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Credit: Chris Jordan


Recycled Paper

Photographer Chris Jordan created a mandala in 2011 from 9,600 mail order catalogs. It represents the number of catalogs printed, shipped, and delivered every three seconds, 97 percent of which are disposed of the day they arrive. This is part of a larger series titled “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait.” This piece is called Three Second Meditation.

Paper use globally is on the rise, particularly for packaging materials. Roughly half of paper is used once and then sent to the proverbial scrap heap. But the other half is recovered and repurposed. In some places, that recovery rate reaches 75 percent. Bringing the world up to that level can reduce emissions of the paper industry, estimated to be as high as 7 percent annually.

Recycling makes paper’s journey circular, rather than a straight line from logging to landfill. Instead of relying on fresh timber to feed the pulping process—and releasing carbon with each tree cut—recycled paper draws on existing material, either discarded before reaching a consumer’s hands or, ideally, after serving its intended purpose. Instead of releasing methane as it decomposes in a landfill, wastepaper finds new life.

Once recovered, used paper is shredded, pulped, cleaned, and rid of contaminants. It can then be made into any number of products, from office paper to newsprint to toilet paper rolls. A particular piece of paper can be reprocessed roughly five to seven times, before fibers are no longer viable. In addition to curbing emissions, recycled paper spares forests and reduces water use.


paper use…on the rise: Nordström, Per-Ove, and Glen O’Kelly. “Tighter Recycled Fiber Markets: Softwood Strikes Back!” McKinsey on Paper, no. 3, 2013; Poyry. Future from Fibre: From Forest to Finished Product. Gland, Switzerland: World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 2012.

half [of paper] is recovered: Nordström and O’Kelly, “Markets.”

Northern Europe…recovery rate: Hansen, Eric, Rajat Panwar, and Richard Vlosky. The Global Forest Sector: Changes, Practices, and Prospects. CRC Press, 2013.

South Korea…recovery rate: WWF. Living Forest Report. Chapter 4. Gland, Switzerland: World Wide Fund for Nature, 2012.

emissions of the paper industry: EEPN. “Paper Vapour: The Climate Impact of Paper Consumption.” Lochinver, Scotland: European Environmental Paper Network, 2013.

piece of paper…reprocessed: Nordström and O’Kelly, “Markets.”

jobs and…economic value: R.W. Beck, Inc. U.S. Recycling Economic Information Study. National Recycling Coalition, 2001; Tellus Institute. From Waste to Jobs: What Achieving 75 Percent Recycling Means for California. New York: Natural Resources Defense Council, 2014.

emissions [vs.] virgin [paper]: EEPN, “Paper Vapour.”

study [of emissions]: EEPN, “Paper Vapour.”

life cycle assessment: Schultz, Tobias. Life Cycle Assessment of Reincarnation 100 Coated Freesheet Paper, Compared to Virgin Paper Baseline. Emeryville, CA: SCS Global Services, 2015.

view all book references

Technical Summary

Recycled Paper

Project Drawdown defines recycled paper as: the increased recovery and reprocessing of used paper into paper products. This solution replaces the use of virgin paper feedstocks.

Recycled paper is a form of paper that is made, at least in part, of paper, fiber, or pulp that has been re-processed after usage, disposal, and recovery. Conventional, or virgin, paper is produced through chemical or mechanical processes that utilize virgin tree pulp fibers. Processing recycled paper content involves processes such as sorting, shredding, hydropulping, and deinking, whereas conventional paper involves distinct steps such as harvesting, debarking, chipping, and mechanical or chemical pulping. Both production processes use energy and emit greenhouse gases as a result, but starting with a recovered paper feedstock uses less energy and results in lower greenhouse gas emissions.      


To arrive at the results for mitigation impact and financial considerations for recycled paper, Drawdown first needed to calculate a forecast for total paper production from 2014-2050 (in million metric tons), then determine the current adoption [1] of recycled paper, forecast future adoption scenarios of recycled paper for that period, derive an emissions mitigation value per million metric tons of recycled paper produced, and calculate the emissions mitigated and costs in comparison to a Reference Scenario that keeps adoption of recycled paper at its current percentage of global paper adoption.

Total Addressable Market [2]

The total addressable market for paper was measured using data from industry and academic research. The primary data source is the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and some regions’ projected markets are based on statistical consulting company RISI, Inc.'s paper production projections through 2030. RISI’s statistics were not always aligned with FAO’s data; thus, other sources, including the Confederation of European Paper Industry (CEPI), Buongiorno’s Global Forest Projection Models, and more were used and averaged. The annual growth/decline rates of each region were extrapolated through to 2050.

