An online clean technology database

Advanced paper recycling

© ClimateTechWiki and respective owners
Large scale - short term
2006 IPCC Sector categorization
Solid Waste Disposal
Waste management
Energy Source

Recycling is a process which reconsiders the current life cycle of creating products and materials and associated process and final waste. Specifically, paper recycling is the process of recovering waste paper and remaking it into new products. Recycling provides several socio-economic development benefits as well as environmental benefits.

Introduction top

According to the European Commission (19 November, 2008) “waste means any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard.” Recycling materials and products – that are considered waste - is an ancient practice which shows that in times of resource scarcity (i.e. shortage of virgin materials) societies attach more economic and societal value to their own waste. This implies that throughout time the definition of waste can change as well. Generally speaking longer use or re-use of materials and products this is often mainly to cover a society’s needs. To put it differently, recycling is a process which reconsiders the current life cycle of creating products and materials and associated process and final waste. Ideally, products and materials should be designed, produced, used and disposed in such a way that they can be completely re-used and/or recycled effectively and efficiently. There are many waste types, such as basic materials (i.e. glass, paper, steel, aluminum, construction minerals and plastic but also water), hazardous and chemical wastes, but also end-of-use waste products (i.e. e-waste, furniture, cars and textiles) that can be re-used or recycled.

A hierarchy of waste management options exists, giving preference to certain measures and pplacing other measures as a last-resort fall back option. The European Union maintains a hierarchy of waste management in which it illustrated the preferences over waste prevention, re-use, recycling, recovery of energy and the use of landfills to dispose of wastes from which no further value can be recovered (Smith et al., 2001). This hierarchy is illustrated in Figure 1. The hierarchy positions waste prevention at the top of measures of waste management. After all, preventing the waste all together is an effective measure waste management. After waste prevention, the European Union outlines that re-use of the product in its current form is the preffered measure. This is based on the notion that minimum waste management is required if the product can be directly re-used without undergoing any processes (only collecting of the product and transporting it back to the producer). After that, recycling is seen as an important waste management measure. Recycling allows for efficient use of waste, but does require an extensive waste management process to convert the product back into use-able components for other products. The lower two waste management measures do not require an extensive waste management process, primarily limited to collection and separation of the waste, but do result in negative environmental consequences.  

illustration ©

Figure 1: Hierarchy of waste management as advised by the European Union (click image to enlarge)

More specifically, the process of paper recycling is the recovery of waste paper products and reprocessing these into new products. For example, paper waste products can be recycled into lower-quality bathroom paper. With recycling, it is not possible to deliver a same quality product as the original waste paper product. In other words, quality losses are inevitably incurred within the recycling process. In the case of paper products, this primarily means that fiber strength and length are reduced.

Considerable energy savings are possible within the pulp and paper sector through effective and efficient recycling practices. The paper and pulp sector is the fourth-largest industrial sector in terms of energy use worldwide, consuming approximately 164 Mtoe of energy in 2007 which correlates to about 5 % of the total global industrial energy consumption (IEA, 2010).

The general process of paper making combined with the recycling process is illustrated in Figure 2. As can be seen, the paper recycling process consists of essentially five key steps.

a) After product usage and disposal, it is important to collect the material.
b) For proper recycling, it is critical to sort the waste products into a variety of categories. The sorting of the waste products prevents contamination of the recycling process.
c) Pulping of the waste paper products, in which the solid waste paper products are processed into a pulp, allows the process stream to feed back into the paper making process.
d) Before the recycled product can be transported back into the paper making process, in which it will combine with raw material to result in new paper products, it is important to de-ink, clean and screen the recycled product. Contamination by inks at the start of the paper making process can result in a lower quality end-product.

illustration ©

Figure 2: Schematic of the paper lifecycle chain. (click image to enlarge) Source: ERPC, paperloop, no date.

Feasibility of technology and operational necessities top

The motivation for recycling of paper is the notion that recovered paper is too valuable a resource to send to a landfill or to incinerate. Instead, the valuable raw material can be recycled to create new paper and cardboard. However, there are certain restrictions and operational necessities that accompany this technology and that influence its characteristics such as feasiblity, economics, and potential.

