Advanced LCA Methodology Reveals Significant Lower Environmental Impacts of Recycled Papers Compared to Virgin Fibers

By Thuy Phung

Is recycled paper really better for the planet than virgin paper? New Leaf Paper recently released a study comparing the life-cycle impacts of its 100% post-consumer recycled coated free sheet paper, Reincarnation 100, with similar papers from virgin sources. The study found that overall New Leaf’s recycled paper has significant environmental advantages, including having less than 1% of the impact on global climate change and ocean acidification, compared to virgin fiber papers (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Major reduced impacts of 100% postconsumer recycled Reincarnation 100 paper compared to its virgin counterparts. Source: New Leaf Paper.

Figure 1. Major reduced impacts of 100% postconsumer recycled Reincarnation 100 paper compared to its virgin counterparts. Source: New Leaf Paper.

The study was conducted by SCS Global Services, an internationally leading life cycle assessment (LCA) practitioner and accredited third-party certification body for many sustainability standards. It used a new LCA framework (LEO-SCS-002) designed to improve the accuracy, transparency, and comparability of LCA analyses.[1] The LEO-SCS-002 framework is in the final stages of the approval process to become a new American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard and has been proposed by a coalition of stakeholders for incorporation in the next revision of the international LCA standard (ISO‐14044).[2] The study went through a rigorous peer review process that included representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Conservatree, and the University of Wisconsin.

Methodology

The study compared the production impacts of 2,500 short tons of New Leaf’s 100% post-consumer recycled Reincarnation paper to those of three competing virgin coated papers produced at three locations: Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin; Skowhegan, Maine; and Luke, Maryland. These are referred to as the Wisconsin Rapids, Somerset, and Luke Mills respectively, and represent three of the largest integrated pulp and paper mills in North America. The study used a cradle-to-gate scope, as impacts associated with the use and end-of-life phases were found to be identical for recycled and virgin papers.

While previous LCA studies of paper products considered only 6 to 8 potential impact categories, this study considered much broader ranges of environmental and human-health issues associated with paper production. A total of 19 impact categories were assessed, including those related to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification, Land Use Ecological Impacts[3], Extracted Resource Depletion, Regional Environmental Impacts[4], Human Health Impacts, and Risk from Hazardous/Radioactive Wastes[5]. In some categories, multiple category indicators were tracked, like in the case of impacts on endangered species (115 separate species identified in the Luke Mill case).

The study calculated climate change impacts over a 20-year period, because the net warming effects of forest carbon storage loss (the main contributor to climate impacts of virgin paper production) becomes uncertain after 20 years. In addition, the study incorporated impacts from short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), including black carbon, an important forcing agent that has an outsized impact on climate change in the near term and is often excluded from LCA studies. Governments around the world are increasingly recognizing the importance of addressing SLCPs. For example, California recently released a proposed strategy to reduce these pollutants, which will form the foundation for development of regulations and incentives to accelerate SLCP emission reduction efforts.[6],[7]

Previously, LCAs of paper products also typically left out the physical disturbances to biomes and the loss of key species resulting from forest management practices and timber harvesting required for virgin paper production (Figure 2). This study assessed the ecological impacts of such practices by analyzing structural changes to specific biomes and compared them to the “undisturbed” conditions. Regarding endangered species, only those that were experiencing disturbance to habitat and/or decreases in population due to forestry activities in the biomes were considered.

Figure 2. Virgin paper production requires timber harvesting across large areas of forests, as seen in this satellite image of a site in central Maine within the fiber basket of the Somerset Mill. Left: The site in September 2007. Right: The same site in September 2013. Timber harvesting causes disturbances to the forests, resulting in forest carbon storage loss and negative impacts on biomes and key species. Source: SCS Global Services’ LCA Study. 

Figure 2. Virgin paper production requires timber harvesting across large areas of forests, as seen in this satellite image of a site in central Maine within the fiber basket of the Somerset Mill. Left: The site in September 2007. Right: The same site in September 2013. Timber harvesting causes disturbances to the forests, resulting in forest carbon storage loss and negative impacts on biomes and key species. Source: SCS Global Services’ LCA Study. 

Results

The study found that Reincarnation 100 has a high level of environmental performance for almost all impacts compared to the three competing virgin fiber papers:

  • Reincarnation 100 has lower impact levels for almost 150 impact category indicators. Most of these indicators are related to disturbances to habitat of different endangered species;
  • Reincarnation 100 has higher impact levels for only two indicators, both of which are linked to the use of non-renewable energy resources; and
  • Six indicators have mixed results, where the result is lower (or indistinguishable) for Reincarnation 100 than some integrated mills, yet higher than other mills. These mixed results are linked to human health impacts and regional environmental impacts.

Some of the key findings on the environmental advantages of Reincarnation 100 paper include:

  • Has less than one percent of the impact in terms of Global Climate Change and Ocean Acidification;
  • Uses one quarter of the water used to manufacture virgin coated paper;
  • Avoids impacts from logging on more than 100 endangered species;
  • Has no impacts on rivers or wetlands from recurring logging of large forest tracts; and
  • Avoids harvesting of at least 12,000 acres of multiple forest types.

