The Negative Effects of Recycling Paper

Recycling belt
Workers separating paper and plastic at a recycling factory (Image: hroe/iStock/Getty Images)

Recycling paper saves energy, reduces pollution, preserves trees and conserves landfill space, but it is a messy process that uses caustic chemicals and produces harmful byproducts and emissions. The industry is making strides in the development of more earth-friendly techniques, but the best way to reduce paper-related pollution and energy use is to cut back on paper consumption, which will decrease the demand for new or recycled paper.

Energy Use

Although recycling paper saves 28 to 70 percent--depending on the facility--of the energy used for making virgin paper, this savings is controversial because of the type of energy used in these two processes. Paper recycling uses fossil fuels while the production process for virgin paper fiber employs waste products from timber to supply a high percentage of its energy requirements. Moreover, recycled paper is less energy-friendly than plastic. The paper bag recycling process uses 98 percent more energy than that for recycled plastic bags.

Harmful Chemicals

The paper recycling process requires the removal of inks from the used paper. Recycling facilities use different processes and the chemicals they employ range from detergents to caustic chemicals, such as chlorine. Print from copy machines and laser printers is particularly problematic because it is not really ink but rather a plastic polymer that the printer or copier burns onto the paper. Removal requires chemicals that are much more caustic than standard de-inking chemicals. Similarly, printing inks contain heavy metals and other compounds that require strong solvents.

Water Pollution

When recycling facilities remove inks from paper, the waste makes its way into the water stream. Metals from printing inks, including copper, lead, zinc, chromium and cadmium, enter the water stream. Waste water from paper recycling often contains dioxins as well, though experts are unable to determine their precise origin.

Solid Waste

Waste paper reprocessing produces a sludge that contains solids including small fibers, ink from the de-inking process and fillers. This waste, including the heavy metals from the inks, is often sent to landfills. Incineration is an alternative, but this process releases dangerous emissions, including dioxins and hydrocarbons, as well as the heavy metals from the inks. The ash that remains after incineration also is consigned to landfills.

Encouraging Consumption

Recycling programs use effective advertising to convince consumers they can help the planet by recycling their waste. This advertising, perhaps inadvertently, sends the message that consumption doesn't matter so long as you recycle what you don't use. Because recycling does create pollution, reducing consumption is the most effective way to help the environment.

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