First, While almost any paper can be recycled, including used newspapers, cardboard, packaging, stationery, magazines, etc., not all paper products can be recycled (ERPC, no date). Approximately 19 % of paper and cardboard waste in the European Union is considered non-recyclable and non-collectable due to technical reasons (CEPI, 2003). This includes papers such as tissue papers, archives, and cigarette papers (ERPC, no date). While the non-collectability and non-recyclability of certain papers already limits the feasible recycling rate, it is also not economically and environmentally attractive to pursue a 100 % recycling rate of paper products (ERPC, no date).

Second, the technique is limited to the number of times a particular piece of paper can be recycled. This limitation is due to the shortening of the fibers of the papers during the recycling process. Due to the shortening, the fibers lose strength and quality. Eventually, after being recycled a number of times, the length of the fibers becomes too short to result in a functional new paper product. According to the European Recovered Paper Council this is highly dependent on the grade of the original paper, but essentially the process of recycling a particular piece of paper is limited to around 4-6 times (ERPC, no date). This limitation, among others such as the high demand of paper and the limited capacity to meet this demand with recycling alone, causes the need for a constant flow of virgin raw material into the sector.

Third, the technology requires a separation of the waste in order to realize effective recycling. In other words, source segregation of paper waste is required. In general, this can be done in three ways: the kerb-side pick-up of paper only waste; the paper bank collection; and the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) mixed recyclables collection in which the paper is separated later in the process at a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) (Smith et al., 2001). At a MRF manual or semi-automatic processing occurs in order to sort recyclables from waste. The processing required is dependent on the degree of source-separation already performed upon arrival at the MRF. The more the waste is already source separated, the less processing is required at the MRF (Smith et al., 2001).

Status of the technology and its future market potential top

Although the three limitations mentioned above restrict the use of paper recycling somewhat, the technology of paper recycling is widely used in many countries. According to the IPCC (2007), virtually all developed countries have implemented comprehensive recycling programs.  This section looks briefly into the current status of the technology, illustrated by its status in two regions of the world, and elaborates on the future market potential.


As noted with the European Union hierarchy structe, the recycling of waste within Europe is a preferred method of waste management. As such, as Figure 3 shows, the recycling rate of paper (the percentage of waste paper products that are recycled) in European countries has been steadily climbing over time. Within the European Union the use of paper recycling is strongly supported, both by the governmental institutions as well as by the industry itself. For example, in 2000 the pulp and paper industry voluntarily proposed the "European Declaration of 2000 promoting paper recycling". This initiative has subsequently been amended and strenghtened. Covering more countries and a higher number of organizations, the subsequent "European Declaration on paper recycling" set a higher target compared to its predecessor. The target set by the declaration was to reach a 66 % paper recycling rate by 2010 (ERPC, 2006). Within the European Union, the recycling rate reached 72, 2 % in 2009 (CEPI, 2009). As such, the target voluntarily set by the industry was comfortably achieved, illustrating the market potential of this technology.

illustration ©

Figure 3: Recovered paper utilization, net trade and recycling rate in Europe (EU-27 plus Norway and Switzerland). (click image to enlarge) Source: CEPI, 2009

Worldwide, recycling rates have reached approximately 50 %, which basically means that half of the waste paper products are sent to incineration plants or landfills. Although many countries are approaching or are at their practical limits, there is still much potential for the technology of paper recycling according to the IEA (2010). The high global recycling rate is achieved primarily due to high recycling rates in developed countries, and as such, recycling rates in developing countries can still be substantially improved. As an illustration, despite strong support for a variety of material recovery measures including the inherent value of the waste products, landfilling is still the most common method of waste management across the pan-European region as is illustrated in Figure 4 (EEA, 2007). This illustrates that material recovery management measures still have the potential for improvement.

illustration ©

Figure 4: Differences among European countries in recycling (including composting), incineration and landfilling. Western Europe shows higher numbers of penetration of both incineration and recycling, while Eastern Europe shows high use of the landfill technique. (click image to enlarge) Source: EEA, 2007

The United States

As in the European Union, the recycling rate of paper in the United States has also been on the rise over time. In 1960, paper recycling rates were at 16.9 %, which means a significant percentage of paper was incinerated or landfilled without the utilization of their recycling potential. In 1990, already 27. 8% recycling rates were achieved within the United States. The recycling rate continues to rise to a 42, 8 % recycling rate in 2000 and approximately 55 % recycling rates of paper and cardboard in 2008 (EPA, 2008). Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) consists for a substantial part of paper and cardboard products. The MSW components are illustrated in Figure 5.

