There is a widespread view that recycled paper should be best from an environmental perspective. But is that true? The publisher, Penguin Random House, which has its registered office in the UK, decided to find out how large a carbon footprint the paper from their main suppliers had, and also included manufacturers of recycled paper.

The results showed that Holmen’s book paper from Hallsta mill had the lowest carbon footprint of all the papers in the study, also lower than the recycled paper.

The study was based on life-cycle analyses of both wood-containing and wood-free paper. Life-cycle analysis is a common method used to calculate the impact of a product on an environment over its lifetime – in this case from the moment the trees are harvested until the paper is sent for recycling or incineration. A number of aspects were considered, including the fossil fuel CO2 footprint, biogenic CO2 footprint, emissions to water and air, waste to landfill and transparency.

Extremely low carbon dioxide emissions

The results showed that Holmen BOOK from Hallsta paper mill had a significantly lower CO2 footprint compared to the other book-grade papers in the study.

“This is because we have extremely low carbon dioxide emissions from production. Hallsta paper mill, which has closed down its fuel boilers, has no carbon dioxide emissions at all. Braviken paper mill burns biofuel but the emissions are low and only amount to approximately 20 kilos of carbon dioxide per tonne of paper produced,” explains Tomas Mäki, environment and sustainability specialist at Hallsta paper mill.

Even when carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption were included, Holmen paper mills had lower emission levels than, for example, the recycled paper mills that were included in the study.

“The fact that Sweden’s electricity production is based on water, wind, solar and nuclear power works to our advantage. It means that we have significantly lower emissions than paper mills in other countries,” says Mäki.

Holmen mills get top marks

Carbon dioxide emissions usually refer to emissions of fossil carbon dioxide, in other words what comes from the combustion of coal and oil. These are also the type of emissions included in the EU’s emissions trading scheme. But in the study, the biogenic carbon dioxide emissions were also considered. This includes emissions linked to the combustion of biofuels, forest aspects and emissions from landfill. Biogenic carbon dioxide emissions are harder to calculate and are mainly based on estimates.

“In addition, it can be said that they are a natural part of the ecocycle, since carbon dioxide is absorbed again by the growing forest,” says Mäki.

When all parameters in the study were evaluated, the fresh fibre paper from Hallsta paper mill was the winner with the lowest carbon footprint, followed by recycled fibre paper from an Austrian mill. Braviken paper mill came in third place, extremely close to the second position in the ranking.

High level of transparency

The decisive factor was not just the low emissions of fossil carbon dioxide. The study also included the WWF’s Check Your Paper index, which ranks companies in terms of transparency, impacts on the forest and emissions to air and water.

“We have a high level of transparency and are happy to share our calculations with customers. We are able not only to present the carbon dioxide footprints of the different papers in our product portfolio but can also provide extensive forestry data. This is one of the many benefits of owning your own forest,” says Mäki.

The study also highlights the fact that Holmen paper mills have very little waste sent to landfill.

“Our ambition is to close the loop. The bark that cannot be used in pulp production is sold on to heat and power plants. Biosludge and fibre sludge, which are residual products from production, are composted and turned into fibre soil reinforcement which is sold on."

Sustainable choice of paper

How should a publisher approach the purchase of paper? One conclusion to be drawn from the study is that fresh fibre paper may be better for the climate than recycled fibre if it comes from the right mill. Another conclusion is that both are needed. Without the addition of fresh fibre to the recycling system, the recycled fibre would run out after around three months since it can only be recycled five to seven times.

“Interest in sustainability issues is increasing in the world of publishing. Firstly, lobbying groups are exerting pressure but so are authors, who want to know where the paper comes from and whether it’s FSC labelled. We’re willing to help publishers make a more sustainable choice of paper,” says Roger Vian, Holmen Paper’s Commercial Director in the UK, who is convinced that the results of the study will not only strengthen the relationship with the paper buyers, but will also make it clear that Holmen is one of the world's most sustainable companies.

Author: Jacqueline Fahlander