The state of paper recycling – challenges and opportunities for a circular industry in Europe

In Europe, Fibre-based packaging is contributing to the circular biobased economy. Eighty-four point six percent of paper and board packaging is recycled

Paper – the most recycled packaging material in Europe

Actors from the paper value chain established the European Paper Recycling Council (EPRC) in November 2000 as an industry self-initiative to monitor the industry’s progress. In 2016, the delectation signatories stated their commitment to reach a seventy-four percent paper recycling rate between 2016 and 2020. Seventy-two percent of all paper and board consumed in Europe recycled in 2019, marked a zero point three percent increase from 2018 level, while paper and board consumption dropped to seventy-nine point eight million tons. Paper is the most recycled packaging material in Europe, with an eighty-four percent recycling rate.

«The paper industry is also a paper recycling industry. It started with recycling discarded textiles, and then wood fibers came into play. The industry invested in paper recycling, and since the Nineties, there has been a political push towards recycling in the form of actions such as the European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC of 20 December 1994 on packaging and packaging waste. Paper recycling is successful because it is profitable: it generates a useful secondary raw material that has a competitive advantage in costs, even compared to the virgin fibers, and allows manufacturers to produce high-quality products. Cost competitiveness is what sets paper recycling apart from other recycling processes that struggle to take hold. Plastic recycling is not as cost-effective because crude oil is less expensive than recycled plastic». Ulrich Leberle, Raw Materials Director at the Confederation of European paper industries (CEPI), explains. 

Papermaking process

Roots trace back to the Han period. In the 2nd century BCE, inventor and eunuch court official Cai Lun created a pulp solution using mulberry bark, bast fibers, fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste, inventing paper and crafting the modern papermaking process. His invention made its way to medieval Europe through Samarkand and Baghdad, arriving in Spain, where they built the first water-powered paper mills. By the 15th century, paper had replaced parchment, thanks to its affordability. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, which marked the end of hand-printing and hand-copying, ushered in the era of mass communication and aided the development of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. In 1844, Canadian inventor Charles Fenerty and German machinist Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented the papermaking wood pulp process.

Lampoon, Recycling process, Cepi
A phase of the industrial recycling process, Cepi

Paper production: environmental impact 

Estimates predict that the market value of paper and pulp globally will increase within the five-year period between 2019 and 2024, rising from an estimated value of 63.3 billion US dollars to about 79.6 billion US dollars by 2024. In 2018 the global production volume of paper and cardboard was about 420 million metric tons. With a production volume of 110 million metric tons in 2018, China is the world’s largest paper producer, followed by the United States that produced seventy-two million metric tons in the same year. Due to the massive consumption, paper production requires 42% of the industrial wood harvest. The European pulp and paper industry is the fourth largest industrial energy user in the EU, where it employs 647.000 workers in 21.000 companies. The EU aims to be climate-neutral by 2050, building a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy.

To achieve this goal European energy-intensive industries need to balance carbon neutrality and profit. Through increasing the use of renewable energy and implementing energy-efficiency measures and a circular approach; these industries could contribute to the EU’s net-zero by 2050 target. The European Union is a forerunner in paper recycling. A process that reduces the industry’s need for raw materials and overall GHG emissions; as reusing materials already produced results in significant emission reductions. From 2005 to 2021, the European paper industry has reduced its carbon emissions by twenty-nine percent; while increasing product volumes, thanks to a decarbonization investment strategy that amounts to more than five billion Euros per year. The pulp and paper industry is the largest industrial generator. User of renewable energy, as sixty-percent of its total primary annual energy consumption comes from biomass.

The paper recycling process

Three are the stages. Collection, pulping and de-inking. In Europe, ninety-six percent of paper for recycling utilization comes from European countries. «Local value chains seem more valuable than Globalization. A trend that is still ongoing. This attitude and investments made in recycling mills can enhance paper recycling in Europe. The Chinese government decided to reduce its dependency on secondary raw materials from other countries. Its strict quality requirements on imported paper for recycling can be an opportunity for European paper recycling. This can incentivizes us to recycle our waste in Europe».

