Technical Bulletins & Special Reports

Technical Bulletin No. 0985: Summary of the Literature on the Treatment of Paper and Paper Packaging Products Recycling in Life Cycle Assessment

A review was undertaken of methodologies used in the literature for dealing with paper recycling in life cycle assessment (LCA) studies, to provide perspective as to their strengths and weaknesses in accurately reflecting the life cycle-related characteristics of the use of recycled fibre within the overall wood fibre system. The review also incorporated an examination of the factors (e.g., energy type) that have a significant effect on the LCA results. Of the 99 candidate studies, 41 were retained for further analyses, having met several selection criteria. A series of seven overarching issues were identified, which either drive the results of recycled fibre-related LCAs, or for which there is still too much uncertainty to fully understand their potential effect on LCA results. These included 1) impact of land use and alternative usage of the forest area; 2) type of energy used during virgin and recovered fibre processing; 3) type and amount of energy displaced when burning used paper at end-of-life; 4) accuracy of modelling toxicity-related impacts; 5) assumption regarding the degree of paper degradation in landfills and the approach used for modelling of biogenic carbon dioxide; 6) selected allocation procedure for recycling, in cases where virgin and recycled fibre are compared; and 7) recycled-to-virgin fibre substitution ratio. Based on the literature reviewed in this study, the existing knowledge on LCA and paper recycling does not allow for general conclusions to be made regarding the overall environmental superiority of the use of recycled or virgin fibre for paper production.