FAQs: Environmental Benefits of Recycled Paper
Prepared by Environmental Paper Network and the Alliance for Environmental Innovation
Is recycled paper better for the environment?
Yes! It's common sense that making new paper from old paper is easier on the Earth.
- It helps preserve forests, because it reduces demand for wood;
- It conserves resources and generates less pollution during manufacturing, because the fibers have already been processed once; and
- It reduces solid waste, because it diverts usable paper from the waste stream.
Rigorous scientific research supports the benefits of recycled paper, and government agencies, environmental groups, and many other large purchasers have adopted policies mandating its use. You can be assured that you are doing the right thing for the environment by buying recycled paper, and the higher the level of postconsumer recycled content, the better. Read on for answers to more specific questions about why recycled paper is the right choice for the environment.
How paper recycling benefits forests
Incorporating recycled fiber reduces the amount of virgin fiber (i.e., trees) needed to produce a given amount of paper. This helps to reduce pressure on forests and the environmental impacts of commercial forestry.
Recycling reduces the total number of trees that are cut down to make paper and can reduce overall demand for wood. But more importantly, paper recycling saves forests. By substituting used paper for trees, recycling reduces the overall intensity of forest management needed to meet a given demand for paper, and the pressure to convert natural forests and ecologically sensitive areas like wetlands into tree plantations. With recycling, not only will fewer trees be harvested to make paper, those tress that are harvested can be produced using methods that have less impact on the environment. Thus, recycling helps preserve the full range of values that forest ecosystems provide, including clean water, wildlife habitat and biodiversity.
Generally yes, but replanting trees is not the same thing as preserving forests. Growing demand for paper has fueled the rapid conversion of natural forests to tree plantations. In the U.S. South, where most of the trees used to make paper are grown, the area of natural pine forests have declined by more than half in the last 50 years. Pine plantations have displaced natural forests, and now occupy over 40 million acres (20 percent) of the current Southern “forest.” Many important forest communities (such as the longleaf pine ecosystems) across the South have declined to occupy only 2% of their original range. While pine plantations are excellent at growing wood, they are far less suited than natural forests to providing wildlife habitat and preserving biodiversity. By extending the overall fiber supply, paper recycling can help to reduce the pressure to convert remaining natural forests into tree farms.
Any carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood or pulping byproducts are not counted towards the total greenhouse gas emissions in the Paper Calculator. As a tree grows, it removes carbon dioxide from the air. Once the carbon is trapped in the wood it can be released in a number of ways. Parts of the wood can be burned for energy while making pulp; paper that is thrown away can be burned in a municipal waste incinerator; or methane that is produced when the paper decomposes in a landfill can be transformed into carbon dioxide through oxidation or incineration. Emissions from biomass sources are unique from emissions from fossil-fuels, as they are part of a shorter carbon cycle and new growth can potentially offset emissions over time. Institutions such as the United States EPA and others are currently developing scientific methods which will provide better guidance on measuring these emissions over a product's life-cycle.
How paper recycling reduces pollution during manufacturing
Making paper from used paper is generally a cleaner and more efficient process than making paper from trees, since much of the work of extracting and bleaching the fibers has already been done. That means generally less total energy, water, and chemical use, and lower releases of air and water pollutants.
Producing recycled paper uses much less total energy than producing virgin paper. Depending on the grade, producing recycled paper may use more or less purchased energy (a subset of total energy), in the form of fossil fuels and purchased electricity. Virgin freesheet grades require slightly less purchased energy to produce than recycled ones, because most of their energy needs are met by burning wood-derived process waste. Virgin groundwood papers, by contrast, require more purchased energy to produce than do recycled groundwood papers.
Both energy sources have significant– if different–environmental impacts. Extraction and use of fossil fuels for energy depletes a non-renewable resource and releases air pollutants and greenhouse gases. But there are analogous impacts associated with extracting and using wood for energy. First, growing and harvesting trees can deplete a non-renewable resource–natural forests. As noted above, intensive management practices used to grow trees for paper– including both the part of those trees that goes into the paper itself and the part that is burned for energy–can adversely affect water quality, biodiversity, habitat for endangered plants and animals, and the integrity of natural forest ecosystems. Thus, while intensive management can arguably regenerate the quantity of wood, it cannot renew many of the ecological values of natural forests. Second, burning wood for energy creates air pollution just as burning fossil fuels does. On a lifecycle basis, when all energy sources are considered, releases of air pollutants are generally much lower for recycled than for virgin paper. Third, even when recycled paper production uses more fossil fuel than its virgin counterpart, on a lifecycle basis the recycled system generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions–see next question.
