Using recycled fibres in the paper industry is positive for the environment – but the reality is that paper can't be recycled forever. Each time the fibres are recycled, some break down and become too short and weak. So without new fibres coming into the circuit, the paper cycle can't be maintained.
Paper is one of the world’s most recycled and recyclable materials. It is produced from a marvellous renewable resource: tiny wood fibres from trees that are sustainably managed using a circular approach.
In fact, about 50% of all fibres used for paper-making worldwide are recycled fibres. This is a very positive aspect of the paper industry and there are few, if any, other global industries that have a better record of using recycled raw materials.
Recycling paper fibres is positive for the environment – but the scientific reality is that paper can't be recycled forever because the cellulose fibres eventually break down into dust, or fines, as they are called. Papermakers’ experience over many decades shows that for most grades of paper, the fibres can be recycled about 3-4 times. After that the fibres are too short to make quality paper. In Europe, the fibres were used 3.8 times on average in 2020, whereas the world average was 2.4 times, according to the European Paper Recycling Council, EPRC Report.
So, we now know that fibres degrade each time they are recycled, meaning there are physical limits preventing recycled fibres from being used to a greater extent than they are today. Fresh fibres are always needed in the circular process.
There are also some quality and functionality reasons speaking for using fresh fibre paper. Fresh-fibre paper is naturally bright and therefore needs less bleach in the production process compared to a recycled paper, which starts off in a more greyish tone from its combination of raw materials, clays and ink. The average fresh fibre is longer and less worn out than the general recycled fibre. It comes with a more elastic or stiffer quality, depending on the production process and treatment. This affects the need for extra additives and treatment steps, which come with a cost, financial or environmental.
Fresh-fibre paper produced with Holmen Paper's pulping process has a naturally high opacity and brightness. It's because it can be made more porous than recycled-based papers, which means it can hold more air. The paper can be used in a lower grammage than tradtional papers, but keep the same page thickness and the same opacity values. This is good for readability, because you can use a lightweight paper without printed images and text showing through to the next page.
Lightweight paper means less weight in distribution and reduced CO2 emissions both from the raw material and from all transports further down the value chain. Transport electricity or fuel emissions increase by more transported weight, so saving grams is also a way of saving money and carbon emissions.
Even if it seems logical that recycled fibres must be better than fresh fibre in environmental terms, it's really not that simple. All pulp production methods have their advantages and disadvantages. So although paper recycling is a wonderful use of natural resources, it is not correct to say that it is always better. It depends on the production process, location, products being made and input materials that are being used.
In fact, an independent, peer-reviewed study by Environmental Resources Management concluded already in 2007 that when it comes to recycled fibres and fresh fibre: “Overall the results indicate that neither fibre type can be considered environmentally preferable. /.../ Intelligent and sustainable use of available fibre sources requires understanding the challenges associated with each fibre type and effectively managing the life cycle to minimise impacts and maximise benefits.”
A life cycle assessment study made by the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, IVL, in 2017 indicates that fresh fibre-based paper actually has a lower environmental impact than its recycled counterparts. The study concluded that fresh fibre-based paper, produced in Sweden, had significantly lower emissions compared with recycled fibre papers produced in Germany.
Similar findings were made in a recent third-party study of book paper by the publisher Penguin Random House, 2020. The publisher wanted to know the carbon footprint of paper from their main suppliers, and they also included manufacturers of recycled paper. Holmen’s fresh-fibre book paper from Hallsta paper mill in Sweden had the lowest CO2 footprint in the study.
So, make sure the materials you use are recyclable and choose reliable suppliers with low emissions. This way you will support a continuously improving recycling system for the future.
So, the answer to the headline question is that it's just not possible to use only recycled paper. It's great for the environment that it is possible to recycle paper. But the average recycled paper mill emits more carbon dioxide per tonne of produced paper compared to the average fresh-fibre paper mill. So as things are now, it would not be better for the environment if it were possible to use only recycled paper.
Paper production and usage is a system of circularity – and it can be even better. Both the fresh-fibre and the recycled paper mills need to be on a mission to keep reducing emissions.
When sourcing paper, buyers should demand transparency about environmental impact from the producer and use only products where it’s possible to fully trace the origins and the environmental impact. In every step, a no-waste approach can guide both producers and consumers to better solutions that are also better for the Earth.
This article is based on the text "Is it better for the environment to use only recycled paper", written by Hugh O'Brian, pulp and paper industry technical writer, and edited by Linda Åslund.
1. European Paper Recycling Council (EPRC) Report 2020. Report available for download.
2. Life Cycle Assessment of Tissue Products Final Report December 2007, Kimberly-Clark. Report available for download.
3. A life-cycle assessment of specialty paper, Swedish Environmental Research Institute, IVL. Whitepaper available for download.
4. How we ensure the paper in our books is sustainably sourced. Penguin Random House UK study, performed by independent consultancy Ethical Change. Text available on Penguin Random House website.
Carbon emissions per tonne of paper in European paper mills is available for subscription at FisherSolve Pulp and Paper Business Intelligence - ResourceWise
Text about the climate impact study on Holmen Paper website.
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