Is Paper Recycling Good for the Environment?

The issue of whether it is better to reuse paper more than once or to just incinerate waste paper has been hotly debated. One thing is very clear; in general we use far too much paper and most of it is not put to very good use. Reducing the amount of paper we use and following better practices such as using both sides of a sheet of paper for printing and using cheaper grades of paper for non-essential notes would all provide environmental benefits even before we consider paper recycling.

Much of the paper that we use comes from intensively managed forests in Scandinavian countries – Sweden in particular. Only 5 per cent of the original old forests remain and even these are still being actively cut down to provide raw materials to satisfy our insatiable appetite for more and more paper. The newer forests do provide a sustainable raw material, which is better environmentally but still is not very ecologically sound. Because the wood is produced so intensively, there is little chance for natural ecosystems to develop in the forests before they are cut down, so the biodiversity of the natural forest environment has all but disappeared.

Recycling is Under Capacity

In the UK we used around 6 million tonnes of paper each year and each piece is used only once and then thrown away. Half of it ends up in landfill sites, causing increasing pressure on the environment. The other half is recycled, but the recycling system is working far under its capacity. There are many reasons for this. There has been inadequate funding to support recycling systems and a lack of awareness among consumers about the need to recycle. Things are improving but our paper recycling activities can still be described as rather half-hearted.

Is Paper Recycling Efficient?

Some people have argued that it is not worth recycling paper because the environmental and financial costs of doing so are greater than those of producing virgin paper. This is a complex calculation and it is not possible to definitely prove one side of the argument is right. However, Greenpeace has commissioned some quite convincing research to show that just recycling paper once would have definite benefits. Not only would the reduction in demand for virgin paper reduce the pressure on the Scandinavian managed forest systems, it would also decrease considerably the amount of waste paper that is clogging up our landfill sites.

Greenpeace also argues that the process of recycling paper still uses less energy than producing new paper but they do admit that more fossil fuels have to be used to power the recycling process. If recycling could be refined to work on renewable sources of energy such as wind power or solar power, or even powered by the methane produced by landfill sites, the process would become not only more effective environmentally, it would be financially more robust. Greenpeace argues that paper needs to be transported to where it is used, regardless of whether it is new or recycled, so the transport costs will be the same for both types of paper.

What About Pollution?

As far as emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants go, there is very little to choose between the two processes. Both could be improved in this respect but it is still a concern that waste compounds from the inks used on paper that is used for recycling could have a detrimental effect on the environment.

Using Less Paper

The overall conclusion seems to be that recycling paper is a benefit environmentally. However, it would be a mistake to think that paper can be recycled over and over again. Each time it goes through the recycling process, the fibres of the paper break down and some become so short they are not reusable and have to be incinerated or put to landfill. Recycling once could provide an excellent strategy to reduce the environmental impact or our need for paper, even if it then goes to be disposed.

To make our use of paper much better environmentally, it is vital that everyone thinks about the paper that they use. Writing and printing on both sides of paper would cut demand for any paper in half. We also need to think of new technologies, such as a laser printer that bleaches paper with print already on it, before printing something else, allowing the same sheet of paper to be reused to or three times at least. That paper could still be recycled once, cutting down the overall requirement for writing paper by maybe 80 per cent. Reduce, recycle, reuse seems to make great sense.