Recycled paper may not be best for planet, says study

Friday, 17 May, 2019

Recycled paper may not be best for planet, says study

A Swedish study has revealed that paper from fresh fibres has a lower environmental impact than paper from recycled fibres in situations where forests are sustainably managed and electricity production has a low impact on the environment.

The study conducted by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute used life-cycle assessment to compare 100% fresh fibre-based paper produced at Holmen Paper in Sweden with 100% recycled-based paper made under German production conditions. The study, subject to a third-party review, showed that fresh fibre paper production has a lower environmental impact than recycled paper, particularly when it comes to emissions.

“[At] Holmen, we are extremely focused on sustainability and it’s vital to know that when we embarked on this journey, we were studying our own environmental impact and were in no way interested in discrediting recycled paper,” Holmen Paper CEO Lars Lundin said. “But the key findings in this study are very important because it shows that the general misconception that recycled paper is better for the climate is in fact wrong.”

The energy mix was an important variable in the findings of the study. Producing paper from fresh wood resources requires more energy than paper produced from recycled resources. However, the study showed that if low-emission renewable energy resources are used for the fresh fibre production, the environmental effects are significantly reduced. One of the reasons why the Swedish production process was found to be more environmentally friendly is because the Swedish electricity mix has a lower environmental impact compared with the German system of production.

Håkan Stripple from the Swedish Environmental Research Institute said, “The study shows that paper from fresh fibres has a lower environmental impact in several aspects. When comparing climate impact, eutrophication and acidification, the difference between fresh and recycled fibres is significant in favour for the fresh fibre, despite higher energy consumption,” he said.

Fresh fibre also plays an essential role in the recycling process. The cellulose fibres in paper cannot be recycled more than about five to seven times. After that, the fibre quality is too low to be used to produce paper. For this reason, fresh fibre has to be added as part of the paper recycling process.

“To combat climate change, we need to lower our emissions and replace fossil-based materials,” Lundin said. All paper is renewable, degradable and climate smart, but we need to acknowledge the fact that paper from fresh fibres is, in many cases, better for the climate and an essential prerequisite for recycled paper.”

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Image credit: © STUDIOS

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