Reveals Leberle. Mill broke, pre-consumer, and post-consumer paper waste go to recycling. When post-consumer paper waste go into the appropriate bins, the local waste management service collects it. Then there is the transportation to a recycling facility, where there is the separation and division by type or grade. Papermakers buy this secondary-raw material from recycling merchants that either can be part of a paper company or operate as independent firms.

The importance of paper recycling

In the EU, waste management companies are supplying an increasing amount of post-consumer paper waste. Due to the growing demand for paper for recycling, industrial and commercial sources no longer supply the majority of the paper waste; as households and offices provide utilized waste streams. Recycling paper has to be separated from other litter, as contaminated papers are not acceptable for recycling. In addition, municipal waste represents around ten percent of the total waste generated in the EU.

In the period 2004-2017, the European municipal waste recycling rate grew by sixteen percentage points in the EU-28, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland, thanks to the introduction and implementation of EU and national policies and local authorities’ commitment. For instance, to executing awareness-raising campaigns for citizens about the importance of recycling. «Studies show that there is a link between environmental education and high recycling rates. The collection rates are higher in areas where citizens have a high level of environmental awareness. People want to protect the environment. Paper recycling is a domain to which they feel like they can contribute, an attitude that is beneficial for paper recycling».  

Lampoon, Carlsberg's project Paper Bottle
Carlsberg’s project of the fully plant-based and recyclable Paper Bottle

Paper pulping process

Once the collecting, sorting, and cleaning of paper waste, there is the pulping process. A procedure similar to the one performed to manufacture paper made from virgin fibers. During this process, the paper waste dissolves in water and slushes into a pulp, while discarding sizable non-fibrous contaminants. The substance resulting from the fiber-cleaning process is filtered and screened multiple times; resulting in a lignocellulosic fibrous material called recycled-pulp that needs to be pressed and dried. Furthermore, in papermaking, seventy percent of the required energy is employed to power the thermal drying process.

The pulping processes applied in the EU are low-waste and CO2 neutral, as high-quality cellulose fibers are isolated from the remaining lignin. This is utilized as an energy source feeding the process, and the pulping chemicals are recovered. In addition, to reach the purity level needed to manufacture certain types of paper, the printing inks have to be removed. The ink rises to the surface adhering to air bubbles blown into the solution through a flotation process. Once the removing of ink, the fiber can pass through bleaching with agents like hydrogen peroxide to enhance whiteness. For instance, to produce specific grades of paper, there is a mix of virgin and recycled pulp. The manufacturing of newsprint paper and corrugated fiberboard can be of 100 percent recycled paper.

Covid-19’s impact on paper recycling industries

The European Gross domestic product (GDP) declined by seven point four percent after a one-point six increase in 2019, due to Covid-19. The macroeconomic cost of the pandemic impacted the paper and paper recycling industries. Preliminary figures elaborated by CEPI show that the demand for packaging paper and board growth grew in 2020 amid the pandemic. The consumption of materials used for transport packaging and corrugated boxes rose due to the Covid-19 related e-commerce boom.

This caused an estimated two point one packaging grades production increase from the 2019 level. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 impacting global demand; the overall paper and board consumption decreased by six point six percent. This brought about a five percent paper and board production decreased in Cepi member countries. The employment of paper for recycling by paper companies fell by two point one percent in 2020. Compared to the previous year level, when Covid-19 affected availability and quality of paper for recycling, caused an eight-point four percent decline in exports according to preliminary statistics.   


Brussels-based non-profit making organization representing the European pulp and paper industry. Championing this industry’s achievements and the benefits of its products, Cepi represents 22% of world production; €82 billion of annual turnover to the European economy and directly employs more than 177,000 people.

Roberta Fabbrocino

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.