The myth of recycled paper

Recycled paper would have to be my biggest annoyance in the printing and publishing industries. I know many people, including good friends in the industry around the world, continually propel the story that using post-consumer recycled paper is good for the environment. And I know many companies, governments and lots of NGOs have hung coats on the story too.

However, where is the peer reviewed academic proof that collecting used paper from the community, bringing it to a paper mill, and then using an intense combination of physical effort and toxic chemicals that begin to separate the old ink image from the used paper is good for the environment? The carbon footprint of that process is staggeringly higher than making paper from virgin fibre.

The origins of recycling paper came from the period of significant environmental damage caused by Acid Rain beginning in the early 1970s. This was a time in Europe where high sulfur content diesel fuel was widely used. The problem came to a head when a significant amount of Europe’s forests started to die off, rapidly. Governments and scientist searched for the cause and then the solution. The released sulfur ends up in the lower atmosphere, combined with moisture and sunlight converts to sulfuric acid, and as rain falls the acid also covers everything.

It was not too long until the source of the problem was found. European governments quickly put in place a sulfur tax to force the users of fuel to shift away from poor quality diesel. However one outcome of the drying forests was the impact on pulp and paper companies. They were in danger of running out of trees. The Black Forest in Germany nearly disappeared completely. The solution was relatively simple and quick to implement; recollect the wood fibre that was in paper. It was called the urban forest solution.

The process of deinking might sound simple because it rolls nicely off the tougue. But in the industrial application it is a challenging task. Ink makers have built their inks to dry hard, quick and not scuff off from one page to another.

Printing companies are always pushing for faster harder inks. So now the paper has been used and we need inks that will fall off the paper as if by magic.

I did some research into this area a few years ago. I looked at the annual sustainability reports from about 20 global pulp and paper manufacturers. In their reports they document the type of paper being made at each mill and the amount of internal and external CO2 emissions. I separated the recycle mills in Europe and North America from the virgin fibre mills and then tried to align the types of paper so that I could compare a similar paper from a virgin mill to a recycled fibre mill of the same type of paper. What I found was that there is as much as a 10 fold increase in the carbon emissions from a recycled mill compared to a fully integrated virgin fibre pulp and paper mill. Paper engineers know the chemical and energy cost of recycling, but they do not sell the product, their job is to make it. My calculations did not take into consideration the emissions cost of collection and sorting, or growing and harvesting trees. That is another story altogether that I will have to go into at a later date.

I think the wider industry which includes customers, NGOs and governments have failed to properly investigate the true environmental cost of processes such as recycled paper. In one academic study the conclusion is frightfully clear, ‘any amount of recycled content is dangerous to the environment’. I am sure you will find any number of magazine articles promoting recycled paper, but there are few if any peer reviewed research papers that support it.

So why do people in the trade, NGOs, customers and governments laud the value of recycled paper? It appears the Emperor is still wearing the same old clothes.

While on the subject of paper, I would like to pay tribute to perhaps the most widely respected and liked paper professional Australia and New Zealand has known, Dallas Pascoe. Dallas passed away recently after a short illness. He will be missed by everyone who crossed his path in his long career in the print industry he loved and was so passionate about. I cannot remember the first time I met Dallas, but I was lucky to keep meeting him for more than 40 years. He knew others much, much longer than me, so I was a relative newcomer to his world of paper. I know his family and many close friends will be devastated by his passing, but he leaves us all with some wonderful memories.

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7 thoughts on “The myth of recycled paper

  1. What a stupid article !. It’s being controversial for the sake of being controversial. The methodology is weak , (taking average of results from 20 mills producing mix of Recycled and virgin finber products do not make sense. the only right methodology is a full Life Cycle Analysis taking into account upstream and downstream processes. Comment on De-inking process shows a lack of understanding of latest developments n this area … Talk to specialists (Arjowiggins .. ) before writing such an article…

    1. Did we read the same article?

      Where on earth did you get the idea, that the data came from averages across 20 mixed mills?

      As I read it, the author analysed 20 global manufacturers each of whom identified the CO2 emissions from each of its multiple mills.

      From there it was a simple (and accurate) matter to identify the emissions data for each type of Mill. Nothing wrong with that methodology for a preliminary study, and by the way, nothing wrong with applying a few averaging factors if it is done appropriately.

      I believe the author has identified an anomaly worthy of deeper investigation, a TENFOLD difference should not be ignored. If he is correct then there really is something inherently flawed about the whole paper recycling concept.

      Only opinions are controversial, and most contrary opinions are… until they become facts.

  2. This article seems particularly poorly written. Are there ANY facts to back up this very surprising, and odd, claim. No one has thought of this before? And obtuse references such as “In one academic study” just further weakens the conclusion. What study?

  3. There are several scientific papers that support the article though I am not aware of any that say recycled papers are low carbon and would like any info you have on them. The issue in Australia is the total lack of understanding of climate change it’s about reducing our “Fossilised Carbon Foot Print” not our “Carbon Foot Print”. In most of the world timber and it’s products are seen as green especially from plantation timber. A closed mill/plantation that uses it’s wood waste to power the process, sells excess power to the grid uses no fossilised carbon in the process. Now there is no way any way you want to PR it that post consumer recycled paper is carbon/climate friendly, even pre consumer is stretching it. It’s like the farce of F.S.C. standards here in Australia, know what ISO standards are or other independent ones and see if your mill sales rep can match those. A paper company makes pulp in one country sends it to another to be made into paper brings it back to sell as low carbon… spin whatever, the carbon cost ocurred in another country and is therefore not included in the calculation in selling that paper in their home country and is sold as “recycled/low carbon whatever. People buying it think they are doing the right thing and of course this paper is sold in other markets as a greener paper! When you measure these things the base is the life cycle so from collection, de inking (huge pollution problems with this) re making, point of sale. Like solar cells most do not generate enough power over their lifetime to manufacture themselves, while you may save money (pay back of the system is based in most cases on the cost of the system and not the carbon cost) and feel good, you are using more fossilised carbon in manufacture than you generate in solar!

  4. Surely there are valid and verified studies that compare the footprint of virgin and recycled stocks??
    There are too many people hanging their hat on statistics for there not to be.
    Additionally, the only way to compare the sustainability and carbon footprint of both virgin and recycled papers is through a full life cycle analysis, you can;t simply pluck the manufacturing stats and make a sweeping statement??

  5. Similar to what other people have said, I would like to see the academic sources the author is referring to. You can’t start off by saying ‘where is the peer reviewed academic proof…’ and then provide no such proof for your own argument. Where are the author’s academic citations? This is the pot calling the kettle black.

  6. De-inking is a huge issue in the paper recycling chain. You’ve only got to read some of the INDEGE white papers to understand the issues at hand with the increase of digitally printed material. Clearly waste paper recovery and recycling uses vast amounts of energy and water – and as the volumes of digital print grow, quite possibly burying paper in the ground (sequestration) might be the best option until methods requiring less energy and water are developed.

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