Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Limited climate benefits of global recycling of pulp and paper


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1.

    Geissdoerfer, M., Savaget, P., Bocken, N. M. P. & Hultink, E. J. The circular economy – a new sustainability paradigm? J. Clean. Prod. 143, 757–768 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Kirchherr, J., Reike, D. & Hekkert, M. Conceptualizing the circular economy: an analysis of 114 definitions. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 127, 221–232 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Van Ewijk, S. Resource efficiency and the circular economy: concepts, economic benefits, barriers, and policies (University College London, 2018);

  4. 4.

    McDowall, W. et al. Circular economy policies in China and Europe. J. Ind. Ecol. 21, 651–661 (2017).

  5. 5.

    Closing the Loop — an EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy COM/2015/0614 final (European Commission, 2015).

  6. 6.

    Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and Business Rationale for an Accelerated Transition (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013).

  7. 7.

    Allwood, J. M., Ashby, M. F., Gutowski, T. G. & Worrell, E. Material efficiency: a white paper. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 55, 362–381 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Ghisellini, P., Cialani, C. & Ulgiati, S. A review on circular economy: the expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems. J. Clean. Prod. 114, 11–32 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Korhonen, J., Honkasalo, A. & Seppälä, J. Circular economy: the concept and its limitations. Ecol. Econ. 143, 37–46 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Bocken, N. M. P., Olivetti, E. A., Cullen, J. M., Potting, J. & Lifset, R. Taking the circularity to the next level: a special issue on the circular economy. J. Ind. Ecol. 21, 476–482 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Cullen, J. M. Circular economy: theoretical benchmark or perpetual motion machine? J. Ind. Ecol. 21, 483–486 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Van Ewijk, S., Park, J. Y. & Chertow, M. R. Quantifying the system-wide recovery potential of waste in the global paper life cycle. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 134, 48–60 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Van Ewijk, S., Stegemann, J. A. & Ekins, P. Global life cycle paper flows, recycling metrics, and material efficiency. J. Ind. Ecol. 22, 686–693 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    World Energy Balances (IEA, accessed 23 February 2017);

  15. 15.

    IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2016 (OECD, 2016);

  16. 16.

    Miner, R. & Perez-Garcia, J. The greenhouse gas and carbon profile of the global forest products industry. For. Prod. J. 57, 80–90 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Allwood, J. M., Cullen, J. M. & Milford, R. L. Options for achieving a 50% cut in industrial carbon emissions by 2050. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 1888–1894 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Impact of the Global Forest Industry on Atmospheric Greenhouse Gases FAO Forestry Paper No. 159 (FAO, 2010).

  19. 19.

    Subak, S. & Craighill, A. The contribution of the paper cycle to global warming. Mitig. Adapt. Strateg. Glob. Chang. 4, 113–136 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Real GDP Long-term Forecast (OECD, accessed 1 September 2017);

  21. 21.

    United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables Working Paper ESA/P/WP.241 (United Nations, 2015).

  22. 22.

    Forestry Production and Trade (FAO, accessed 20 September 2016).

  23. 23.

    Exploring the Potential for Adopting Alternative Materials to Reduce Marine Plastic Litter (United Nations Environment Programme, 2017).

  24. 24.

    Clarke, L. E. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) Ch. 6 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  25. 25.

    Merrild, H., Damgaard, A. & Christensen, T. H. Life cycle assessment of waste paper management: the importance of technology data and system boundaries in assessing recycling and incineration. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 52, 1391–1398 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Documentation for Greenhouse Gas Emission and Energy Factors Used in the Waste Reduction Model (WARM) (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2015).

  27. 27.

    Schmidt, J. H., Holm, P., Merrild, A. & Christensen, P. Life cycle assessment of the waste hierarchy — a Danish case study on waste paper. Waste Manag. 27, 1519–1530 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Pan, Y. et al. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333, 988–993 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    FAO assessment of forests and carbon stocks, 1990–2015: reduced overall emissions, but increased degradation (FAO, 2015).

  30. 30.

    Köhl, M. et al. Changes in forest production, biomass and carbon: results from the 2015 UN FAO global forest resource assessment. For. Ecol. Manag. 352, 21–34 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Geist, H. J. & Lambin, E. F. Proximate causes and underlying driving forces of tropical deforestation: tropical forests are disappearing as the result of many pressures, both local and regional, acting in various combinations in different geographical locations. BioScience 52, 143–150 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Lewis, S. L., Edwards, D. P. & Galbraith, D. Increasing human dominance of tropical forests. Science 349, 827–832 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Heath, L. S. et al. Greenhouse gas and carbon profile of the U.S. forest products industry value chain. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 3999–4005 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Villanueva, A. & Wenzel, H. Paper waste — recycling, incineration or landfilling? A review of existing life cycle assessments. Waste Manag. 27, S29–S46 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Finnveden, G. & Ekvall, T. Life-cycle assessment as a decision-support tool — the case of recycling versus incineration of paper. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 24, 235–256 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Laurijssen, J., Marsidi, M., Westenbroek, A., Worrell, E. & Faaij, A. Paper and biomass for energy? The impact of paper recycling on energy and CO2 emissions. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 54, 1208–1218 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Tracking Industrial Energy Efficiency and CO2 Emissions (IEA, 2007).

  38. 38.

    Jepsen, D. & Tebert, C. Best available techniques in the printing industry: German background paper for the BAT-Technical Working GroupSurface treatment using organic solvents” organised by the European IPPC Bureau (Institut für Ökologie und Politik GmbH, 2003).

  39. 39.

    Carbon dioxide intensities of fuels and electricity for regions and countries (IPCC, 2008);

  40. 40.

    World - Electricity/heat supply and consumption, 1960–2014 (IEA, accessed 23 February 2017);

  41. 41.

    CO2 Emissions From Fuel Combustion 2015 (IEA, accessed 23 February 2017);

  42. 42.

    Pipatti, R. & Svardal, P. in 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (eds Eggleston, H. S. et al.) Ch. 3 (IPCC, IGES, 2006).

  43. 43.

    Macknick, J. Energy and CO2 emission data uncertainties. Carbon Manag. 2, 189–205 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Wiesenthal, T. et al. Technology Learning Curves for Energy Policy Support (Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, 2012);

  45. 45.

    Neij, L. Use of experience curves to analyse the prospects for diffusion and adoption of renewable energy technology. Energy Policy 25, 1099–1107 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Krawiec, F., Thornton, J. & Edesess, M. Investigation of Learning and Experience Curves (United States Department of Energy, Office of Scientific and Technical Information, 1980).

  47. 47.

    Weiss, M., Junginger, M., Patel, M. K. & Blok, K. A review of experience curve analyses for energy demand technologies. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change 77, 411–428 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Brucker, N., Fleiter, T. & Plötz, P. What about the long term? Using experience curves to describe the energy-efficiency improvement for selected energy-intensive products in Germany. In ECEEE Industrial Summer Study Proc. 341–352 (2011).

  49. 49.

    Ramírez, C. A. & Worrell, E. Feeding fossil fuels to the soil: an analysis of energy embedded and technological learning in the fertilizer industry. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 46, 75–93 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Global Mitigation of Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases: 2010–2030 Report No. EPA-430-R-13-011 (United States Environmental Agency, 2013).

  51. 51.

    IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014);

Download references

Author information




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.

Ethics declarations

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.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

van Ewijk, S., Stegemann, J.A. & Ekins, P. Limited climate benefits of global recycling of pulp and paper. Nat Sustain 4, 180–187 (2021).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing