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The ultimate symbol of recovered paper collection in Germany – the blue bin. But where did it come from and how was it developed? 


Recycling can look back at a long tradition in paper production. Until the 19th Century, paper was more often produced from textile waste (see also The History of Paper). In the mid-19th Century, the rags were replaced by the use of wood fibres. At the start of the 20th Century, recovered paper gained significance as a trading good, and developed its own cycle of materials even then. 


470,000 tonnes of recovered paper were used in Germany in the 1950s. The proportion of recovered paper in raw material use was 30%. The first “recovered paper type lists” emerged during this period, to allow the many different qualities to be sorted for paper producers. 


The use of recovered paper as a secondary raw material has increased constantly since then. The high population density in Germany and the district administrations’ interest in recovered paper as a raw material contributed to the achievement of a good collection rate. In 2011, 16.246 million tonnes of recovered paper was used in paper production – around 71% of total paper production in Germany. Recovered paper is the most important secondary raw material for the paper industry. The blue bin was introduced in 2002, primarily for private households. The collection of commercial waste paper was added later on. The idea of environmental protection provided further impetus to recovered paper collection in Germany. The country was a net importer of recovered paper as goods until 2002, and has been a net exporter since then.


The public struggle between disposal waste companies, district administrations and paper factories for the right to recovered paper shows just how valuable recovered paper is as a raw material, while the new regulations in the German recycled materials act (Kreislaufwirtschaftsgesetz) are proof of how high worldwide interest in the raw material has become. Demand from China, the largest paper producer, for recovered paper as a raw material now also plays a crucial role on the domestic European market. 


The European standard for the recovered paper qualities was set down in 2001. The five groups are “ordinary grades, “medium grades”, “high grades”, “Kraft grades” and “special grades”. The largest group is “ordinary grades”, which predominantly includes unsorted household goods (blue bin), mixtures of graphics papers and newspapers (de-inking goods) and supermarket corrugated paper and board from the commercial sector. Almost 100% of packaging such as cardboard and corrugated paper boxes is made from recovered paper. Less recovered paper is used to produce higher paper qualities such as graphical papers (high gloss papers), and primary fibres are added. The progress of technology in recent years has allowed the use of primary fibres to be reduced through the use of higher recovered paper qualities. In Germany, paper fibres are currently recycled up to six times. 


Almost 400 million tonnes of paper, corrugated paper and board are produced around the world every year. The largest producers are China, the USA, Japan and Germany. Average per capita paper consumption in 2011 was 231 kg in the USA and 121 kg in the EU. A third of global paper production capacity is in Europe. Europe leads the world in the production of printing and writing paper. Consolidation in the European paper industry has led to a reduction in the number of paper factories despite an increase in capacity. 


The German paper industry is number one in Europe, and in fourth place in the world behind China, the USA and Japan. It still relies on recovered paper as a secondary raw material.