What can we do with waste paper

Paper manufacture, paper consumption and the consequences for the environment

In international comparison, paper consumption in Germany is very high. Almost 250 kilograms of paper per capita were used in 2016, including cardboard and paperboard. This is based on the statistics of the Association of German Paper Mills. The EU average in the same year was only 160 kilograms, and in China, for example, consumption was around 77 kilograms.

At the same time, paper production is associated with pollution, especially when fresh paper fibers are extracted from wood. For this, trees are felled and a very high use of water, energy and chemicals is necessary.

How is paper used?

Paper is used in many areas. 90 percent of the paper has a short lifespan - it is only used once or only for a short time. The most important areas of application and the corresponding shares in paper consumption in 2017 were:

  • Graphic papers (for printing or for writing on and copying; for example, for press products, for advertising or for offices) (35.6 percent),
  • Packaging (51.5 percent),
  • Hygiene papers (6.6 percent),
  • Special papers, for example receipts or coffee filters (6.3 percent).

The proportion of graphic paper has decreased in recent years, while the proportion of paper and cardboard for packaging purposes has increased significantly.

In Germany, a large proportion of paper is already made from waste paper, which is much more environmentally friendly. The share was 75 percent in 2016. However, the proportion of recovered paper in the paper products used is not as high as the proportion of recovered paper in the products manufactured in Germany. Germany exports more than half of its recycled paper products (such as packaging paper) and imports paper made from fresh fibers in other areas. Even more waste paper could be used in these areas, for example for office and hygiene paper. The latter include, for example, toilet paper and paper tissues. Only every tenth exercise book sold in Germany is made from recycled paper.

How is papermaking related to environmental pollution?

The overall environmental impact of paper consumption in Germany is considerable. On the one hand, large amounts of paper are consumed and, on the other hand, large amounts of wood, water, energy and chemicals are used in production. The paper industry is one of the five most energy-intensive sectors in Germany.

Paper is made of wood fibers that have been mixed with chemicals to improve the properties and quality of the paper. Why paper production pollutes the environment becomes clear when you take a closer look at the production process.

The wood fibers are obtained either from fresh wood or from waste paper using chemical or mechanical processes.

In order to produce wood-free paper, pulp is first made from the wood. To do this, the bark is removed and the wood is chopped into wood chips. The fibers are then removed from the wood by boiling in sulphurous lye or acid. During the cooking process, the lignin contained in the wood is almost completely removed. Lignin is the "putty" that holds the wood fibers together.

The pulp is then pressed into paper and dried. The finished paper is wound on rolls or cut into sheets and bundled.

This manufacturing process is very water-intensive. Among other things, water is needed to remove the fibers and for cleaning purposes. The wastewater from paper and pulp mills is usually very polluted.

Paper production is also energy-intensive. As much energy is required to produce a ton of paper from fresh wood fibers as it is to produce a ton of steel. It is true that the energy required to produce a ton of paper has fallen sharply over the past few decades. But overall energy demand has increased as production has increased. For example, CO increased between 1995 and 20082-Emissions from 14.1 to 18.5 million tons.

How does papermaking affect forests?

Every fifth tree that is felled in the world ends up in papermaking.

Most of the forests in Germany are managed sustainably. However, around 80 percent of the raw materials used for paper production in Germany come from other countries. 40 percent of the pulp used in German paper mills comes from Scandinavia. Finland in turn imports some of the wood from Russia, where primeval forests are also felled.

Tropical regions are also affected. For example, Germany imports almost a quarter of its pulp from Brazil. The jungle there is shrinking dramatically, and a large part of the wood is illegally felled. The use of cellulose in Germany contributes to the global destruction of forests.

In order to meet the demand, plantations with fast-growing tree species such as eucalyptus are increasingly being created in some regions. However, the resulting monocultures damage the soil, among other things. In many places, land rights of the local people are also violated.

Felling damages or destroys ecosystems that fulfill important functions for humans and nature. For example, forests accommodate a large part of the earth's biological diversity and bind the greenhouse gas CO2 and stabilize the climate (more in the topic of the week "This is what forests do".

What can recycling do to reduce environmental pollution?

A look at the production chain shows why recycled papers have a better environmental balance. Since the fibers required for the production of paper are obtained from waste paper, no wood has to be felled again.

The waste paper is broken down and the fibers are cleaned - for example, printing inks have to be removed. This is known as deinking (English for: removing "ink" or printing ink).

This manufacturing process requires up to 70 percent less water and up to 60 percent less energy. The specific values ​​depend on the respective manufacturing process, which differs, for example, depending on the type of paper.

However, it does not work entirely without wood and fresh fibers. Because fibers are lost when recovered paper is processed and the quality of the fibers declines. That's why fresh fibers have to be added again and again. A maximum proportion of 80 percent recovered paper in the entire paper cycle is technically possible.

Depending on the quality of the waste paper, it can be used to make recycled paper for all purposes, including white printing paper. Waste paper of poorer quality can also be used, for example for packaging and cardboard. Because here, for example, the brightness is mostly irrelevant.

What can consumers do?

Consumers can do a lot to reduce the environmental impact of paper consumption. This includes buying recycled paper, the correct disposal of waste paper and the conscious, economical use of paper.

Pay attention to recycled paper when shopping

Recycled papers are available for almost every purpose. Printer paper and exercise books as well as hygiene papers such as toilet paper and kitchen roll are made from recycled paper.

However, in some areas the proportion of recycled paper is still low - for example in office paper. And in the case of hygiene papers, the proportion of recycled paper has even fallen, while consumption has increased overall. Consumers can take direct action with these types of paper in particular.

Recycled paper can be marked with various labels in stores. However, only the "Blue Angel" seal is convincing, according to the Federal Environment Agency. The "Blue Angel" designates paper that consists of 100 percent recycled paper. In addition, chlorine and other harmful chemicals must not be used in production. At the same time, the paper must meet high quality requirements. The so-called paper finder provides information on where paper products with the Blue Angel are available.

Other labels are less helpful from an environmental point of view. The FSC and PEFC labels do not necessarily identify recycled paper. Rather, they stand for wood from sustainable forestry. The label "FSC Mix" can often be found in stores. "Mix" only means that 70 percent of the fibers come from FSC-certified forests or waste paper. As a rule, they do not contain any waste paper. The remaining 30 percent do not have to come from certified forests. There is also an FSC recycling seal. But the requirements are lower than those for the "Blue Angel". This applies to the use of chemicals, for example. "PEFC" is also a label for the origin of the wood, not a label for recycled paper.

In addition, some papers are marked with the EU Ecolabel. With the exception of newsprint, they too do not necessarily contain waste paper. And the requirements for the origin of the wood are not sufficient to ensure sustainable forest management.

Use paper sparingly and separate waste

The separate disposal of paper in the waste paper container or in the so-called blue bin also helps to reduce environmental pollution. Because that's how it can be recycled. If you want to do more, you can use paper sparingly. One of the options is to cancel catalogs and advertising, to avoid unnecessary printouts and to use both pages if possible.

Related Links

Federal Environment Agency: paper and printed matter

Federal Environment Agency: Paper - Protecting forests and the climate

Blue Angel: school and campaign materials

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