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Paper for recycling is a valuable raw material - not waste!

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Today, 52% of the paper industry’s fibrous raw material is paper for recycling. Paper is the most recycled product in Europe, and Europe is the global champion in paper recycling with a rate of 72%. We shouldn’t settle with this, however. By continuously working with a combination of educational initiatives, more favourable regulatory frameworks and higher environmental awareness, we can increase the collection rate further and ensure that the paper industry can continue being a role model for a circular economy – and a more sustainable future.
The paper industry, with companies such as Stora Enso, has been a driving force in achieving the high recycling rate in Europe. It brings us all closer to the EU goal of a ‘recycling society’. However, there is a gap between industry’s view of paper for recycling as a raw material and public policy, which regards it as waste. If recycling is to continue to move forward, this gap needs to be addressed.

The current revision of European waste policies gives the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) an opportunity to push for a regulatory framework that enables more recycling of paper, but also recycling of the production residues. It would help to advance the quality of paper for recycling available and remove unjustified red tape and related costs. At the same time, we are working on several fronts to achieve a better balance in policies that would otherwise favour the use of paper for recycling as an energy source and result in a distortion of the recycling market.

So, why should we recycle paper? Well, there are ecological and economic reasons:

Ecologically, recycling is the most preferred option of what to do with paper at the end of its life – instead of using it for energy or putting it on landfill. With recycling, we put the paper into a loop and avoid methane emissions from landfills, making sure the paper raw material has a new life. This, in turn, has social benefits since starting the life cycle again creates more jobs than burning paper for energy. This means an added value to the economy.

It also makes a lot of sense economically since paper for recycling represents 50% of the European paper industry’s raw material. The other half is wood, which is a renewable source and important to keep up the fibre loop – without paper made from fresh fibre there would not be recycled paper.

Did you know that with the current recycling rate we have in Europe, fibre is used 3.5 times on average? That is all qualities combined: newsprint, other printing and writing papers, packaging and tissue. Newsprint and packaging can make more than 3.5 loops.

Around 60 million tonnes of paper for recycling are collected in Europe each year. The collection rate of paper consumed is constantly increasing, and has annually exceeded 60% since 2005 to reach over 70% in 2009. Out of those 60 million tonnes, the European paper industry uses close to 48 million tonnes – and I know Stora Enso is one of the largest single consumers in Europe using 2.1 million tonnes of paper for recycling in 2015. Some volumes are imported by non-European paper companies, mainly in China, to be recycled in the paper industry there. Furthermore, paper for recycling is used as a sustainable insulation material for houses, in attics, timber frame walls, etc.

When it comes to paper collection, there are different systems in place in Europe. There are systems where paper and board are collected separately from other recyclable materials, i.e. in Belgium and Spain. There are even more sophisticated systems where there is a separation between graphic paper and packaging (Sweden, Switzerland). Almost any paper can be recycled, including used newspapers, cardboard, packaging, stationery, ‘direct mail’, magazines, catalogues, greeting cards and wrapping paper. It is important that paper is kept separate from other household waste, as contaminated paper is not acceptable for recycling. There are an estimated 22% of paper products that can not be collected or recycled, such as cigarette papers, wall papers, tissue papers and archives. Some countries are not yet collecting paper and board, here the risk is that it ends up as residual waste or on a landfill.

We are working intensively on this at CEPI. One important project we are partnering is IMPACTPapeRec, a European project to further increase the separate collection of paper for recycling and promote appropriate schemes to avoid landfilling and incineration. The project started earlier in 2016 and is financed by the European Union Horizon 2020 programme.

IMPACTPapeRec focuses on countries with below average paper recycling rates such as Bulgaria, Poland and Romania as well as countries where paper from households, small shops and offices is often collected in a commingled stream with other recyclables, as is the case in France and the UK. The participants have started to discuss the existing schemes as well as indicators to define best practice separate collection schemes.

We also need to continue to work on the recyclability of paper products, meaning that the producers of paper products use the material in such a way that it can be recycled. This could be about using the right ink, adhesives, etc. so it can easily be removed in the recycling process. Organisations, such as the European Recovered Paper Council (ERPC), are very useful in discussing recyclability along the whole value chain. The ERPC comprises collectors, paper producers, printers, converters, but also the producers of printing inks and adhesives.

In many countries, we need to teach consumers that used paper and board are a raw material and not waste, and that by recycling paper they contribute to the circular economy. Recycling is part of a sustainable development approach and closes the paper loop.

So next time you have read a newspaper or unwrapped a parcel, don't forget that used paper is a valuable raw material - not waste!

This article reflects the personal views and experience of the author.


Ulrich Leberle, blog author

Ulrich Leberle

Raw Materials Director, CEPI

Ulrich Leberle was born in 1975 in Nördlingen, Germany. He holds Master degrees in history from the Universities of Tübingen (Germany) and Aix-en-Provence (France). After professional experiences in the European Commission, the European Parliament and as a consultant in a Brussels-based company specializing in EU Public Affairs, he joined the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) in November 2005. Having held several positions in the area of raw materials at CEPI, his responsibilities in his current role of Raw Materials Director include the availability of raw material both from forestry and recycling and the policies impacting them.