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Is recycling paper bad for the environment? © Getty Images

Is recycling paper bad for the environment?

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In terms of deforestation, energy, and pollution, is recycling still the best way to produce paper? Either way we advocate reducing and reusing.

Asked by: Gearoid Fogerty, Tipperary


Around 35 per cent of all trees cut down are used to make paper – that’s 160,000km² of forest chopped down every year. But trees are a renewable resource and only nine per cent of the trees used for paper come from ancient forests. Recycling paper reduces the demand for trees and so fewer will be planted. And although recycling paper requires 40 per cent less energy than making it from scratch, modern paper mills normally generate their energy from burning waste wood whereas recycling plants often rely on electricity from fossil fuels. So that’s the case against.

In favour of recycling is the fact that paper mills use toxic compounds such as toluene, methanol and formaldehyde. A report by the US Environmental Protection Agency states that paper mills are among the worst polluters of any industry in the US. Recycling causes 35 per cent less water pollution and 74 per cent less air pollution than making new paper. Recycling a tonne of newspaper also eliminates 3m³ of landfill. As paper decomposes in the ground it produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. On balance it seems that recycling paper is still much better than producing it from fresh pulp.

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luis villazon
Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.


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