The Complete Guide to a Circular Economy of Paper

circular economy of paper

Although we live in a digital era, we still produce an astonishing amount of paper. Globally, paper production is at 390 million tonnes, and is expected to rise to 490 million tonnes by 2020. Unsurprisingly, massive rates of paper production requires massive amounts of natural resources. Approximately 24 trees, 300 million liters of water, and 32 million BTUs of energy are used to produce just 1 ton of paper. Clearly this has a significant environmental impact, both upstream during production and raw material sourcing, and downstream when the paper and production byproducts are disposed.

Upstream, the earth’s limited natural resources are being used up without always being renewed, while some resources, like fresh water, are not renewable in the first place. This has both environmental and economic implications: as the earth’s resources are steadily depleted, the resources needed to produce paper become scarcer, and thus more expensive. How then, will paper manufacturers manage to source the necessary inputs, both physically and financially?

Downstream, waste paper and its industrial byproducts are still largely lost to landfill or are released into the environment. These, however, are valuable resources that can be harnessed by paper manufacturers as input into future production processes, or to be sold to other industries who make use of them in other ways. But as of yet, most paper companies aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity.

A shift towards the circular economy is the way to address these concerns. Within a circular economy, materials flow in closed loops, with as little as possible leaving the system as waste. This means that resources and materials are used again and again, with one system’s waste used as another system’s resource. This way, companies can profit from turning their valueless waste into valuable resource, multiple industries around the loop are provided with a renewable and affordable supply of the resources they need, waste is kept out of the environment, and precious natural resources and ecosystems are preserved.

Infographic depicting a circular system that limits waste, regenerates natural systems, and keeps materials in use
The benefits of circular economy practices are three-fold: reduces waste, keeps products and materials in use, and regenerates natural systems. Image: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Sounds like a great system? Excited about the possibilities a circular economy of paper may hold for your business? Then read on. Treat this as your complete guide to all the circular opportunities the paper industry holds, presented to you throughout the four main phases of the circular life cycle of paper.

1 – Design

Circularity starts with design. From the get-go, manufacturers work to continuously improve paper’s structure and design to support its journey through a circular – rather than linear – economy. To achieve this, there are several elements that designers can focus on.

Longevity

Making paper products more durable in order to optimize and extend their useful life is a primary consideration – after all, a product is more valuable when it is still in its first-life form than when it has been recycled. Designing for longevity often involves rethinking the materials that paper is made out of, or the way it is physically structured, or how it reacts to the inks it will come into contact with.

Recyclability

Ensuring that the paper makes it into the recycling bin is important, but not enough. It is in the industry’s best interests to make paper easier and safer to recycle. For example, when producing colored paper, the dyes used should be those that can be easily removed by the standard bleaching agents used at recycling plants.

Furthermore, certain elements that are added to the paper by consumers, like ink and glue, may be difficult to separate from it, causing much of the paper’s fibers to be lost during recycling. This means that the amount of recycled pulp derived from used paper is not enough on its own to produce the amount of paper that we need, resulting in more virgin resources being needed to create enough pulp. This presents an opportunity for paper manufacturers to partner with the ink and glue industries, to co-design additives that are easy to separate from paper, in order to reduce these fiber losses during recycling and ultimately reduce the amount of virgin resources that are needed.

An infographic showing the loss of paper fibers during its journey from production to recycling
The flows of paper fibers from production to recycling. A considerable amount of fiber is lost throughout the cycles, causing more trees to be felled to produce enough new pulp. Industries collaborating to design additives that are easy to separate from paper can reduce this fiber loss.
Source: 
World Economic Forum

2 – Production

Any production process involves the inflow of resources and the outflow of byproducts and emissions, aside from the final product. The goal of the circular economy is to reduce net emission outflows while reducing net virgin inflows.

This means that a circular production process does not allow its byproducts and emissions to be released into our ecosystems and go to waste, but instead funnels them back into the production of a new product – be it the same product or something else entirely. Equally, in a circular production process virgin resource inputs are replaced with secondary resources, by making use of these outflowing byproducts and recycled materials.

Material Inflows

Recycling old paper into new paper is the most common inflow of secondary materials into the paper production process.

But we don’t have to wait for the paper to be recycled – the byproducts of the previous paper production process, such as cellulose pulp, can immediately be used as input for the next production cycle.

Similarly, the byproducts from other industries can also be inserted into the production process, through industrial symbiosis. In this system, the byproducts and residuals of one industry are inserted into the production process of another industry, creating closed material loops. This may be, for instance, the use of agricultural waste or residual wood chips from a furniture factory.

Despite the vast possibilities for secondary material use, the amount of secondary and recycled materials that we currently have is simply not enough to produce enough paper to keep up with demand. Some amount of virgin materials is still needed. And that’s okay, as long as the wood is sourced from replenished forests, where new trees are planted to replace the ones that are cut down.

