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Reassessing Paper Recycling

August 1, 2013

Finding ways to make paper a more sustainable commodity — mainly through the use of various recycling methods — has always been an important goal of the green and environmental movements.

But in recent years, it has become clear that when it comes to paper, recycling may not be as good for the environment as previously thought.

In fact, when the fuel, water and energy used to transport, process and recycle paper are taken into account, along with all the carbon and greenhouse emissions released into the atmosphere by these processes, paper recycling may actually be quite detrimental to the environment.

This fact becomes even clearer when we analyze what happens to a significant portion of the paper recycled in the United States.

One of the biggest importers of U.S. recycled paper is China (along with other Asian countries).*

Examining the journey this recycled paper takes to reach China reveals how negatively it can impact sustainability:

  • Recycled paper is picked up by waste handlers who deliver it to facilities where it is further processed, cut and bundled for shipment.
  • These bundles are transported, typically by rail or truck, to port cities in the United States.
  • The bundles are then put on ships headed for China or other nearby countries.
  • Once in China, the paper is transported once again by rail or truck to paper recycling centers.
  • There the paper is further processed, shaped, repackaged and then transported to Chinese manufacturers and other users.
  • A good portion of the paper is also returned to the U.S., reversing the entire process.

Recycling does reduce the number of trees used to make paper products, as well as the amount of paper waste that ends up in landfills each year.

However, the huge volume of gases released into the atmosphere during the process of recycling, processing, and transporting recycled paper is now becoming a major environmental and sustainability concern.

In fact, the environmental costs of paper recycling pose a problem for one of the most important environmental goals of the 21st century: carbon sequestration.

The term carbon sequestration refers to steps and processes taken to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere (generally as a result of burning fossil fuels).

Carbon dioxide is instead put into long-term storage — or sequestered — to prevent it from contributing to global warming, among other negative impacts.

While paper recycling is not about to disappear, it will likely become less important as carbon sequestration becomes a bigger part of the worldwide environmental movement.

Rapidly Renewable Trees

If paper recycling is no longer considered environmentally friendly, what options are there to meet growing paper needs both here in the U.S. and around the world?

The answer is “rapidly renewable trees.”

The idea of farming quickly growing trees to serve manufacturing and many consumer needs is actually not new.

In fact, tree farms or plantations first appeared shortly after World War II.

However, as our environmental focus changes, this type of tree farming is becoming increasingly important.

Trees grown in this way are raised as crops; instead of taking decades to grow, they are usually harvested after only six to 10 years.

These “young trees” generally do not produce fibers appropriate for construction, furniture making or building.

Their fibers are usually too “soft,” meaning they lack the stiffness and strength of lumber from old-growth trees.

However, they are often ideal for use as raw material in paper product manufacturing.

What’s more, processing these young trees typically takes less water and chemical, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve natural resources.

They also allow us to preserve more of the world’s old-growth trees, which provide benefits such as protecting wildlife, promoting biodiversity, capturing carbons and releasing oxygen.

As the use of renewable trees becomes more prevalent, it will profoundly change the way people purchase paper products.

Instead of looking to see whether products are made from recycled paper, consumers will want to know if the products they select are derived from young, rapidly renewable trees.

*According to some reports, paper is the number one U.S. export to China.


Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry, and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, which offers a cloud-based dashboard that allows organizations to measure, report and improve their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.