The environmental advantages of recycled paper hold true even when more fossil fuel derived energy is used to produce it. (As noted above, this is true only for freesheet grades.) In the landfill, where 80% of discarded paper ends up, the decomposition of paper produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Paper recycling recovers used paper from the waste stream, directly reducing the amount of paper landfilled. Thus for recycled papers, any increase in greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing is more than outweighed by reductions in emissions from landfills.
Lifecycle analysis shows that even after the energy used to collect, transport, and process used paper is accounted for, the recycled paper system uses much less total energy than the virgin paper system. This is because the energy needed to recover used paper and get it back to the mill is quite small relative to the energy saved by using recovered paper rather than trees to manufacture new paper. Don't forget that making virgin paper also requires energy to cut, collect and transport trees to the mill, all of it fossil fuel-derived. And while the distances are shorter, the magnitude is greater - between 2.2 and 4.4 tons of wood are cut and transported for every ton of virgin pulp, versus 1.4 tons of waste paper for a ton of recycled pulp. Thus, the energy required to obtain and process trees (for virgin paper) and used paper (for recycled paper) is quite comparable.
The Paper Calculator accounts for much of the transportation throughout the life cycle of a paper product. This includes harvesting trees, collecting recycled paper and transporting commodity chemicals, but not transportation from a paper mill to a final user. You are welcome to include the energy and emissions from this step yourself.
Aside from reducing total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, switching to recycled paper cuts emissions of other air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (which contribute to smog), and particulates (which contribute to respiratory problems). It also reduces the volume and improves the quality of wastewater from the paper mill.
Water consumption volume is a meaningful environmental measure, as it indicates both the amount of fresh water needed in production and the potential impact of wastewater discharges. The withdrawal and return of large amounts of water from rivers and streams can have major ecological impacts, which are made even worse at drier times of year and during droughts. Our side-by-side comparison found that on average, virgin paper production requires substantially more water throughout its life cycle than does recycled paperproduction.
Recycled mills do generate more solid waste, mostly in the form of sludge, than virgin paper mills. However, that increase is more than offset by the reduction in solid waste that comes from diverting paper from the waste stream. And the same inks, coatings, and fillers present in recycling mill sludge would go into the ground anyway if the paper were landfilled instead of recycled. Finally, recyclers are increasingly finding ways to reclaim and reutilize some components of recycled paper sludge, which can't happen if that paper goes to a landfill or incinerator.
Some are, thanks to environmental regulations implemented during the last several decades. However, pulp and paper mills in the US and Canada lag far behind good mills in Europe and South America in terms of cleaning up their pollution, and mills in the US have not significantly reduced their water pollution over the past decade. Many mills in the US would be much cleaner if they adopted proven technologies such as oxygen delignification and improved their spill control in the manner that European and South American mills, as well as good mills in US, have. The paper industry as a whole would also be much cleaner if it significantly increased recycled paper use.
How paper recycling reduces solid waste
Recycling paper means that less of it is disposed of in landfills and incinerators. This lowers air and water pollution at these facilities, as well as greenhouse gas emissions that arise when paper breaks down in landfills.
The environmental advantages of recycling extend well beyond saving landfill space, which varies cyclically as well as regionally across the United States. Paper recycling also reduces environmental impacts "upstream," in the forest and at the paper mill. By adding to the available fiber supply, paper recycling conserves wood and other forest resources, and reduces environmental impacts (energy use, air and water pollution, and solid waste) during manufacturing. Finally, by reducing paper's contribution to landfills, recycling avoids releases of methane and other pollutants, and reduces the need to site additional landfills where such releases would occur.
On a national level, when paper is thrown away, 20% is sent to an incinerator and 80% goes to a landfill; once in the landfill, parts of the paper begin to decompose and release methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential 25 times higher than CO2. According to the 2009 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory, just over half of the methane released in landfills is converted back to CO2 through oxidation or combustion, with nearly 25% being burned for energy recovery. This is up from 30% conversion in 1995, with only 11% going to useful energy. The CO2 is now in the same form that it was when the growing tree took it out of the air, and is not included in the total greenhouse gas emissions.
While these national statistics are used in the Paper Calculator, the amount of methane captured and converted to useful energy will vary based on your location.
