A circular economy is expected to achieve sustainability goals through efficient and circular use of materials. Waste recycling is an important part of a circular economy. However, for some materials, the potential environmental benefits of recycling are unclear or contested. Here, we focus on the global paper life cycle, which generates 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and estimate the climate change mitigation potential of circularity. We model material use, energy use and emissions up to 2050 for various levels of waste recycling and recovery. We show that emission pathways consistent with a 2 °C global warming target require strong reductions in the carbon intensity of electricity and heat generation. We also show that additional recycling yields small or negative climate change mitigation benefits when it requires high-carbon grid electricity and displaces virgin pulping that is powered by low-carbon pulping by-products. The results indicate that circular economy efforts should carefully consider the energy implications of recycling.
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The data sets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.
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Incineration refers to Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) incineration with or without energy recovery. Other recovery refers to material recovery except paper recycling.
An increase in recycled pulping leads to a decline in virgin pulping and lower availability of virgin pulping mill waste for energy generation. In response, various fractions of demand can be met with bought electricity or bought fuels.
The scenarios correspond to annual reductions of the carbon intensity of bought electricity and bought fuels by 1.0% (standard), 2.5% (ambitious), and 6.0% (radical).
Emissions from the paper life cycle.
Paper demand projections.
Emission projections for main scenarios.
Breakdown of scenario comparison.
Carbon intensity projections.
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van Ewijk, S., Stegemann, J.A. & Ekins, P. Limited climate benefits of global recycling of pulp and paper. Nat Sustain 4, 180–187 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00624-z
Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy (2021)