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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Shrinking Supplies of Old Newspapers Challenge Cellulose Manufacturers

Recycled cardboard boxes are stepping into the breach

A hammer mill and other processing machinery used to turn recycled paper into cellulose insulation. [Photo courtesy of Cellulose Insulation Manufacturers Association.]

How do you make cellulose insulation? The short answer has always been that cellulose insulation is made from recycled newspapers. In recent years, however, recycling centers have been receiving far fewer newspapers than they used to—because Americans are buying fewer newspapers. Newspapers may not be dead, but they’re dying—and those that survive are increasingly read on screens rather than paper.

As far back as 2010, a website called Waste360 published an article about declines in the availability of recycled newspapers. Journalist Chaz Miller wrote, “Traditionally, newspapers are the largest component by weight and volume of a curbside recycling program. . . . The amount of newspapers generated and recycled has plummeted in the last decade, due to declining readership.”

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the weight of recycled newspapers in the U.S. dropped from about 11 million tons per year in 2006 to less than 3 million tons per year in 2019.

In the cellulose insulation manufacturing industry, worries about the adequacy of supplies of old newspapers aren’t new. Back in November 1994, a publication called Resource Recycling published a report that stated, “Because demand for their recycled product, made predominantly from old newspapers, has never been greater, cellulose insulation plants have been running flat out since the summer of 1993. Improved manufacturing equipment has made cellulose insulation even more competitive with other insulation alternatives. That’s the good news. The bad news is that a tightness in the availability of old newspapers and soaring scrap paper prices are offsetting improved manufacturing efficiencies. In some cases, it is putting a damper on production increases and new plant construction.”

Graph courtesy of American Forest and Paper Association

Fortunately, the cellulose insulation industry managed to weather the paper shortages of 1994. It’s also managing to rise to similar challenges in 2023.

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  1. Tim_O | | #1

    I'm not sure how common this is... but my city seems to deliver a newspaper to every house a few times a week. I see them in many ditches, smashed to bits on the roads, etc. Ours often is brought directly from the end of the driveway to my recycling bin. We usually find a few after snow melt. Once it decommissioned a snow blower. I don't see a way to cancel either. I wonder how common this situation is, how much newspaper is never looked at and heads straight to the bin? Meaning cellulose insulation is technically the first time it's ever truly used. Is the "your-city-here Press" just a cellulose producer? It's good to hear that they have alternative options, and that my piles of cardboard boxes do get recycled into something useful.

    1. Expert Member
      Michael Maines | | #2

      We have the opposite problem in my rural area: newspaper publishers will no longer deliver here, because they can't get drivers. (The unsaid part is that they can't get drivers who will work for low pay and deliver to increasingly spread-out customers.)

      1. Tim_O | | #3

        That makes sense, less subscribers per mile than there used to be as well. I have no idea how my newspaper is paid for, maybe through advertisement or maybe my taxes.

        Probably very difficult to estimate, but what does the carbon impact of cellulose become if we count the carbon impact of an unread, wasted newspaper? Not that cellulose industry necessarily enables the newspaper industry to create waste.

  2. LLOYD ALTER | | #4

    I would have thought that cardboard would be a better source because there is no ink contaminating it, but long ago BuildingGreen had good advice if you were worried about ink contaminating insulation: "Don't eat it."

    1. MartinHolladay | | #5

      Q. "I would have thought that cardboard would be a better source because there is no ink contaminating it."

      A. For manufacturers of cellulose insulation, cardboard glue can cause problems, while newspaper ink poses no problems whatsoever.

    2. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #6


      "Don't eat it." Where is the fun in that?

      1. pjpfeiff | | #8

        While fiberglass looks like cotton candy and EPS has the look, feel (and probably flavor) of a rice cake, what is the appeal of cellulose?

        1. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #9


          There are numerous benefits to high fiber diets.

  3. kbentley57 | | #7

    I wonder how loose wood fiber insulation is going to fit into this. With cardboard being abundant and cheap, how can a virgin stock wood insulation ever really be cost competitive against (basically) trash that other people are giving away?

    1. joshmayfield | | #11

      Wood fiber is less dusty, has slightly higher R/inch, and doesn't need to be packed as dense, so it doesn't need to be completely cost competitive. Sawmill offcuts might be a potential waste stream source.

  4. frasca | | #10

    I still take a newspaper because I don't retain much when I read on screens, (and am generally susceptible to the way that the internet conversations seem to bring out the worst in most of us). (And yes, GBA, if you ever started shipping a print edition I would subscribe regardless of cost!) It would be cool if I could save all my newspapers for some period of time and have cellulose insulation made out of them, then put that in my walls for a new house or addition/remodel. Not practical, but cool.

  5. [email protected] | | #12

    Has anyone done any studies into textiles as the next replacement for cellulose. I realize that cotton is not the most environmentally friendly crop and that many textiles have plastics but the fashion industry sure pumps out a lot of waste! The amount of this stuff is staggering! All of this, including stuffing used in stuffed toys, could become great insulation. Here are some references articles to give you an idea of how much waste fast fashion and cheap clothing is responsible for.,residents%20%26%20businesses%20is%20dumped%20here.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #13


      Denim insulation?

      1. [email protected] | | #14

        Yes, but taking it one step further to not just include denim but all forms of textiles/clothing.

        1. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #15


          If it can be done with denim, it seems likely all cotton-based clothes could be used. I wonder if synthetics would work too? It would be a fantastic way to divert all that stuff from landfills.

          You guys do nice work.

    2. MartinHolladay | | #16

      I doubt if it would be cheap. Issues include ensuring the clothes are clean enough, and removing zippers and buttons. Clothes aren't uniform, so the resulting product will be uneven, with the occasional leather jacket and vinyl raincoat messing up the R-value.

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