Each time paper is diverted from the waste stream and used to make recycled paper, there is a direct reduction in solid waste. Think of it this way - if you use a piece of paper once, then erase and use it again before throwing it away, you create less waste than if you used two pieces of paper and threw them both away. Similarly, even if a sheet of recycled paper is eventually landfilled, the recycling process still reduces the total amount of paper landfilled.
Other questions about recycled paper
Postconsumer materials are finished products that have served their intended end use, usually as a consumer item, and would otherwise end up in a landfill or incinerator. Preconsumer materials are trim and scrap created after the original manufacturing process but before the materials reach their intended end-use, such as in converting or printing processes. Examples of preconsumer materials include scraps created by converting rolls of paper into envelopes or cutting them down into sheets such as 8.5x11, hole-punching reams of paper, running pre-print tests for ink and printing presses, and recycling overissue publications.
Buying paper with recycled content (whether preconsumer or postconsumer) achieves direct reductions in wood, water, and total energy use, as well as reduces manufacturing pollutants, solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions. It also reduces demand on forests, allowing them to continue sequestering carbon, which reduces the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Most preconsumer material is already channeled into industrial recycling collection systems. Requiring postconsumer fiber expands the recycling system by strengthening and maintaining business and community recycling collection programs, and creates an incentive for paper manufacturers to use more paper diverted from disposal.
Ideally, recycled paper should meet at least the EPA minimum recycled content standards for postconsumer fibers. Even better is if it has higher recycled content, with the additional fiber (beyond the EPA minimum postconsumer content) being either preconsumer or postconsumer. Any virgin fiber in the paper should be certified as being sourced from well-managed forests by a credible third party. But substituting preconsumer fiber for the virgin fiber gains all the environmental advantages of using postconsumer fiber.
The primary difference between preconsumer and postconsumer materials is in the part of the recycling system that each supports. Preconsumer is produced by value-added industrial production and usually has a more consistent quality. Postconsumer materials come from a wider variety of community and business sources and represent a greater number of challenges to papermakers. There is also a far greater quantity of postconsumer material than preconsumer fiber that needs to be recycled. That is why there is a greater focus on requiring postconsumer content, although both provide important environmental benefits.
Most paper called "recycled" is made from a blend of virgin and postconsumer fiber. Right now, due to functional and economic issues, the most widely available and cost-competitive level of postconsumer recycled content in catalog paper is 10%. Given that Catalog Choice estimates that each year 19 billion catalogs are mailed to American consumers, using around 3.6 million tons of paper, even a switch to 10% yields big benefits, and is a critical first step to achieving higher levels in the future. In fact, if that entire 3.6 million tons of catalog paper were switched to just 10% postconsumer recycled paper, the savings in wood use alone would be enough to stretch a six-foot fence across the United States seven times. Obviously, the higher the postconsumer recycled content, the bigger the environmental benefits. Some catalog papers include far higher percentages of recycled content, from 30% to 100%.
Certainly not from an environmental standpoint. The benefits of substituting recycled for virgin fiber are generally greater in higher grades (especially those made from chemical pulp) than lower grades such as newsprint, corrugated boxes, and packaging. In fact, most copy and office papers are made in the most environmentally demanding paper manufacturing process of all. Therefore, replacing that virgin fiber with recycled fiber will yield larger environmental benefits.
For example, a ton of pulp to make copy and office papers from virgin wood fibers requires up to 4.4 tons of trees to be cut. That same ton of pulp could have been made instead from 1.4 tons of paper recovered from offices and homes. Including recycled content in printing and writing papers, therefore, is an essential part of the strategy for reducing environmental damage from the paper industry. Remember that papermaking involves not only demand for trees, but also large amounts of energy, water, and chemicals, and it produces pollutants, greenhouse gases, and solid waste. All of these can be reduced when using recycled fibers, and the greatest reductions are when using recycled content in printing and writing papers, as well as any other paper grades made with chemical pulp. See Environmental Paper Network’s fact sheet, Paper to Protect the Planet, for more information.
Notes and further reading
The scientific basis for these conclusions is the analysis of the Paper Task Force, a three-year research project convened by Environmental Defense and involving Duke University, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, Prudential Insurance, and Time Inc.
The Paper Task Force examined environmental impacts through the full lifecycle of paper, along with economic and functional issues across major paper grades. Its findings were extensively peer-reviewed by scientists, academics, environmental experts, and government and industry representatives.
The full Paper Task Force report contains supporting technical papers and recent updates to the lifecycle environmental data.