When produced where the environmental impact of producing electricity is low, and where the forest is sustainably managed, paper from fresh fibres has a lower environmental impact than paper from recycled fibres. That’s the conclusion of a new life cycle study made by IVL, Swedish Environmental Research Institute.
The study uses a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology, comparing 100% fresh fibre-based paper produced at Holmen Paper in Sweden with 100% recycled-based paper produced with German production conditions. The study shows that paper based on fresh fibre has a lower environmental impact than recycled paper, not least when it comes to emissions. The study was also subject to a third-party review.
“In Holmen, we are extremely focused on sustainability and it’s vital to know that when we embarked on this journey, we were studying our own environmental impact and were in no way interested in discrediting recycled paper. But the key findings in this study are very important because it shows that the general misconception that recycled paper is better for the climate is in fact wrong”, says Lars Lundin, CEO at Holmen Paper.
An important variable in the findings of the study is the energy mix. Producing paper from fresh wood resources requires more energy than paper produced from recycled resources. However, the study shows that if low-emission renewable energy resources are used for fresh fibre production, the environmental effects can be significantly reduced. One reason the Swedish scenario does so well is that the Swedish electricity mix has a lower environmental impact compared to the German.
“The study shows that paper from fresh fibres has a lower environmental impact in several aspects. When comparing climate impact, eutrophication and acidification the difference between fresh and recycled fibres is significant in favour for the fresh fibre, despite higher energy consumption”, says Håkan Stripple from the Swedish Environmental Research Institute.
Fresh fibre is also essential for the whole recycling process. The cellulose fibres in paper cannot be recycled more than about 5-7 times. After that, the fibre quality is so low you can no longer use it to produce paper. Therefore, the addition of fresh fibre is vital for the paper recycling process.
“To combat climate change, we need to lower our emissions and replace fossil-based materials. All paper is renewable, degradable and climate-smart, but we need to acknowledge the fact that paper from fresh fibres is, in many cases, better for the climate and an essential prerequisite for recycled paper”, concludes Lars Lundin.
The Whitepaper “Environmental benefits of fresh fibre” is available to download at www.holmen.com