bioenergy and are committed to continuous improvement through the industry’s sustainability initiative —Better Practices, Better Planet 2030: Sustainable Products for a Sustainable Future. The forest products industry accounts for approximately 5% of the total U.S. manufacturing GDP, manufactures about $350 billion in products annually and employs about 925,000 people. The industry meets a payroll of about $65 billion annually and is among the top 10 manufacturing sector employers in 43 states. Visit AF&PA online at or follow us on Twitter @ForestandPaper