In spite of the immense amount of scientific research and independent studies showing the economic and environmental benefits of recycled paper, some groups remain critical of paper recycling. One of the claims made by the critics is that it its more energy efficient to produce virgin paper than it is to produce recycled paper. There is a certain amount of truth to this statement, but the complexity of the issue is disserved by the simplicity of this assertion. Bottom-line: producing recycled paper uses less energy than virgin paper production overall and has a smaller impact on the environment throughout its production cycle.
Virgin Paper Production Energy Use
The claim that virgin paper production uses less energy than recycled paper production becomes less impressive once you dig into the details. What these critics really mean is that virgin paper plants use less purchased energy from the grid. This is because some virgin paper mills cogenerate their own energy using tree waste products. When a tree goes into the plant, about 23 percent of it consists of fiber that can be used to make paper. The remaining part of the tree can be burned to create energy. When virgin paper plants use this cogeneration method, they often do not count the energy produced from burning tree waste against their overall energy consumption. This is how they can claim that they use less energy than plants that produce recycling plants. Some virgin paper plants go as far as saying that they don’t use any energy at all. But using less energy from the grid isn’t the same as using less energy overall.
Paper Production by the Numbers
When you measuring how much energy is consumed during paper production, the numbers are clearly in favor of recycled paper. According to the Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator, it takes about 32 million BTUs of energy to produce 1 ton of virgin paper fiber. To produce 1 ton of recycled paper, it takes about 22 million BTUs. Without any regard to where the energy comes from, that shows that it takes 31 percent less energy to produce recycled paper. Not only that, recycled paper production releases 44 percent less greenhouse gases, produces 53 percent less wastewater and results in 39 percent less solid waste. And, of course, it uses 100 percent fewer trees.
Fossil Fuels vs. Energy from Trees
The discussion of energy consumption raises another issue that it is worth addressing. Because recycled paper plants do not cogenerate their energy, they must buy their energy from the grid. Energy served by the grid is primarily generated by burning fossil fuels, which, as we all know, has significant environmental impacts. However, there are also significant—albeit different—impacts of burning trees for fuel. Although wood is a renewable resource, natural forests are not. Harvesting wood from natural forests destroys habitats for wildlife, reduces biodiversity, affects water quality and has other impacts on natural forest ecosystems.
But more to the point, this criticism is actually directed at the energy grid, and not at paper recycling itself. There is wide agreement that the national energy grid needs to transition to more renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. As the grid becomes greener, so too will all manufacturing industries that rely on electricity from the grid—including recycled paper production.
When considering the claim that virgin paper production uses less energy than recycling paper production, it’s worthwhile to break the question down further.
Do virgin paper plants purchase less energy from the grid? Yes. Virgin paper plants burn tree waste products to cogenerate some of their energy.
Does it take more energy to produce recycled paper? No. Recycled paper production consumes 31 percent less energy than virgin paper production.
Is recycled paper better for the environment? Yes. When you look at the cumulative impact of recycled paper production versus virgin paper production, the numbers make it clear. Recycled paper conserves natural forests, fresh water, landfill space and energy while releasing less greenhouse gases.