Here at FOPAP we find this subject fascinating for a number of reasons. We have built a carbon lifecycle model that recommends the abandonment of recycling paper. Upon first reading, we expect most observers of this position will feel aghast, as it surely right to recycle, rather than chop down trees? Actually, quite the opposite is true and the government seems to have stumbled upon this fact in its recent consultation document, possibly without actually realising it.
Recycling paper relies on the validity of three pillars of thinking:
- That felling trees for paper is bad.
- That recycling paper requires fewer fossil fuel emissions.
- That paper decays in landfill quickly.
If we briefly look at these three pillars starting with: “felling trees for paper is bad.” It has long been known that a growing sapling absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere than a mature tree, which is often carbon neutral. Therefore, if we fell a mature tree (in a managed plantation) and replace it with a sapling we can potentially sequester more CO2.
Next, “recycling paper requires fewer fossil fuel emissions”. It is true that not recycling paper requires a liitle more energy, but most modern paper mills now use biomass as its energy source and many can produce paper from virgin fibre for practically no CO2 emissions. This argument was therefore valid a decade ago, but is certainly no longer the case today.
Finally, “paper decays quickly in landfill”. Therefore the logic for recycling says it is better to keep paper ‘in service’ for longer to stop the carbon getting back to the atmosphere. Remarkably, until very recently no serious attempt had ever been made to examine to what extent paper decays in landfill. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) rules guide that paper decays by 50% within 12 years. Well, the NSW Forestry Commission in Australia has been funding the excavation of landfill over the last 10 years. The scientist heading the team, a Dr. Fabiano Ximenes, summarised his teams’ findings, stating that,
“Recent experimental research and research conducted on excavated samples from landfill strongly suggest that a significant proportion of the carbon in a range of paper products can be considered to be stored for the long-term. These results indicate that paper products may play an important role in emissions trading, and also highlight the importance of using less generic decomposition factors when estimating avoided emissions from diverting paper from landfills.” That is to say, paper lasts a lot longer in landfill than previously thought. In fact, paper samples retrieved from 19 year old and 26 year old landfill sites showed no degradation at all in the paper.
The three pillars of thinking that support the abolishment of paper recycling, then, could be summed up as:
- Felling mature trees in managed plantations and replacing them with saplings sequesters more CO2 from the atmosphere that not.
- There are practically no more fossil fuel emissions to manufacture paper from virgin fibre than recycled paper.
- Paper does not decay quickly in landfill and therefore landfills act as carbon reservoirs.
In its consultation document the government states that that:
"forests and the forestry sector can help to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon in growing forests, by storing carbon in harvested wood products, by replacing fossil fuels with woodfuel and by replacing high energy products, such as concrete and steel, through more use of timber".
Isn’t that EXACTLY what abandoning recycling paper would do?