Virgin versus Recycled office paper

G Magazine

What's the more environment-friendly office paper choice?

trees logged

Whether it's recycled or virgin paper you're using, keep an eye out for the logo above, indicating Forest Stewardship Council certification.

Credit: Wikimedia

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The most comprehensive analysis of office paper was carried out in 1995 by researchers at Duke University in the US in collaboration with the American non-profit organisation Environmental Defence Fund (available here).

For virgin paper, they examined the environmental costs of tree harvest, transport, debarking and woodchipping, the manufacture of paper from virgin fibres, and collection, transport and disposal of the paper after use.

For 100 per cent recycled, they considered the costs of collection, transport and processing of used paper, and the manufacture of paper from recovered fibres.

Energy and emissions

Producing a tonne of virgin paper, the researchers said, gobbles nearly twice as much energy (45,600 megajoules per tonne [MJ/t]) as recycled paper (24,800 MJ/t), but this alone doesn't tell the whole story.

Biofuels produced as a by-product of the virgin papermaking process can be used on-site to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. As such, recycled paper ends up consuming more energy derived from fossil fuels (19,600 MJ/t compared to 18,100 MJ/t).

Despite this, recycled paper creates only a fraction of the greenhouse gases of virgin paper (1,790 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per tonne [kg/t] compared with 7,200 kg/t) when you look at the papers over their whole life cycle. This is due to waste paper decomposing in landfill and releasing methane - a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.


Precious water is also used in the manufacture of paper to break down the raw material: 'slushing' waste paper uses much less water than 'pulping' wood.

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