Recycling rate potential differs among different paper product categories. In other words, there is a large difference in the recovery succes of paper among different paper product categories. For example, in 2008, 87, 8 % of newspaper waste in the United States was recycled while only 29, 9 % of books and 40 % of magazines were recycled (EPA, 2008). The recovery succes is not only based on the quality of waste paper products (for instance, what types of inks are used, or whether the paper is glossy or regular), but is also based on the succes rate of each step in the recycling process. For instance, collection rates of books and magazines might be lower than collection rates of newspapers which already lowers the recovery success.

illustration ©

Figure 5: Total Municipal Solid Waste by Material in the United States in 2008. Approximately 250 million tonnes of MSW were collected. (click image to enlarge) Source: EPA, 2008

How the technology could contribute to socio-economic development and environmental protection top

One of the main social development aspects of paper recycling, and recycling in general, is that it tends to lead to increased employment. This is also the conclusion of an extensive study into the economics of recycling (REI, 2001). The increased employment opportunities arise due to the fact that recycling is a relatively labour intensive process, and that it creates a additional employment sector which naturally increases employment opportunities. The employment opportunities offered by the recycling process are illustrated in Figure 6, which shows the employment numbers for the recycling industry in the United States for 2001.

illustration ©

Figure 6: Employment in the U.S. in the recycling industry per material. (click image to enlarge) Source: REI, 2001

The Recycling Economic Information (REI) study (2001) notes that while the waste disposal  (as opposed to recycling) industry in the United States in 2001 was much larger compared to the waste recycling and re-use industry both in terms of volume and in terms of waste, the recycling and re-use industry provided more jobs and more economic benefits. The REI (2001) study notes that this is due to the fact that the recycling process is an inherent value process, while the process of disposal is possibly an destruction of valuable materials and therefore the destruction of economic opportunities.

While supporting social development, the increased employment opportunities provided by the technology also allow economic development. For example, the waste sector in 2004 in the Russian Federation was estimated to employ about 500 000 people in a market worth more than 28 billion roubles which is approximately USD 1 billion. The 2004 market value was approximately 70 % to 75 % waste collection and transportation services (Abramov, 2004).

Higher recycling rates of paper can significantly reduce energy use as recovered paper pulp uses 10 GJ to 13 GJ less energy per tonne than the production of virgin pulp (IEA, 2010). This results in both environmental protection benefits as well as energy market support benefits. For instance, reductions in energy use result in a more efficient use of the energy supplied on the energy market. As such, expensive grid extensions and power supply expansions can be delayed. Additionally, the more efficient use of energy reduces emissions of energy production, as less energy is needed.

Other environmental protection benefits are also achieved with recycling. Table 1 outlines the general environmental impacts of different waste management schemes (Smith et al., 2001). Additional important environmental protection benefits offered by recycling are the reduction of virgin feedstock requirements (less raw virgin wood is needed for the paper production process), landiflling space can be used more efficiently as smaller volumes of paper products end up in the landfill or incineration, and the depletion of finite resources needed within the production process (fossil fuel energy sources, various other products within the paper production process) can be delayed as smaller amounts of these resources are needed.

