I’ve got a fairly big copying job to do this weekend, so I’ve been checking supplies during the week.
Well, I say “checking supplies”. What I mean is, I’ve been lovingly stroking the nice recycled paper that has recently captured my heart and pretending I’m stock-checking.
Photographer: “It looks like you’re holding a baby.” Green Copyist: “I am.”
Before I talk about that particular paper, and the story of how I came to find it, I want to talk about recycled paper in general: what it’s made from, how it’s made, how it’s different to non-recycled paper, and what environmental and societal benefits it offers.
In the age of the internet, it’s shockingly easy to find many excellent resources that have carefully constructed details analyses of recycled paper, comparison tables, and even some amazing behind-the-scenes videos of the manufacturing process (I’ll get to those later – you’re going to want to watch them).
The process of researching this post has confirmed to me again that we must recycle as much as possible, and use products made from recycled and reused materials wherever possible. The environmental and social benefits are too good not to!
In this blog entry, I’m going to pool together some of the headline facts that have grabbed my attention in my research, and I’ll include links to all the relevant sites at the bottom so you can easily continue reading.
Recycled paper contains, rather obviously, paper material that has already been used. Most recycled paper manufacturers refer to “post-consumer waste”, which is paper that has been out in the world and used, like office paper or magazines.(1) However, recycled paper can also contain paper that was never used out in the real world, but instead come from offcuts from virgin paper manufacturing.
(Virgin paper is paper that is brand new, fresh from a tree.)
Manufacturing process for making recycled paper
The main differences in the manufacturing process for recycled paper compared to virgin paper are the stages that occur before the pulp arrives at the paper mill.
For virgin paper, that process involves logging the trees and then treating the wood until it becomes a pulp.
For recycled paper, the process starts with collecting waste paper materials. Paper is separated from other recycled waste at sorting plants, and the waste paper is bundled up and taken to a mill that turns the paper into recycled paper pulp. That pulp can then be turned into paper of differing weights (grammage) and finishes. I highly recommend you watch the four videos on Arjowiggins Graphic’s site if you’re interested in the manufacturing process.
These short videos give a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into each stage of the manufacturing process for recycled paper. It’s all interesting, but for me the two things that really made me sit up in very pleasant surprise were:
- In the second video, Manufacture of recycled pump, you see a shot of the pulper in which waste paper is mixed with soapy water. Air blown through the pump forces ink from the paper and other unwanted residue, like glue, to the top where it can be skimmed off. That’s interesting enough – but this by-product of a by-product is put to use! Arjowiggins say that they use this to make fertiliser, and helps to produce bricks and cement. This is exactly the sort of no-waste circular economy that we need to be sustainable!
- In the third video, Recycled paper manufacture, there’s an excellent shot of two workers cutting off a quality control strip from an absolutely enormous roll of freshly-made paper. After several minutes of huge machines and the heavily industrial landscape of the mills and sorting plants, this human touch was really sweet to see. It’s a reminder that despite mechanisation, there are still people working to make this most human of products: something primarily used to communicate with others. (It also links to a side-benefit for people I’ll describe below.)
This process can be repeated, as most paper fibres can sustain up to five recycles before they become so short and broken down that they can no longer produce reliable paper.
The difference between recycled and virgin paper
Because the fibres are damaged in each recycling process, recycled paper can be weaker than virgin paper. I’ve also read that it can be less resistant to humidity, but it seems this is predominantly more important for cardboard than for paper. (3)
This is why recycled paper products are often less than 100% recycled, as combining some recycled pulp with some virgin pulp can produce a higher quality paper. (1)
However, this does not necessarily mean that recycled paper cannot be high quality, or even white, as a regular fear from people is that recycled paper will be grey or an inconsistent colour. Because recycled paper does not need to be turned from brown to white like virgin paper, and because modern machines used in the process are better at filtering out inks and residues, recycled paper can be just as white as virgin paper whilst needing less bleaching to achieve the effect. (4)
Virgin paper does have the benefit of having greater control of the fibres that go into each type (that is, specific species of trees are preferred for different paper finishes). (1)
Environmental benefits of recycled paper
I’m going to be blatantly biased now and simply focus on why I think recycled paper is better, and why it seems most evidence backs up this view.
