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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