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Thirdly, I am not aware of any recycling mill producing bleached pulp — which is the type of pulp used to produce fine paper, writing paper, envelopes, business cards, copying paper, most tissue, and the like — I'm not aware of any such mill that actually has zero environmental impact . It takes chemicals, energy, water, to turn recycled paper back into pulp. But I do know of virgin pulp mills that produce bleached pulp from trees that are self-sustaining, meaning their impact on the environment is zero. One is in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan and the other is in Whitecourt, Alberta, and there are more.
Here is another fact. It is impossible for the paper industry to function without virgin trees. That’s because recycled fibers have a finite life. If you keep recycling without the addition of virgin fiber from trees, the strength of the paper produced drops lower and lower and eventually simply ‘dies’. Japan and Germany are two countries that have a high recycling rate. I believe their ratio of recycled fiber to virgin pulp is about 55%; after that, the strength of the paper produced goes down and cannot be sustained.
There is a huge difference in recycling for white paper and recycling for brown paper. Recycling to produce brown paper (bags, cartons, boxes and the like) can mostly be done without chemicals and therefore can be environmentally very friendly and save trees. Recycling for white paper (like writing paper, envelopes and some magazines) is a different story.
The collection of waste paper to be recycled into new white paper is very complicated as you have to separate brown paper from white, you have to get rid of contaminants like plastics and complex inks, and you don’t want newspapers in there, nor corrugated nor other brown paper. The more undesirable material you try to recycle to produce white pulp, the more expensive and less environmentally friendly are the processes you have to deal with. By all means let’s do all we can to increase the recycling rate for brown paper, but let’s be careful when touting the role of recycling to produce white.
My last job before I retired had to do with building and overseeing the start-up of a recycling mill in Chateau Thierry, France, on the River Marne about 100 km east of Paris. My company supplied all the machinery and technology for this mill under a $100 million contract. Based on 100% recycled office waste, the mill produced great bleached pulp, but not without a lot of chemicals, and its discharge into the Marne — right in the middle of champagne country! — barely met the water quality requirements set by the French authorities.
The chemicals required to produce bleached pulp from recycled office waste would stretch the mind of most chemists — like hydrogen peroxide, oxygen, sodium hydroxide, silicate, caustic, de-inking chemicals, sludge neutralization, effluent control chemicals, and the list goes on. Sludge (mostly containing ink and ash) is another problem. In our case we had to dispose of it in a landfill, although experiments were ongoing to see if the sludge could be used for purposes other than landfill.
What made my life in the pulp and paper industry special is the fact that we served both the virgin pulp-making industry and the recycling industry. Both were important but I cannot say that recycling, especially recycling for white pulp production, had any environmental edge over virgin tree pulp-making. In fact, making pulp from trees beats the environmental constraints for recycled paper. Both have their place in the world. Recycling is great for brown, but as for white, based on the state of the technology today, leave it mostly to trees.