During my research, I did come across a number of sources that suggested at the very least, virgin paper can be as environmentally sound as recycled paper, but only if that paper is FSC certified, which currently only a small proportion of virgin paper is, and if comparable recycled paper products are either not 100% post-consumer waste or use fossil fuel-powered energy. One source suggests that bacteria counts are higher in recycled paper, but I did also notice that this source is a paper brand that promotes itself for being hygienic…
So here are some statistics about the energy and water consumption of recycled paper compared to virgin paper:
- Recycling paper uses 20% less energy than incinerating it as waste
- Recycled paper requires 31-33% less energy to produce than virgin paper
- Recycled paper requires up to 35,000 fewer litres of water per tonne than virgin paper
- Recycled paper is more efficient: it requires 1.2 tonnes of waste paper to produce 1 tonne of recycled paper, whereas 2.5 tonnes of wood are needed to produce 1 tonne of virgin paper.
(Statistics from (5) and (4))
Deforestation visible from satellites, from Planet Experts(14): “Virgin paper production requires timber harvesting across large areas of forests, as seen in this satellite image of a site in central Maine within the fiber basket of the Somerset Mill. Left: The site in September 2007. Right: The same site in September 2013. Timber harvesting causes disturbances to the forests, resulting in forest carbon storage loss and negative impacts on biomes and key species. (Source: SCS Global Services’ LCA Study)”
According to Conservatree’s Execute Director, Susan Kinsella, in her excellent and thorough document Why Recycled Content is Crucial for Printing & Writing Paper, there’s a potentially dangerous idea that many people have about paper: that trees grow back, and so it’s fine to chop them down. She writes:
Many harvested forests are replaced with tree plantations. This means cutting a forest that had previously been a biodiverse area with a wide variety of trees, plants, animals, birds, insects, soils and water conditions and replacing it with a monoculture crop of trees, often removing many different species in the process. Even when forests are allowed to regrow more naturally, the resulting second- and third-growth trees are far inferior in both size and quality to the original trees that they replace. (4)
Not only does felling trees to produce virgin paper take months of potential photosynthesis and carbon storage out of the carbon equation, it can significantly change the habitat and ecosystem in ways that I don’t think we should tolerate any more. If only for the selfish reasons that trees play a crucial role in the water cycle, as they slow down the speed with which rainwater works its way into rivers, and so can reduce the risk of flooding that might affect human settlements. Additionally, their strong root systems prevent soil shifting significantly or being simply swept away in heavy rain.
The Conservatree document also suggests that recycled paper mills are already supporting and investing in renewable energy technologies, to improve their efficiency and speed up their development so that they will able to use more renewable energy in their mills sooner.(4) This makes sense, as manufacturers that are already environmentally conscious enough to be creating a more sustainable version of an existing product are hopefully the sorts of companies that will lead by example when it comes to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
However, there is another aspect to the life-cycle of paper that is not directly reflected in the above figures: the potential greenhouse gas emissions if paper is not recycled.
Estimates suggest that the average office worker in the USA uses 10,000 sheets of paper per year, and in the UK the figure was estimated at 45 sheets per day (so approximately 10,800 sheets per year).(6)(7) 4 million tonnes of standard copy paper are used per year in the USA.(6) If all that waste paper was sent to landfill instead of being recycled, it would decompose in the anaerobic landfill environment, which means it would release methane gas, a greenhouse gas that creates a warming effect 23 times greater than CO2.(5) Therefore, increasing the popularity of recycled paper turns used paper into a desired resource rather than a waste product, and incentivises people and businesses to dispose of their waste paper responsibly.
An impressive chart made by the City of Portland Oregon(6): “Environmental savings are for one year of switching virgin paper to 100% post-consumer recycled content (based on US averages).”
Regarding water consumption, the paper manufacturing industry as a whole currently uses the highest amount of industrial water per tonne of product output, totalling 11% of all freshwater in industrial nations. Producing recycled paper instead of virgin can reduce water consumption by up to (or even more than) half, according to (8) and (6). In most cases, this 50% reduction means 23,000-35,000 fewer litres of water used per ton of paper produced. (5)(8)
Overhauling this enormous consumer of water to favour recycled paper, and thus decreasing massively the industry’s water consumption, would be of huge ecological benefit, especially as paper and cardboard manufacturing is increasing. In 2006, global paper and cardboard output was 382.6 million metric tons, but by 2018 this had increased to 410.9 million metric tons. (9)
This growth in paper production is unfortunately mainly in virgin paper at the moment, particularly in Asia, Africa and South America, which not only puts pressure on water resources but on forests and land too. (10)
Social benefits of recycled paper
According to Arjowiggins Graphic, recycling in general creates up to ten times more jobs in comparison to sending waste to landfill.(2) This is due to the associated roles, such as collection, sorting, processing, and sales (as the recycling process often ends in a useful end-product, not just a pile of rubbish).