Table 1. Several environmental impact of different waste management schemes.
OptionMain environmental impacts
All optionsEmissions of CO2 and other pollutants, noise, odor, and congestion from vehicles transporting waste and by-products to and from treatment plants.
Landfill- Methane emissions from biodegradable waste, contributing to climate change and local hazards such as the risk of fires and explosions
- Risks of water ppollution from leachate (liquor) formed as waste decomposes
- land use - non-sustainable use of resources
- Noise and odor
- Some carbon compounds may be retained in the landfill for long periods (sequestered) and so not returned to the atmosphere as CO2
Incineration- Emissions of harmful airborne pollutants such as NOx, SO2, HCL, fine particulate matter and dioxin.
- Emissions of CO2 from fossil derived waste (e.g. plastics) and N2O contributing to climate change
- Energy recovered can replace fossil fuels thus avoiding emissions of CO2
- FLy ash and residues from air pollution control systems require stabilization and disposal as hazardous waste
- Bottom ash may be reused as a secondary aggregate - metals may be recovered for recycling from bottom ash
Recycling- Saves energy (generally less energy is required to manufacture products from recycled feedstocks) and hence emissions of GHG and other pollutants
- Prolongs reserves of finite resources (e.g. metal ores) - contributes to the sustainable use of resources
- Avoids impacts of associated extraction of virgin feedstock (e.g. quarrying of ores and sand, felling of old growth forest to produce wood for paper)
- reduces the need for landfilling and incineration of waste
- Lower air and water pollution impact due to avoidance of primary production processes, such as mining, quarrying, processing, etc.,
Composting- Avoids methane production from degradation of organic waste in landfills (as degradation is aerobic instead of anaerobic)
- Compost can be used as a soil improver and can replace fertilizers and peat to some extent (both of which have negative environmental impacts)
- Potential for carbon sequestration through increasing the store of soil organic matter
- Improvements in soil fertility and soil organic matter content leading to possible down-stream benefits from reduced need for inorganic fertilizers, reduced need for irrigation and lower soil erosion rates
- Needs careful control of the composting process to avoid bioaerosols
- Same as for composting, plus energy recovered can replace fossil fuels thus avoiding emissions of CO2
Biological Treatment (MBT)
- Reduces methane and leachate production from degradation of treated organic waste in landfills (as biological fraction is composted before disposal)
- Materials may be recovered for recycling and/or energy recovery
- More effective use of landfill void space since pre-treatments reduces bulk of waste needing disposal
- Still dependent on landfill as repository of final waste, so not as sustainable as recycling or composting


Climate top

The magnitude of climate related benefits due to the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the paper recycling technology implementation is highly dependent on the specific materials involved (cardboard, regular paper, high quality paper), the recovery rates for those materials, the local options for managing materials, and the specific energy source used in the production process (Smith et al., 2001). As such, it is difficult to provide specific information related to the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions due to the implementation of this technology.

In Table 1, the life cycle emission data from several studies regarding the recycling of paper products is summarized in Smith et al (2001). As can be seen, emissions over the lifcycle of a recycled paper product are substantially lower compared to the emissions from virgin materials.

Table. Life Cycle emissions for the production of paper ( kg CO2/ton paper). Results from various studies and summarized in Smith et al., 2001. Source: Smith et al., 2001
Paper typeFrom virgin materialsFrom recycled materials 
Kraft paper unbleached1080633
Graphic paper436 (uncoated)586 (with deinking)
Graphic paper730 (coated)380(without deinking)
Corrugated board644 (25 % recycled)522-536

Smith et al. (2001) throughly address the greenhouse gas emission benefits from recycling across the European Union. They conclude that the advantages of paper recycling over landfilling depend on the efficiency with which the landfill is assumed to control landfill gas emissions. For landfill sites with only limited or no gas collection, the benefits of paper recycling are greater. In the case of limited gas control, net greenhouse gas savings from recycling range from about 50 to 280 kg CO2eq per tonne of MSW.

When the best gas control mechanisms are implemented in landfill sites, the greenhouse gas related benefits of paper recycling are naturally smaller.Importantly, in the case of best practice gas control mechanisms in landfills (including mechanisms to enhance methane oxidation), paper recycling incurs a small net penalty in greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, in this case paper recycling is less effective, from a climate related emissions point of view, than landiflling the paper. The greenhouse gas fluxes of paper recycling in this case are approximately 20-30 kg CO2eq per tonne of MSW (Smith et al., 2001). 

Financial requirements and costs top

The economics of waste management practices and specifically recycling activities are often a crucial factor in successful adoption of a new process or technology. In general, there are many factors that shape the financial and economic environment for recycling initiatives. In some cases basic legislative changes, such as closure of a nearby landfill site or a regional ban on landfilling can make recycling more attractive as the costs of waste disposal go up. Other general examples that change the competitive environment are subsidies and taxes for specific technologies, such as waste incineration. In some areas in Europe, where landfilling is banned waste incineration has gained significant attention in recent years. New and more innovative recovery and recycling practices have to ready to compete with the already proven practice of waste incineration.

