Published 11 February 2019 by Martin Gercke
There’s a lot of talk about paper recycling these days, and a few frequent misunderstandings about how it works and what can and can’t be recycled.
Paper is one of the most recycled materials these days, and it is highly recyclable. In fact, it’s the most recycled material on the planet. Paper recovery is at record levels. It’s at 70% in certain European countries, such as Germany. We are approaching the maximum practical recovery rate, which is around 80%.
Maximising quality is of course an important consideration in the recycling sector. One of the most important factors is to separate materials accurately and as early as possible in the process. Mixing leads to degraded quality and unfortunately more recyclable materials are nowadays collected together instead of separately.
Recycling is a great way to save resources, and recycled paper also requires less energy and water to produce compared to fresh-fibre-based paper products. But there are limitations. Paper can only be recycled around 5-7 times before the fibres become too weak to reuse.
Ideally, recycling is done in large urban areas or countries with a high density of population to avoid long distance and fossil-burning transportation to paper mills. Naturally, paper from virgin fibres should be produced in areas with easy access to sustainably managed forests.
Also, the use of recovered fibre has implications for the manufacturing process. There is a balance to be struck, as materials such as board can be recycled fewer times and can only be recycled into lower grade products. For example, office paper can be made into board, but board can never become office paper. A related challenge is that demand for paper is decreasing while board is on the increase.
Other challenges include treatments, printing techniques and the use of materials such as glitter in paper products.
Recycled fibre is an important raw material for Stora Enso, in line with our commitment to a circular economy business approach. We offer papers made from recycled paper as well as from responsibly sourced fresh fibre. For example, in our newsprint paper production, both primary fibre and recycled newsprint paper made from 100% waste paper are used. We also utilize recycled fibers in some of our corrugated board products.
The recycling process has been continuously refined since the 1960s when it was first industrialized, and today the possibilities are excellent for separating paper fibre from plastics, inks and other materials. Recycling has also become much faster. In the past, a typical cycle could be three to six months from putting a newspaper into a recycling bin to a newly produced paper product. Today, it can be less than three weeks.
The message to the consumer is really to recycle anything renewable where possible!