Recycling paper — a debate as to whether it is worth it or not

Recycling paper — a debate as to whether it is worth it or not

Recently two printing industry heavyweights, Phil Lawrence and Tony Wilkins have published articles coming to wildly different conclusions as to whether there is any benefit in recycling paper. This second article, by Dr Tony Wilkins, has been written in response to Phil Lawrence’s article back in November 2014. It appeared first in ProPrint magazine, February 2015.

Here is Dr Wilkins’ article.

News Corp environment guru defends paper recycling in response to Phil Lawrence’s November column.

Recycled paper is safe to burn, bury or compost – it provides numerous benefits to the environment, paper quality, and to the economy, News Corp Australia head of environment Dr Tony Wlikins says.

This is a response to an article by Phil Lawrence in the November 2014 issue of ProPrint. Let me start by contradicting everything that Lawrence says about recycled paper: it has environmental benefits, and in fact in many ways is extremely valuable to the environment.

I will tackle each of the myths Lawrence spouts in his article one by one, but first I feel it appropriate to include an accurate background as to how paper is actually made. Paper is not just a single, homogenous product, which is how Lawrence describes it. Paper is made using various technologies that require different amounts of energy and chemicals. These can be divided into two basic types which are either mechanically pulped paper or chemically pulped paper. Newsprint and magazine are mechanically pulped, office paper is chemically pulped. I will focus on mechanically pulped paper as I worked in environment on these products for several decades, after a decade in wood and forest research before that.

Mechanically pulped paper that goes to make newsprint does not use toxic chemicals whether it is made from virgin fibre or from recycled fibre. In Australian newsprint production no chlorine at all is used, some hydrogen peroxide is sometimes utilised for brightening, which breaks down immediately into harmless water and hydrogen.

When recycled fibres are used, for example at the Norske Skog mill at Albury in NSW, Australia, soap is added in the de-inking plant where recovered fibres are separated from ink. The old ink goes to make a soil conditioner for farms. Testing over the last two decades has proved just how safe this soil conditioner is, it continues to be in high demand with farmers.

Why is such a positive environmental outcome possible? Because all offset and letterpress newsprint and magazine inks used in Australia are so safe they meet the Australian Standard (AS1647.3) for coatings on children’s toys. No heavy metals are added to black or colour inks, and they have not been since the end of the 1970s. Australian newspapers and magazines, recycled or otherwise, are safe to bury, burn or compost. In fact, the industry successfully ran trials with the ANU to feed old newspapers to cattle during the drought in place of feedstock.

Tackling myths promoted by Lawrence 

Myth 1: ‘The origins of recycling paper came from the period of significant environmental damage caused by acid rain beginning in the early 1970s.’ 

Regardless of how it started, the practice of recycling paper has always had economic and sustainability advantages. Lawrence’s insistence on making it about a necessity due to acid rain is neither accurate nor relevant to the issues at hand.

Recycling has been with us since ancient times but modern paper recycling started with the increased demand for paper that accompanied the mid-19th century industrial revolution. Until that time rags were recycled to add to the fibre in paper making. It is reported that in the US the Rittenhouse family had the first paper mill to use recycled linen in 1690. Newspapers were reported to be collected on a large scale in 1896 in New York city. No acid rain was involved. Although acid rain was discovered in 1852 by Robert Smith , it was not a problem at that time. It became an issue commencing in the 1960s. Just for the record, acid rain in Europe and elsewhere is well reported as predominately a problem that arose from sulphur and nitrous oxide emitted from the smokestacks of electricity generators and industrial polluters . Motor vehicle emissions were less significant, and Lawrence’s focus on diesel emissions is misplaced. The density of traffic in the Black Forest of Germany was not sufficient in itself at that time to be the main factor in its demise from acid rain.

Myth 2: ‘Ink makers have built their inks to dry hard, quick and not scuff off from one page to another.’ 

This is a completely misleading statement as different inks are designed to do different jobs. For newspapers cold set inks are typically designed not to dry. Pick up a newspaper and you will find the ink comes off. Try it with a six month old paper, it’s still coming off. De-inking for recycling is a snack with a bit of ordinary soap added. Try it at home.