Given the wide variety of waste types a multitude of recycling processes is possible. Therefore it is difficult to provide clear-cut cost figures for recycling practices. The economic viability of recycling can only be proven on a case-specific basis, as the local context is one of the crucial factors for investment decisions. For example, investment costs relate to the commercial loan interest rates (possibly with risk premium for novel business models) charged by local financial institutions and the economic and monetary stability of the country of investment. Additionally, the costs of labor for construction as well as local availability of construction materials and machinery determine the financial requirements and costs for the investor.

It is in the policy makers interest to try and stimulate the various actors in the market to start to invest in recycling. One of the main targets in liberalized economies is to optimize the market structure. For a comprehensive overview of a number of waste-recycling markets in the EU, see the 2008 report of the European Commission  (DG Environment) on ‘Optimising markets for recycling’.

Clean Development Mechanism market status top

When looking at the CDM project pipeline, there are few project activities that involve some form of waste recovery or recycling. Waste related projects in de pipeline include waste-to-energy projects by means of incineration or gasification or methane capture at landfill sites. Other CDM project activities relate to the use of either biomass from virgin sources or secondary biomass waste streams, generally for the production of bio-energy. The associated methodologies of these waste management technologies/processes can be used for quantifying the GHG-impact. Standard methods or protocols for quantifying the GHG-impact of recycling projects and practices are scarcer, although they almost by no exception follow the guiding principles of a life cycle assessment (LCA).

However, no CDM projects are currently registered concerning paper recycling. Certain methodologies are in place to support recycling projects. However, these methodologies are not suitable for paper recycling projects as the methodologies concern other sectors. For instance, the CDM methodology Avoided emissions from biomass wastes through use as feed stock in pulp and paper production or in bio-oil production AM0057 Version 3 does cover the pulp and paper sector but only addresses agricultural wastes and not municipal solid wastes or wood and paper production wastes. Another example is the CDM methodology Recovery and recycling of materials from solid wastes AMS-III.AJ.:  Version 1 which is developed to support the recycling process of specific plastics. 

There is a small scale methodology that has been proposed and that currently awaits approval that would be suitable for paper recycling projects. That methodology is Emission reductions by using recycling material instead of raw material SSC-NM043. While this methodology is specifically proposed to cover more general recycling options, the methodology still needs to be approved before it can be used. 

General information about how to apply CDM methodologies for GHG accounting can be found at:

References top

Smith, A., K. Brown, S. Ogilvie, K. Rushton, and J. Bates, 2001: Wastemanagement options and climate change. Final Report ED21158R4.1 to the European Commission, DG Environment, AEA Technology,  Oxfordshire, 205 pp. retrieved 2nd of November from:

IEA, 2010. Energy Technology Perspectives 2010: Scenarios and Strategies to 2050. International Energy Agency. Paris, France. Retrieved 2nd of November 2010 from:

Pimenteira, C. A., Pereira, A.S., Oliveira, L.B., Rosa, L.P., Reis, M.M., Henriques, R.M., 2004. Energy conservation and CO2 emission reductions due to recycling in Brazil. Waste Management 24 (2004) pp. 889-897.

CEPI, 2009. Key Statistics 2009: European Paper and Pulp industry. Confederation of European Paper Industries. Retrieved 2nd of November from: 

IPCC, 2007. Bogner, J., M. Abdelrafie Ahmed, C. Diaz, A. Faaij, Q. Gao, S. Hashimoto, K. Mareckova, R. Pipatti, T. Zhang, Waste Management, In Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Retrieved 2nd of November from:

CEPI, 2003. Summary of the study on non-collectable and non-recyclable paper products. Brussels, Belgium, 28 May 2003. Retrieved 3rd of November 2010 from

EEA, 2007. Europe's Environment the Fourth Assessment - State of Environment Report 2007.European Environment Agency Report No. 1/2007. Document retrieved November 3rd 2010 from:

ERPC, no date. European Recovered Paper Council website. Information from this website retrieved 3rd of November 2010 from:

ERPC, paperloop, no date. European Recovered Paper Council paper loop information. Information retrieved from this website on November 3rd 2010 from:

ERPC, 2006. European Declaration on Paper Recycling 2006 -2010. European Recovered Paper Council. Document retrieved 3rd of November 2010 from:

EPA, 2008. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Document retrieved 3rd of November 2010 from:

REI, 2001. U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study prepared for the National Recycling Coalition. Document retrieved November 3rd 2010 from: