Recycling consumes energy

Anything but garbage and absolutely valuable

Paper is a special raw material. There is smooth paper for writing or clearly visible structured surfaces, hygiene paper such as toilet paper and kitchen rolls, or cardboard and cardboard boxes. In Germany there are around 3,000 different types of paper, it is very versatile.

With paper recycling, the waste paper is dissolved with water, the non-paper substances (staples) are sorted out. The colors are removed with the help of chemical processes. The so-called "pulp" is then bleached and processed into paper. The multiple use of paper fibers contributes to environmental protection. Because if waste paper is used to produce new paper, the wood (to produce the fibers in primary fiber paper) can remain in the forest. However, recycled paper has other advantages: According to the Federal Environment Agency, it saves around 60% of the energy and 70% of water compared to the production of primary fiber paper.

The separate collection of waste paper has existed in Germany for many years. We Germans are at the fore when it comes to paper recycling. This applies above all to packaging made of paper: A full 99.8% of all packaging made of paper, cardboard and cardboard (PPK for short) is recycled in Germany, according to the Society for Packaging Market Research.

The Recovery rate has increased steadily over the past few years. While in 1990 we still used 40.2% of the waste paper from end consumers in production, in 2018 it was a full 86.6%. (Source: Verband Deutscher Papierfabriken e.V., Paper 2020, performance report). This increase continuously reduced the consumption of wood, water and primary energy per ton of paper. But even if the recycling rate is steadily improving, the consumption of paper and cardboard has risen sharply in recent years. This is to a large extent a consequence of the increasing online trade in connection with the trend towards sustainable, paper-based packaging.

Recycled paper vs. primary fiber paper

It is not possible to give an exact value for water and energy consumption as well as wastewater pollution and emissions of the entire paper and pulp industry. Every type of paper, every factory has different production standards and therefore different values. Nevertheless, it is clear that the paper industry in Germany ranks third in terms of energy consumption after the metal and chemical industries. Not surprisingly, because the production of one ton of primary or fresh fiber paper (no use of waste paper) requires exactly as much energy as the production of one ton of steel.

The comparison between recycled paper and primary fiber paper shows the clear differences in the environmental impact: While “only” 15 liters of water are used in the production of one kilogram of recycled paper, the figure for primary paper is as much as 50 liters. In terms of energy consumption, primary paper also does poorly: 2 kWh of energy are required for one kilogram of recycled paper, and 5.5 kWh for primary fiber paper. This high value is mainly due to the processing of the non-fibrous components of around 2.2 kilograms of wood. With the savings of the aforementioned 3 KWh when buying a kilogram of recycled paper instead of primary paper, so much energy can be saved that you could make around 210 cups of coffee with it.

Water consumption for the production of 1 kg of paper in liters

Source: Federal Environment Agency (2011): Brochure “Paper. Protecting forests and the climate ”, p. 16

The fiber basis for the production of one kilogram of recycled paper is 1.2 kilograms of waste paper. Primary paper is based on fibers from around one kilogram of fibrous components (cellulose), which in turn comes from 2.2 kilograms of wood. By doing without primary paper in a package with 500 sheets of paper (approx. 2.5 kg) for the in-house printer, 5.5 kg of wood can be saved. Converted to a large company that uses, for example, a pallet of paper (approx. 10,000 sheets with a weight of 500 kilograms), around two mature trees with an average weight of 550 kilograms can be preserved with recycled paper.

The use of waste paper in paper production is a very important contribution to climate protection. The multiple use of paper fibers protects trees, saves energy and water.


Per capita consumption in Germany

We Germans use around 20 million tons of paper every year. According to the Association of German Paper Mills, we Germans collectively use as much paper as the continents of South America and Africa combined. Despite the advancing digitization of all areas of life, per capita consumption is increasing. In 2011 that was around 235 kilograms per year. In 2018 it was 250 kilograms per head - for kitchen rolls, paper cups, advertising brochures, printer paper, handkerchiefs and much more. The global average is around 57 kilograms. Only China, the USA and Japan use more paper. This comparison shows that we need to significantly reduce our consumption.

The 5 largest consumer countries of PPK
(2018 in million tons)

The use of waste paper

In Germany, 20 million tons of paper were used in 2018. Private and municipal waste disposal companies collected around 15.1 million tons of waste paper in the same year. This results in a waste paper return rate of approx. 76 percent.

German industry produced almost 22.1 million tons of paper in 2019. This is an increase of 2.1 million tons compared to 2018. In doing so, it used a total of 17.2 million tons of recovered paper. In terms of the amount of recovered paper used, Germany ranks among the leaders internationally. Only China and the USA use an even higher proportion of waste paper. In terms of the amount of waste paper we collect (15.1 million tons in 2018), we Germans take a top position - behind China, the USA and Japan.

The success of waste paper recycling lies in the high-quality separate collection of waste paper in paper bins or containers. The collection in the municipalities, the provision by the municipalities and private waste disposal companies and the recycling in the factories themselves is a very successful system. The response rate in 2019 makes this clear: A total of 78 percent of all paper, cardboard and cardboard produced was recycled and returned to the paper production cycle.

The recovered paper usage rates have developed very well since 2000. The use of waste paper shows clear differences between the various types of paper. For packaging, the usage rate is almost 100 percent. For other papers, such as coffee filters or hygiene papers, the waste paper usage rate is less than 50 percent.

The general consumption of raw materials in paper production fell by around 2.3 percent in 2019 compared to the previous year. The demand for wood is mainly met from within Germany. For many years, waste paper has been the most important raw material in the German paper industry in terms of volume. According to information from the Association of German Paper Mills e. V. at 66.2 percent. Pulp and other fibrous materials had a share of 16.3 percent and wood a share of only 3.7 percent.

Share of raw materials used in 2019 in percent

Source: Association of German Paper Mills e. V., Paper 2019, A Performance Report, p. 27

Saving paper is even better than recycling

Compared to primary or fresh fiber paper, the use of recycled paper is a real contribution against climate change. The best alternative, however, is a different one: the economical use of paper in general. As exemplary as we Germans are when it comes to waste paper recycling – We can improve significantly in terms of consumption. Paper is still thoughtlessly wasted today.

We all know that. When the newspaper is opened, loose advertising inserts fall out and land unseen in the waste paper. In addition to these classic print products, there are paper products such as kitchen rolls and paper napkins that make everyday life easier or more convenient. This must be prevented. Avoiding single-use paper products such as napkins can be a first step. There are many other ways to reduce paper consumption.

What can you do for optimal waste paper recycling and our environment
  • Economical consumption is still better than paper recycling.
  • Better to donate or give away books.
  • The production of paper bags is resource-intensive - it is best to use them several times or even switch to a cloth bag. It lasts even longer.
  • Use recycled paper in your printer and print on both sides.
  • Use toilet and kitchen paper made from recycled paper
  • Shred cardboard boxes so that all of your paper waste fits into the bin or container
  • Only paper that can be recycled belongs in the blue bin:
    • Coated papers (receipts) belong in the residual waste bin
    • Hygiene paper such as handkerchiefs and kitchen towels belong in the residual waste bin
Waste separation and recycling are our contribution to climate and environmental protection. Help us. Avoid rubbish, repair broken things and separate 'properly. Recycling recovers raw materials and resource conservation is climate protection.