Is it better to recycle paper or to burn it for energy?

Is it better to recycle paper or to burn it for energy?

Is it better to recycle paper or to burn it for energy?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
April 29 2008 7:42 AM

Paper Recycling—Is It Worth It?

Landfills, recycling, and incineration.

My office generates an embarrassingly large amount of paper waste, so I'm always careful to place my used documents in the recycling bin. But several of my co-workers refuse to do this, arguing that it takes more energy to recycle paper than it does to manufacture it from virgin materials. Who's right?

If you're talking only about energy inputs, then your co-workers are wrong. Making paper out of discarded memos and e-mails definitely requires less energy than using freshly harvested timber. But the eco-benefits of paper recycling may not be quite as grand as you envision—turning post-consumer paper into saleable products is by no means a clean endeavor. And the environmental advantages vary widely between recycling facilities, depending on their technological sophistication.

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Environmental contrarians like your officemates have long contended that recycling paper is a mug's game, since it takes so much energy to remove the ink from discarded sheets. But study after study has debunked this assertion, and the Environmental Protection Agency claims that producing recycled paper requires 40 percent less energy than making paper from virgin wood, or about 10.6 fewer gigajoules per ton of finished product. That may sound dramatic, but it's peanuts compared with the energy savings associated with recycling other common materials. Manufacturing a ton of recycled aluminum cans, for example, requires 218 fewer gigajoules per ton than using virgin ores, while the figure for polyethylene bottles is 55.9 gigajoules.

Skeptics have often countered that the EPA's estimate doesn't account for the fuel used to truck the paper to and from a recycling facility. But the Lantern doesn't see how this could dramatically alter the equation—if we're going to factor in transportation, what about all the oil that's expended to get trees from the Canadian Boreal Forest to the paper mill and then to your friendly neighborhood Staples?

That said, the naysayers have a point when they bring up the fact that paper mills typically use less fossil fuel to operate than waste-paper facilities. That's because the machines used to produce virgin paper are often powered by timber detritus—the parts of the trees that weren't deemed fit for pulping and can be burned to generate energy. Recyclers, by contrast, rely on their local power grids, which in turn depend on coal-fired power plants. And coal is generally considered dirtier than wood, in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. On the other hand, groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund argue (PDF) that recycling paper cuts overall greenhouse gas emissions, by decreasing the amount of waste diverted to landfills (where decomposition leads to methane production) and by reducing the need to cultivate forest lands.

It's also worth noting that the recycling process creates an inky sludge that presents a disposal challenge. Many common inks contain metals such as chromium, zinc, and lead, which can seep into water supplies. Producers of recycled paper aver that they've learned to manage their sludge and can even burn it to produce energy in some instances. They also point out, correctly, that making virgin paper also involves a host of dodgy chemicals, particularly the bleach used to whiten the end product.

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So though paper recycling may involve some environmental hazards, it's still better than landfilling. But what about incineration—how does recycling compare with burning waste paper to produce energy? According to a landmark 1996 report (PDF) sponsored by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, it's a tougher call than you might imagine: "Recycling has environmental advantages over landfill, but the comparison with incineration is less clear cut. Much depends on the transport requirements for waste paper, the nature of the manufacturing process and the extent to which fossil fuels are used to generate the electricity needed for production."

Yet the Lantern is wary of incineration, and not only because it seems unwise to burn products that contain bleach and heavy metals. Incinerators are also extremely expensive to build, and they're a difficult political sell—nothing brings out NIMBY-ism quite like the news that an incinerator has been proposed. Perhaps there's a technological workaround that will make paper incineration a more attractive proposition, but all the geeky new stuff seems to be happening in recycling nowadays. For example, some paper recyclers have started using infrared dryers in lieu of steam-heated rollers, which can dramatically reduce their energy consumption. There's also been a move toward reusing wastewater in recycling facilities, as well as eliminating the need for potent de-inking chemicals.

If you're an optimist, you might assume that whoever recycles the waste paper for your company has such technologies in place. But even if they do, don't delude yourself into thinking that tossing your paper into the blue bin makes you some sort of environmental hero. At its best, recycling can only be a small part of the green equation. You might also try to persuade your co-workers to start cutting down on their paper consumption, and talk to your office manager about switching over to paper with a high post-consumer content.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.