The United States Environmental Protection Agency has found that recycling reduces water pollution by 35% and air pollution by 74% in comparison with making virgin paper. Just one company - “Waste Management" recycles enough paper every year to save 41 million trees.
Paper can not be recycled indefinitley because the fibers are degraded with each recycling and after being recycled four or five times the fibers become too short and weak to be useful in making paper.
Although recycling has proven to be a phenomenal aid in reducing our paper consumption and hence the eco-impacts of paper production, the best solution is to leave trees in forests and use hemp and other more sustainable options instead, or at least in addition. Using trees for paper is too energy intensive and disruptive to the environment to continue using. Hemp can produce 320x more fiber per acre per year than trees.
Recycling Plastic Bags?
As for recycling plastic bags, very little of it happens, only 5% or so. It is not as easy to recycle plastic bags as other things because they can only be recycled at special disposal centers or now some grocery stores take them.
Plastic bag recycling is more accurately called "down-cycling", because the original purpose can not be replicated. Plastic bags can be turned into synthetic materials such as composite lumber for example, but don't end up becoming plastic bags again. Plastic bags are made only from virgin resin.
Many plastic bags end up in traditional recycling facilities that are not capable of dealing with them and their machines get gummed up and take twenty minute intervals several times a day to clean up.
Also, plastic bags that are supposed to get recycled, often end up getting shipped to third world countries where they can be incinerated more cheaply creating toxic waste for innocent people.
REDUCING is Better than Recycling: You can easily reduce your consumption of single-use plastic and paper bags and containers by reusing.
Recycling is a really ingenious idea that works great for reducing our trash and CO2 footprints, but if you can completely replace single-use items with long lasting reusable ones you'll have the greatest positive impact.