Recycling is an important aspect of the forest products supply chain. The use of recycled fiber can reduce the demand for fresh fiber from forests and avoid greenhouse gas emissions.
Consumers use paper to meet many different needs and each requires different and specific properties, such as strength, brightness and absorbancy. Blends of both fresh and recycled fibers, in varying proportions, are being used to deliver the required properties to the consumer. While it is technically impossible to sustain society’s long-term paper needs without fresh fiber, no reusable paper should go to a landfill.
The graph below shows the fiber sources for paper products in the U.S. and Canada. As the bar graph illustrates, paper is made from a variety of sources, including by-products such as fiber residues from lumber mills.1
Source: The Fiber Cycle; Metafore, FPAC (2006)1
Avoiding greenhouse gas emissions
The use of recovered fiber from recycled paper products not only makes a productive use of a renewable raw material but also avoids GHG emissions that result from putting paper in the landfill. The opportunity for avoided emissions is significant: American Forest & Products Association (AF&PA) has cited its member companies use of recycled paper fiber to make new paper products avoided CO2 emissions of 21.1 million metric tons in 2006 alone.
Environmental considerations related to processing recovered fiber
Converting recovered paper into usable fiber requires a level of processing, the extent of which depends on the end product. Some paper and paperboard products (such as newsprint, kraft bags and corrugated containers) do not typically require a high degree of brightness and because less cleaning and bleaching is required these grades can make efficient use of recovered fiber.
The brightness and cleanliness specifications for some grades of paper, such as reprographic and laser print office papers, requires additional processing-cleaning and bleaching- of any recovered fiber used to produce them. As a consequence the manufacture of these products can be more energy intensive. Beyond a theoretical tipping point (somewhere between 30 to 50 percent post-consumer fiber content), using increasingly higher percentages of recovered fiber can results in diminished environmental returns because as an example processing required could be more fossil fuel intensive with the potential to emit more GHGs than avoided.
Using recycled paper for coated grades requires significantly higher capital and operating costs based on extra steps needed for cleaning and de-inking, lower yields, and the cost to collect, sort, and transport recovered fiber. This explains why there is currently little capacity for de-inking, bleaching, and pulping of recovered fiber for certain grades,such as magazine paper.
Paper mills that are located near the "urban forest" have the capacity to manufacture recovered waste paper into high-grade papers because they have invested in technology and processes that enable them to use recovered fiber cost-effectively. Currently, the supply of recovered fiber that can cost-effectively be used by recycled paper mills is very volatile.
Uses for recovered fiber
The chart below represents the main uses of recovered paper in the United States. Overall, the highest percentage of recovered paper collected in the U.S. is exported (41%), with containerboard (29%) and recycled boxboard (12%) representing another 41%. Less than 6% of recovered paper is used today for printing and writing grades.2
What determines the mix of fresh and recycled fibers in a paper product
The mix of fibers is determined by the demands of the people who are using the product. People use paper for many different reasons, such as cleaning and drying, storing other goods, and communicating. As such, different types of fibers are blended together depending on the distinct strength, brightness and absorbency needs for different grades of paper.
What if we used only recycled paper?
Fiber losses from the use of recovered paper vary from 10% to 30%, depending on the grade of paper being produced. Without fresh fiber, society would run our of paper in a year or less.1
1. Metafore, Inc. The Fiber Cycle Technical Document. Tech. Metafore, 2006 (http://www.metafore.org/downloads/metafore_reports_fiber_cycle.pdf)
2. AF&PA. "Where Recovered Paper Goes." Paperrecycles.org - Paper Industry Association Council. 2008. (http://www.paperrecycles.org/stat_pages/recovered_paper_goes.html).