It is different for heat set printing used in magazines. Nevertheless, the ink gets separated from the paper fibre with soap, fibre swelling, some clay and air bubbles. The clay is used as the ink particles stick to the clay surface and both stick to bubbles blown through the de-inking tank making it easy for them to flow off the top of the de-inking cell.

Other inks used by laser printers and inkjets on office paper vary considerably and it is not my speciality area so I’ll let those industries speak for themselves. But the fact does remain that office paper is successfully de-inked and recycled on a massive scale worldwide.

Myth 3: ‘…there is as much as a 10 fold increase in the carbon emissions from a recycled mill compared to a fully integrated virgin fibre pulp and paper mill’ 

Energy consumption and carbon emissions are reduced by recycling. The amount of this claimed reduction is debated and in the literature often now somewhat dated. In 2006 the Energy information Administration sets a claim of 40 per cent reduction in energy use when using recycled fibre instead of virgin fibre. In 2007 the Bureau of International Recycling sets the reduction at 64 per cent.

Let us take a real world modern Australian example. For mechanical papers such as newsprint used to make newspapers the energy savings and greenhouse emission reductions are very high at the Norske Skog Albury Mill in NSW. The total Carbon Dioxide emissions to make a tonne of newsprint from wood fibre are 1,260 kg. The emissions arising from recycled paper are 746 kg – which is 59 per cent of that for virgin material.

It is often argued that the fuel used to make pulp is less in virgin chemical kraft pulp mills than it is in recycled pulp mills. It should be considered that the resulting carbon footprint is entirely dependent on the emission factor associated with the fuel type used. Kraft pulp mills burn the waste lignin removed from wood in the chemical process, and they also burn waste bark and wood all of which a have a next to zero carbon footprint when burnt. If a similar green power source was used in recycling a similar or perhaps better result would be obtained.

It is not possible ‘to align the types of paper so that I could compare a similar paper from a virgin mill to a recycled fibre mill of the same type of paper’ as Lawrence attempts to do, without consideration of the emission factor associated with the electricity grid in which the paper mill or the recycling mill operate. Countries that specialise in virgin paper production, such as for example Sweden, have nuclear energy with a very low carbon emission factor associated with electricity production.

Work has been done on the emissions arising from collection of recycled paper. In Australia I was part of a major lifecycle study that concluded that emissions from collection and transport of newsprint were insignificant, adding 10 per cent or less to the total emissions arising from using virgin wood fibre.

Myth 4: ‘any amount of recycled content is dangerous to the environment’ 

Lawrence claims the above statement without references (academic or scientific) – an offence he himself declares as unacceptable. There is significant literature espousing the opposite view. Let’s list the environmental benefits of paper with recycled fibre content with references:

  • Landfill reduction: municipal solid waste in the US is made up of 35 per cent paper and paper products
  • Water savings: US EPA claims 35 per cent less water pollution
  • Natural resource savings: a tonne of wood fibre can be reused many times, about six times in some instances
  • Energy consumption: overall less
  • Greenhouse gas emissions: less, for example 59 per cent of the
  • greenhouse emissions for recycled pulp production for newsprint manufactured at Albury in Australia
  • Waste toxicity: variable, but at Albury in Australia the de-inked sludge makes soil conditioner used on farms

Similarly, with the Australian Federal EPA that was established in the mid-1990s one of the first enquiries it set up was to determine whether virgin or recycled fibre should be the preferred paper on environmental grounds for commonwealth government procurement. The conclusion was that both virgin and recycled fibre had differing environmental advantages depending on a range of factors, locations and processes and no clear winner could be ascertained. Environmental progress has occurred in spades since then but the finding still makes sense: evaluate each paper brand on its merits.


Recycled paper is made to the overall benefit of the environment and any claim to the contrary would require serious evidence to be presented. Scepticism and questioning these benefits is healthy in the scientific community, but unsubstantiated myths add confusion without moving us forward.

For my area of specific expertise, in newspapers, the picture is very clear – keep recycling!

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.