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Limited climate benefits of global recycling of pulp and paper

Abstract

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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Fig. 1: GHG emissions from the global paper life cycle in 2012.
Fig. 2: Projections of per capita global paper demand.
Fig. 3: Current and circular use of materials.
Fig. 4: Emissions in 2012 and in 2050 for the three main scenarios (reference, middle and maximum).
Fig. 5: The drivers of paper life cycle emissions.
Fig. 6: Breakdown of emission savings attributable to circularity.

Data availability

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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Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

S.v.E. designed the model, analysed the results and drafted the manuscript; J.A.S. and P.E. contributed to the model design and analysis, and revised the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stijn van Ewijk.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Paper life cycle system.

Incineration refers to Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) incineration with or without energy recovery. Other recovery refers to material recovery except paper recycling.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Options for meeting energy demand.

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.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Projection for the carbon intensity of electricity and 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).

Source data

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–10, Notes 1 and 2, and references.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Emissions from the paper life cycle.

Source Data Fig. 2

Paper demand projections.

Source Data Fig. 3

Material balance.

Source Data Fig. 4

Emission projections for main scenarios.

Source Data Fig. 5

Scenario comparison.

Source Data Fig. 6

Breakdown of scenario comparison.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 3

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

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