Is recycled paper more environmentally friendly than paper of virgin fibre?

Commentary written by Lasse Krogell, NOPA

Recently published a short news article about the environmental aspects of paper from recycled or virgin fibre. This article is based on a more scientific research article from October 2020 in the magazine Nature Sustainability. Probably most of us have been of the opinion that recycled is more environmentally friendly. I think it is important, also for the printer, to understand that also here the coin has two sides.

Scientists from Yale University, USA and University College London, UK looked at the global paper life cycle that, according to them generates 1,3 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the research article the focus is on energy use, not the total environmental impact. The research team say that the production process of paper from virgin fibre generates a lot of black liquor from the chemical pulping process. This black liquor is then used to create energy for the paper manufacturing, thus reducing the need for outside energy to the process. This is certainly true and if I don’t remember wrong almost half of the wood inputted into the process of producing woodfree paper is converted to black liquor and other by products. Only the other half is then becoming the paper. If radically more recycled fibre will be used for papermaking this will lead to less virgin fibre coming into the process and hence less black liquor for internal energy in the process. This will then lead to the need of more outside energy per ton of paper produced. With this basic logic the research team has made up scenarios and calculations that lead to the conclusion that paper from recycled fibre is more energy intensive than paper from virgin fibre. has interviewed Johan Granås, Sustainability Director at Iggesund Paperboard who says that it is clear that production of paper and board from recycled fibre has a bigger climate impact than production from virgin fibre. He claims that the production of 1 ton of Invercote board leads to 33 kg of CO2 emission whereas the production of a similar recycled board from another European manufacturer generates 294 kg CO2 emission.

But does the real world correspond to the model the research team has built up? Recycled fibre is mainly used for the production of newsprint, some packaging boards and for sanitary and household papers. In newspaper production of virgin fibre, the main raw material, is fibres from mechanically ground wood, not chemical pulp. For this process a lot of electricity is needed. When using recycled fibre instead of virgin clearly less electricity is needed. In traditional LWC roughly 1/3 is mechanical pulp, 1/3 chemical pulp and 1/3 fillers and coating. Also, there energy can be saved by using recycled fibre instead of mechanical pulp.

The original report shows graphs of actual and predicted global paper demand for five different groups of papers. The graphs show that the demand per capita in the OECD area for newsprint is 10 kg, for printing and writing 35 kg, for sanitary 15 kg, for packaging 90 kg and for others 7 kg. The projections in the graphs show that the demand for newsprint and printing and writing is clearly dropping whereas for sanitary and packaging it is stable or growing. In the future packaging will be an even more dominant sector in the paper and board industry.

The report does not discuss at all the role of recycled use and its impact on how much trees have to be harvested from our forests.

I am sure the paper industry is more than well aware of these facts and that they can optimize the balance of different fibre sources for the production of different kinds of papers also taking the environment into account.

/Lasse Krogell