Question mark remains over paper recycling

Recycling paper and cardboard seems to make sense from a purely environmental point of view, but the arguments are less clear cut when social and economic influences are taken into account, according to the European Environment Agency.

Unlike most other recyclables, replacing waste paper and cardboard with virgin material is not inherently unsustainable – it is possible to grow and pulp new trees while the waste can biodegrade without too many problems.

With this in mind the EEA conducted a report to see if all high-quality studies looking at the disposal of paper and card within the EU came to the same conclusion – and discovered they did not.

The agency took nine studies that made a life cycle analysis (LCA) of the paper and cardboard, based on natural sciences and the environmental impacts of a product from “cradle to grave”.

Another nine studies were also reviewed, this time based on a cost benefit analysis (CBA) which used what the agency terms ‘welfare economics’ in an attempt to place a monetary value on the environmental and social impacts of a policy, and add them to its commercial costs.

All nine of the LCA studies concluded that recycling was the best bet from an environmental perspective, as did five of the CBA studies.

The remaining four were, however, split over burning or binning, with two saying incineration was the most environmentally-sensitive thing you can do with waste paper and the other two claiming that over all landfill came out tops as the eco-friendly option.

The EEA report suggests the results of the reports – which it assessed for quality before reviewing them – could be a little shaky, however, as often a single factor such as the time individuals spend on recycling can have a major influence on the final conclusion.

“This, and the limited number of studies, makes it impossible to draw any firm conclusions from the CBA studies on what is the preferable option for waste paper management,” says the report.

“The outcome of the studies depends a lot on the implicit assumptions made. Furthermore, while LCA methodology is fairly well developed, there is not yet a generally accepted methodology for CBA studies.

“This of course complicates comparisons. Also, LCA studies tend to be less bound to national geographical limitations than CBA studies, though they do attempt to say something more general.

“When offered to policy makers as a support for their decision-making, it is important that they are made aware of such limitations.”

The report, Paper and cardboard – recovery or disposal? concludes that neither LCAs or CBAs are going to offer the full picture and it is worth listening to what both have to offer before deciding which strategy is best to follow.

Sam Bond

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