Discussion of Key Findings

Most of the impacts of virgin paper production are due to the large number of biomes and key species impacted by logging in the fiber baskets of the integrated mills, impacts to which recycled paper production does not contribute. The trade-offs for the Reincarnation 100 product system (e.g., SO2, mercury, ground level ozone, and PM2.5 emissions and spent nuclear fuel generation) are all linked to its reliance on non-renewable sources of energy from local and regional power grids in the RFC West and MRO East eGRID subregions[8]. While the virgin fiber mills supply a large amount of their energy needs from the use of black liquor and other biomass products from timber harvest, Reincarnation 100 sources most of its energy needs from natural gas, coal, and grid electricity.

In each of the forest fiber baskets, growth rates exceed harvest rates, meaning that the biomass energy used in the virgin fiber mills are consumed in a renewable fashion. However, other impacts from virgin paper production, such as forest carbon storage loss (forests in the three virgin product system fiber baskets were found to store 10-45% less carbon than their inherent capacity), depletion of valuable wood resources, and adverse effects on ecosystems, need to be taken into consideration. Most of the global climate change impacts of virgin paper production are due to forest carbon losses (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Global climate change impacts of 2,500 short tons of Reincarnation 100 paper relative to three virgin fiber alternatives. (Top: results and uncertainty shown using whisker plot; Bottom: contribution analysis). Source: SCS Global Services’ LCA Study. 

Figure 3. Global climate change impacts of 2,500 short tons of Reincarnation 100 paper relative to three virgin fiber alternatives. (Top: results and uncertainty shown using whisker plot; Bottom: contribution analysis). Source: SCS Global Services’ LCA Study. 

Nevertheless, there are wide differences in the impact levels of virgin paper from different mills. For example, the number of endangered species affected by logging in the fiber basket of the three mills varied from 10 to 100 due to differences in local logging practices and the condition of local forest ecosystems. This shows the importance of taking location and other site-specific factors into account when conducting LCAs.

The study faced data challenges in assessing the impacts of forestry activities on freshwater and wetland biomes. While data were available for terrestrial biomes, there was a lack of data to quantify the severity of impacts on freshwater biomes[9], which restricted the assessment to the identification of the number of sub-watersheds that could be affected in each fiber basket only. There were also no available data to classify the number, type, or extent of wetlands impacted by forestry in the fiber baskets of each integrated mill, or to characterize the severity of disturbance; as a result, no result on wetland impacts was presented. However, these do not affect the comparison between virgin paper and recycled paper, as the latter does not involve timber harvesting and thus has no negative impacts on biomes.

Although the study focuses on New Leaf’s 100% postconsumer recycled coated paper, which is used for applications such as glossy magazines and posters, its methodology can be applied to compare the life cycle impacts of other types of recycled paper versus their virgin fiber alternatives.  The study’s findings are therefore relevant to assessing the environmental trade-offs and benefits of recycled paper in general.

Ultimately, it is important to note that recycled paper was found to have higher environmental sustainability even when compared to virgin papers certified to sustainable forestry programs (all three virgin fiber mills considered have secured chain-of-custody certifications for the fiber they purchase from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)). The study thus shows that adding recycled content has significant benefits in further reducing the footprint of paper production.[10]

 

[1] New Leaf Paper Press Release. Next Generation LCA Reveals One Hundred Times Lower Impact on Global Climate for 100% PCW Recycled Coated Paper vs. Virgin. October 8, 2015. http://newleafpaper.com/press. Accessed May 20, 2016.

[2] Association of Oregon Recyclers. Webinar: Making LCA More True to Life: A New Standard Protocol to Improve Accuracy and Enable Comparability of LCA’s. March 1, 2016. http://oregonrecyclers.org/events/webinar-making-lca-more-true-life-new-standard-protocol-improve-accuracy-and-enable. Accessed May 20, 2016.

[3] Disturbances to terrestrial, freshwater, and wetland biomes and to habitat of endangered species.

[4] Regional acidification from SO2 emissions, mercury emissions, and dioxin emissions.

[5] Spent nuclear fuel generation (from grid electricity production).

[6] California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board. News Release: Air Resources Board releases proposed strategy to reduce impact of powerful climate pollutants. April 11, 2016. http://www.arb.ca.gov/newsrel/newsrelease.php?id=801. Accessed May 20, 2016.

[7]  The proposed strategy includes several actions that may be relevant to the paper industry such as reducing black carbon from mobile (diesel) fuel combustion and stationary fuel combustion.

[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Energy and the Environment. Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID). https://www.epa.gov/energy/egrid. Accessed May 20, 2016.

[9] Examples of potential impacts from forestry activities to freshwater biomes include historical and ongoing excess sediment delivery into local watercourses; physical changes in the channel shape, depth, and contour of local watercourses; and direct impacts to riparian zones which affect temperatures, canopy cover, and the presence of large woody debris.

[10] Susan Kinsella. New Life Cycle Analysis on Recycled Content Paper. University of Rochester’s The Green Dandelion Blog. November 9, 2015. http://blogs.rochester.edu/thegreendandelion/2015/11/new-life-cycle-analysis-on-recycled-content-paper. Accessed May 20, 2016.