The Problem With Paper's Climate Impact

The CO2 emissions are bigger than you think, even when it's recycled.

Man inspecting roll of paper in mill,
Man inspecting roll of paper in mill, La tuque, Quebec, Canada.

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When we think about the big carbon problems we have to deal with, paper isn't the first thing that comes to mind. After all, a lot of it is recycled these days and we are all using less of it than we used to. However, an article in Energy Monitor, The Paper Industry's Burning Secret, describes how the paper industry is Europe's fourth-largest industrial energy user.

It also has a huge global impact: Authors Adrian Hiel and Dave Keating, both North American journalists working in Brussels, write that greenhouse gas emissions from paper production make up 0.6% of the world's total. (Other sources put it as much as twice that). They note that "it may not sound like a lot, but this is higher than the combined emissions of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway."

The problem is that to make paper, you need pulp, made from either virgin wood or recycled material, and it then takes a lot of energy to dry it out and turn it into paper. NGO Environmental Paper Network's Luisa Colasimone told Energy Monitor that making a ton of paper and a ton of steel use the same amount of energy. Hiel and Keating report: "Average energy costs are around 16% of production costs and can be as high as 30%. About 60% of the energy used by the paper industry comes from biomass and most of the rest comes from natural gas."

The paper industry appears to have done a relatively good job at reducing its emissions; in Europe, it generates 46% of the electricity it uses and has reduced emissions by 29% since 2005. The authors suggest that industrial-scale heat pumps could decarbonize the industry and provide the low-grade heat (356 F) needed.

“Compared to conventional gas boilers, heat pumps have the potential to increase energy efficiency by up to 80%, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 75% and cut production costs by up to 20%,” Veronika Wilk, scientific project manager of DryFiciency project at the Center for Energy at the Austrian Institute of Technology, told Energy Monitor. She said the reduction in carbon dioxide emission increases as the carbon intensity of the grid decreases.

Europe is usually ahead of the curve on carbon, and the North American picture is probably not so pretty. Hiel tells Treehugger: "Anecdotally operations in North America are generally less efficient. Much of the efficiency gains in Europe in the last 15 or so years have been driven by carbon pricing and North American operations haven't had the same incentive to tighten their belts. But the potential to completely electrify and decarbonize is exactly the same."

It turns out that recycling of paper isn't as wonderful as it has been purported to be, and it is not a free pass, as many people think. Colasimone told Hiel and Keating:

“The vast majority of paper products are short-lived. They are thrown away and their carbon ends up in the atmosphere within two to three years. This is the opposite of carbon storage in a mature forest or in long-lived solid wood products.”

Hiel confirms this, telling Treehugger: "The figures vary but paper can be recycled seven times and the industry brags that it can make a box, put it in use, collect it and recycle it into a new box in just 14 days. So in theory those fibers are used up and in the atmosphere within just a few months."

Recycling paper
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In fact, a recent study from the University College London (UCL) concluded recycled paper can have a bigger carbon footprint than virgin paper because it is made with electricity and fossil fuels, rather than the black liquor or biomass used for virgin paper. "They found that if all wastepaper was recycled, emissions could increase by 10%, as recycling paper tends to rely more on fossil fuels than making new paper," lead author Dr. Stijn van Ewijk said in a press release. "Our study shows that recycling is not a guaranteed way to address climate change. Recycling of paper may not be helpful unless it is powered by renewable energy."

The UCL release states:

"The researchers reported that paper accounted for 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. About a third of these emissions came from the disposal of paper in landfills. Researchers said that in coming years, use of paper would likely rise, with the move away from plastics leading to increased demand for paper packaging."

This rate — 1.3% — is a stunning number, bigger than the emissions from Australia or Brazil. And none of these emissions estimates take into account that in North America, 62% of the energy they use comes from "renewable biomass energy" — burning bark and scraps, which is in the "fast domain" and not considered in carbon calculations since it was recently stored by the trees.

The paper industry tries to make the case that 1% of global emissions is no big deal and that, hey, it's recycled! Non-profit Two Sides, for example, states:

"In North America, paper is recycled more than any other commodity and benefits include: extending the wood fiber supply; reducing greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding methane emissions (released when paper decomposes in landfills or is incinerated); and saving landfill space"

But the UCL study concludes, recycling is no panacea, and as Hiel and Keating note, the carbon footprint of making paper, recycled or virgin, is a very big deal indeed.

View Article Sources
  1. "The paper industry’s burning secret." EnergyMonitor, 2021.

  2. "Vision and action for responsible pulp and paper." Environmental Paper Network.

  3. van Ewijk, Stijn, et al. "Limited Climate Benefits of Global Recycling of Pulp and Paper." Nature Sustainability, vol. 4, no. 2, 2020, pp. 180-187, doi:10.1038/s41893-020-00624-z

  4. Ewijk, Dr. Stijn van. "Paper recycling must be powered by renewables to save climate." UCL, 2020.

  5. Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. "CO2 emissions." Our World in Data.