Aside from wood pulp, water and energy are the two largest resource inputs into the papermaking process, and they also demand circularity. With the steady rise of renewable energy sources, there’s plenty of opportunity for papermills’ energy to be sourced from renewables rather than from fossil fuels. Freshwater, on the other hand, is not a renewable resource, so reusing water in multiple production cycles or sourcing it from another industry’s runoff are tactics to prevent depletion.

Material Outflows

The paper industry generates a number of material and emission outflows, such as sludge, boiler ash, and wastewater. As we’ve seen, some of these byproducts can be directly used again to make another batch of paper. But the possibilities don’t stop there – there’s a world of opportunity for paper byproducts to be used by other industries, if we just get creative enough.

To give a few examples, for many years companies in the brick industry have been dependent on leftover paper fibers and fillers to maintain their brick production volume. Meanwhile, paper sludge is extremely nutritious for plants and can be used to enhance crop productivity. And lignin, which is what glues cellulose fibers together, has been used by researchers at Linköping University to develop a CO2 neutral fuel cell.

When it comes to closing material loops, the possibilities are endless.

3 – Use and Reuse

During the use phase, the responsibility shifts from the manufacturers to the users. The mantra to follow here is minimize your use of new paper and maximize your use of the paper you already have. Before you use it, ask yourself a few questions: Do I need that many copies? Is it possible to use up both sides of the sheet? How about using scrap paper instead? Can it be done without using paper at all?

While you’re using the paper, try to use it in a way that makes it easier to reuse and recycle: avoid spilling things on it and getting it dirty; add as few materials like staples and glue to it as possible, as they are detrimental to recycling; and don’t crumple or shred it up when finished.

When using products made out of paper, such as packing paper for shipments or a cardboard cereal box, think about a way that you can make use of it again before tossing it. Some ideas are reusing cardboard boxes for storage or reusing brown packing paper for wrapping gifts. And of course, once the paper is really done being used and reused, make sure it makes it into the right recycling bin.

A decorative shelf made out of old cardboard paper
There are many ways to repurpose products made from paper.

4 – End of Life

In the circular economy, things at the end of their life aren’t seen as waste – they’re seen as a resource. Even once it’s past the point of being reusable, value can still be derived from it by breaking it down to its physical and chemical structures to generate something else of value.

Recycling

Being recycled into new paper is the ideal fate for paper that is old, discarded, or has otherwise reached the end of its life. In Europe, about 72.3% of all paper consumed is recycled, and the target is to reach 74% by 2020.

Recycling paper does much more than recover old paper. Recycling 1 ton of paper saves 17 trees, 26,000 litres of water, 2.3 mof landfill space, 320 litres of oil, and 4,100 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is enough energy to power a 3-bedroom European house for an entire year.

However, paper can only be recycled about 5-7 times, because the fibers wear out and get lost along the process. That means that down the line, the paper will become too worn out to be recycled into paper again.

It’s a good thing, then, that paper doesn’t only have to be regenerated back into paper. Various materials that paper waste is composed of can be manipulated to create something else entirely. The Cell-U-Value project, for example, takes the cellulose from paper waste and transforms it into valuable bio-based chemicals like monochloroacetic acid.

While initiatives like these hold vast environmental and economic potential, sometimes they are stunted by a lack of access to large enough quantities of paper waste that meet their needs. We at Material Trader want to be a solution for this. Our online marketplace features hundreds of listings of secondary materials – such as OCC copy paper scrap and newspaper scrap – including listings for paper, plastics, metals, and more. If you are in possession of large amounts of paper stock, offer it up for sale on our marketplace, MaterialTrader.com, to help it find its way to someone who needs it. Or if you are searching for paper waste to source your project, make a request to one of the vendors. By doing so you are making an impact towards generating a circular economy of paper.

Incineration

Finally, even when no more substances can be derived from it, paper waste can be incinerated for heat and energy production. But it still doesn’t end there – the byproducts of incineration are useful for a number of purposes. The ashes that remain can be used to bleach new batches of paper, or for soil stabilization during road construction. And the CO2 generated during incineration can be captured using carbon capturing technology and converted into substances with higher economic value, such as plastics, concrete, and biofuel, which makes contributions towards carbon neutrality.

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That was the entire circular life cycle of paper. As you’ve seen, there are numerous possibilities for circularity that you as a paper manufacturer, user, or recycler can take advantage of. The ideas are all there, all that needs to be done is to make it happen. If you are interested in becoming involved in the circular economy, contact us. Let’s get the ball rolling.

Have we missed anything? Is there something you’d like to add? Start a discussion in the comments – we can all benefit from sharing information and expertise!

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