The current global recycled paper production rate is around 55%, with Western Europe leading with nearly 75% (primarily due to established infrastructure in Scandinavian countries) and India, Eastern Europe, China, and other Asian and Middle Eastern regions trailing (Buongiorno et al. 2003).

Adoption Scenarios [3]

Custom adoption scenarios for recycled paper were created by taking regional and global data prognostications as current growth rates for recycling. Western Europe’s recovery rate of 75% is considered to the feasible maximum of paper recycling currently. If every region were to adopt a 75% adoption path, this would be considered an optimistic yet plausible scenario.

Impacts of increased adoption of industrial recycling from 2020-2050 were generated based on three growth scenarios, which were assessed in comparison to the Reference Scenario mentioned above.

  • Plausible Scenario: Based on the low-growth-trend best fit analysis of the custom adoption scenarios, the production of 621 million metric tons of recycled paper is assumed in 2050, which is 67% of the market. The low was chosen due to the highly uncertain nature of the paper market beyond 2030, especially in emerging markets.
  • Drawdown Scenario: Here, adoption is accelerated after 2020 to the high-growth-trend best fit line and then capped at 85% of the market, or 720 million metric tons of recycled paper. A lower market for recycled paper is also chosen to reflect the integrated waste generation metrics from an integrated measure of global waste and its composition, including all Drawdown solutions.
  • Optimum Scenario: This scenario assumes 747 million metric tons of recycled paper in 2050, or 88% of the same market used in the Drawdown Scenario.

Emissions Model

Climate inputs analyzed included direct and indirect carbon dioxide emissions for recycled and conventional paper products. The unit of measure was metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent produced per metric ton of paper produced. Data from outside North America, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Europe was not available for emissions calculation. Emissions due to paper manufacturing process are analyzed as direct emissions. Emissions from all other life cycle stages of virgin and recycled paper production are analyzed as indirect emissions.

Life cycle analyses trace the amount of emissions from a product’s ‘cradle to grave’. Emissions could be attributed to the initial timber harvest, or to the processing, transportation, consumption, and disposal stages. Some sources attempted to trace these emissions through every process, while others only measured emissions at the manufacturing stage, i.e. when mills receive pulp and then process it to produce recycled or virgin paper. Modeling emissions associated with paper and paper-making, such as deforestation or carbon sequestered as a result of recycled paper, was outside the scope of the analysis.

Financial Model

Financial research focused on the first costs of purchasing paper by the consumer. In this case, the agent considered was a US-based paper consumer, and the first costs were those that an individual would face when purchasing recycled rather than conventional paper products. Due to the variety of paper products and the differences in grades and qualities, several assumptions had to be made in order to conduct a financial analysis. Facing a lack of available industry data, research was conducted via a market spot-check price comparison. A single type of paper – uncoated office/copy paper – was considered as an appropriate primary price marker. Different types of paper were added to proportionally reflect a more accurate price.


The total carbon dioxide-equivalent reductions that can be achieved from 2020-2050 in the Plausible scenario are 0.9 gigatons, with a cumulative first cost of production of US$6,846 billion and a net cost of US$573 billion. [4] The Drawdown and Optimum Scenarios both show a mitigation of 2.5 gigatons from 2020-2050.


Recycled paper directly emits, on average, 0.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent less per metric ton produced than virgin paper; thus, it is a climate reduction solution to be considered. Global paper production and consumption is predicted to rise globally, especially in emerging economies where paper and packaging is in high demand. However, several developed economies are gradually reducing their paper production and consumption rates. This is due to decreasing stocks of virgin source materials, as well as decreased demand due to the substitution of electronic media, especially in its role of replacing newsprint. The growth of electronic media will play a very important part in the paper industry’s growth or decline in the future. The potential for recycled paper as a material reduction solution depends on the growth of the paper market globally, as well as on a change in consumer preferences and a decrease in cost.

[1] Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand supplied by the solution in the base year of study. This study uses 2014 as the base year due to the availability of global adoption data for all Project Drawdown solutions evaluated.

[2] For more on the Total Addressable Market for the Materials Sector, click the Sector Summary: Materials link below.

[3] For more on Project Drawdown’s three growth scenarios, click the Scenarios link below. For information on Materials Sector-specific scenarios, click the Sector Summary: Materials link.

[4] All monetary values are presented in US2014$.

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