10 Things You Should Know

8. Has recycled fiber been used appropriately?

Recycling is common to the paper-making industry. The main raw material for paper used to be recycled clothes, until scarcity of clothes, rising demand and technological improvements allowed the use of wood fibers (Holik, 2006). Today, a significant amount of wood by-products from industrial processes are used, including trees that are too small or crooked to be cut into lumber, sawmill residue, and residue from the making of wood pulp (bark and non-cellulose parts of the wood).

The use of recycled fiber is exclusive to paper-based products. Recycling has increased significantly in many countries (Table 13: Recovered paper in the world) and one reason for the growth in demand for recycled fiber is that some governments and institutions have established requirements for recycled content. However, in some regions the availability of recycled fibers may not be sufficient to meet the demand and fiber collection can be a major bottleneck. In addition to the paper industry, collecting fibers to be recycled involves many actors such as city governments, municipalities, and waste management facilities and in some cases the recycled fiber is not enough to meet the demand.

Table 13. Recovered paper in the world

Region/Year 1990 1995 2000 2005 Recovery rate
(Putz, 2006)
Africa 734,970 909,800 1,166,700 1,515,700 N/A
Asia 24,322,100 33,493,771 44,076,152 52,077,715 57%
Europe 24,088,000 33,641,000 43,991,709 54,774,990 55%*
North and Central America 28,788,008 33,246,500 45,945,000 47,806,928 38%**
South America 2,417,000 2,665,000 4,455,000 4,867,700 N/A

Production is in metric tons (Mt). Trends show an increase in production of recovered paper. Recovered paper includes paper and paperboard that has been used for its original purposes and residues from paper conversion. This includes waste and scrap collected for reuse as a raw material for the manufacture of paper and related products. Sources: Putz, 2006; FAO Faostat website (www.faostat.fao.org); CEPI, 2006.

* EU Countries plus Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway, the Slovak Republic and Switzerland. Recovery rate is 62.6% if including European recovered paper recycled in third countries.
** North America only.

A constant flow of virgin fiber into the fiber network is needed because wood fibers cannot be recycled indefinitely. Depending on the origin of the virgin fiber and the type of products, fiber is typically degraded and unusable after five to seven cycles. Thus, virgin fiber is constantly added to the fiber network to compensate for the retirement of degraded fiber, archival storage of paper, and loss of fiber through normal use and disposal of certain paper products such as personal care and tissue products. A recent study suggests that the paper supply
in Canada and the United States would develop serious problems in a matter of days if the input of fresh fiber was eliminated (Metafore, 2006).1

In addition to recycled fibers, non-wood crops such as bamboo, kenaf and bagasse can also be used to produce paper (Box 13: Alternative fibers).

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1 The same study examined production of newsprint in Canada and the US. The result suggests that production of newsprint would have to cease after three and a half months if only recovered fiber were used.

Factors to consider regarding recycled content

  • Use of recycled content is generally considered positive and can be an environmentally preferable source of fiber. Many consumers would like to see an increase in recycled content.
  • The optimum percentage of recycled content depends on a combination of commercial, technical and political factors and is not necessarily the same as the maximum percentage. To determine targets for recycled content close contacts with suppliers is important, but engagement of other stakeholders in a transparent dialogue is a useful supplementary strategy.
  • The optimum percentage of recycled content is not the same for all types of paper products; some end-products are more suitable for high recycled content than others. Differences in technical constraints and market sensitivity to product performance play significant roles.
  • Consider the holistic environmental impacts of recycled content versus sustainable sourced fiber. The benefits of increased recycled fiber may be offset by non-fiber inputs such as chemicals or energy. For instance, depending on the processing, recycling of fibers may require additional inputs of fossil fuels because waste byproducts used to produce energy are not as available as when processing virgin fibers.
  • Recycling involves investments at various steps of the process and it is not completely free from environmental impacts (Box 14: Recycling and environmental impacts).
  • Responsible burning of wastepaper may be better for the environment than collection in remote areas of low supply density. Attempts to reach a 100% collection rate would not only be fruitless but also produce unintended negative effects, such as increased carbon emissions associated with the additional transportation needed to collect fiber. However, this relationship may change depending on changing prices for oil and fiber.
  • Recycling can be part of a sustainable procurement policy in several ways. Apart from purchasing specifications for recycled content, a company may also set targets for increasing the proportion of recycled content in its products and support measures for helping local governments to collect recycled fibers in sufficient amounts to meet demand. The costs for upgrading fiber quality rise rapidly when recycling rates become high.