Paper recycling is highlighted – alongside plastic, metal, and glass – as having a particularly rigorous process, which means even more roles are required for human workers.(11) Thus, the circular economy turns around once more.
… and specifically, health benefits
One of the first things I noticed as a selling point used by recycled paper brands was that they did not use chlorine bleach.
I just assumed this would be a good thing, and took it as another positive reason to try the paper. However, having dug a little further into what using chlorine to bleach paper means, I now understand its significance.
Chlorine is effective at bleaching paper fibres to be white, and also binds to (and so removes) lignins, which would otherwise cause paper to deteriorate.(12) So far, so good: white paper, great for printing black words on, that lasts longer.
However, this process causes chlorine to bind with the organic material and release toxic pollutants that do not break down in water. I’ve already highlighted how much water is used in the paper manufacturing process, and therefore how much waste water is produced. The pollutants created by the chlorine bleaching process are now linked to cancers and endocrine, reproductive, nervous, and immune system damage. (12)
Recycled paper, unlike virgin paper, is at its starting point already fairly white, as the majority of waste paper is standard white office-style paper. Virgin paper starts from a tree, which must be bleached from brown/beige to white. Given that most recycled paper manufacturers also choose not to use chlorine as their bleaching agent, and need to use less bleaching regardless, this can only be a positive thing for the health of us people and for the entire water ecosystem: recycled paper mills produce 46 grams of chlorine per tonne of product on average, virgin fibre mills produce 1.9 kilograms, and pulp mills that use virgin fibre produce 4.9 kilograms. (13)
Recycled paper uses less energy and less water than virgin paper, prevents waste going to landfill, creates many more opportunities for jobs in the recycling chain, and produces far fewer toxic chemicals.
This can only be a very good thing. So far, I’ve only got good things to say about the end product: the actual physical recycled paper I have been using. Which makes recycled paper for this Green Copyist very much the natural choice.
1. Recycled Papers – The Facts, Keenpac packaging (https://keenpac.com/recycled-papers-the-facts)
2. Lifecycle of Recycled Paper, Arjowiggins Graphic paper producers (https://recycled-papers.co.uk/green-matters/lifecycle-of-recycled-paper)
3. Humidity’s effect on strength and stiffness of containerboard materials, Frida Strömberg (http://www.diva-portal.se/smash/get/diva2:942509/FULLTEXT01.pdf)
4. Why Recycled Content is Crucial for Printing & Writing Paper, Susan Kinsella (http://conservatree.org/learn/WhitePaper%20Why%20Recycled.pdf)
5. Why use recycled papers?, Arjowiggins Graphic paper producers (https://recycled-papers.co.uk/green-matters/why-use-recycled-papers)
6. Benefits of recycled content paper, Sustainability at Work – the City of Portland Oregon (https://www.portlandoregon.gov/sustainabilityatwork/article/531088)
7. How much paper does the average UK office waste every year?, Kefron document and information management (https://www.kefron.com/blog/how-much-paper-does-the-average-uk-office-waste-every-year/)
8. How a small effort in switching from virgin pulp to 100% recycled paper has a big impact, Focus Print digital printing services (http://www.focuspress.com.au/how-a-small-effort-in-switching-from-virgin-pulp-to-100-recycled-paper-has-a-big-impact/)
9. Production volume of paper and cardboard worldwide, Statista (https://www.statista.com/statistics/270314/production-of-paper-and-cardboard-in-selected-countries/)
10. The State of the Global Paper Industry, Environmental Paper Network (http://environmentalpaper.org/stateoftheindustry2018/)
11. Recycling and New Job Creation, Rick LeBlanc for The Balance – Small Business (https://www.thebalancesmb.com/recycling-and-new-job-creation-2878003)
12. Chlorine Free Processing, Conservatree (http://www.conservatree.org/paper/PaperTypes/CFDisc.shtml)
13. Recycling paper goes easy on the bleach, Rosie Mestel for New Scientist (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14319441-500-recycling-paper-goes-easy-on-the-bleach/)
14. Recycled Beats Virgin Paper in Environmental Impact, New Study Shows, Global Green USA for Planet Experts (http://www.planetexperts.com/recycled-beats-virgin-paper-environmental-impact-new-study-shows/)