Paper is omnipresent. As writing pads and exercise books at school or as printer paper in the office - this is how you use several kilograms every year (at least statistically speaking). If paper-based packaging is also included, we quickly reach more than 220 kg per capita - of which more than 90 kg is paper packaging. These are figures that come from the WWF, among others.

In this context, it is thought-provoking that the environmental organization puts the consumption of material for paper in the order of 2.6 million m3 from illegal sources in 2006 alone. Given this fact, how sustainable can paper actually be? We take a closer look and show you the most important connections.

Sustainability - What are the general criteria?


The term sustainability is on everyone's lips these days: electronics manufacturers want to be sustainable, sustainable construction is taking place, and this aspect is also becoming increasingly important in packaging. Yet you don't really know which measures players are taking to be truly sustainable and how each of them defines sustainability in the first place.

Most of the time, all you hear is that it has something to do with the environment and the climate. However, sustainability means that products and services use resources without consuming them. The BMZ describes the term as satisfying present needs without restricting future needs.

Sustainability can be viewed as:

    • economically efficient
    • socially just
    • ecologically sustainable.

Plotted over a triangle, evaluating a product in terms of sustainability is simple. How does paper fit in here?

  1. Efficiency: Costs and benefits must be in proportion
    Paper can be economically efficient if it fulfills the intended purpose at a reasonable price. Packaging that costs you more than the contents is efficient in accomplishing its task - but just not economically efficient. Paper packaging may cost only a fraction of the "purpose" it is intended to serve.
  1. Social justice: humane conditions in the production process
    Raw material extraction, processing, use and recycling or disposal are elementary cycles. In order to be sustainable, none of these processes must affect people's livelihoods and work. Here, the focus must be scalable to different degrees.
  1. Environmental idea: sustainability as the primary goal
    Many resources come directly from nature or influence it through their extraction and processing. This is a core idea of the concept of sustainability, which is becoming increasingly important. Raw materials automatically have a malus if they are irretrievably consumed through their use. The best example is crude oil. Every barrel consumed today will no longer be available to future generations.

Especially the third property touches different elements. On the one hand, it is about the actual raw material. On the other hand, there is the question of how resources are consumed in the course of extraction, processing and distribution.

For paper, this is about water, which is used, for example, in the process of detaching the fiber from wood. Due to chemicals or other impurities, it cannot simply be returned to nature.

On the other hand, the question arises as to what influence logistics by rail and road has on sustainability. Of 21,353,000 tons of paper in 2020, more than 13 million tons were exported, according to the Federal Environment Agency.

How is paper made?

The production of paper is a multi-stage process. 

Industrially, paper is no longer scooped by hand with screens, but by machine in large plants.

The basic prerequisite is always that mills or paper manufacturers have a suitable fiber base material. In practice, there are very different sources for this.

The individual steps are as follows:

  1. Detaching the fiber: The first step is to detach the fibers from wood, for example. But other cellulose sources are also used in paper production. For this purpose, wood is ground and then mixed with special chemicals.
  2. The fiber pulp: A fiber pulp is then formed, which travels over a wire and forms a fiber layer. Depending on the desired quality, the papermaker can influence the structure and surface with various auxiliaries (such as different wires).
  3. Drying: The still damp paper webs are passed over a system of rollers. On the one hand, this allows water to be pressed out. On the other hand, heated rolls ensure that the residual moisture dries out of the paper web.
  4. Smoothing the paper web: In order to perform different tasks in practice, paper must be smoothed. This step happens in a special calender.
  5. Surface finishing: Paper can be finished for different applications. For example, coatings can be applied to produce waterproof paper for packaging, or a paper web can be turned into photo paper with the help of special coatings.

Not all paper is the same

How sustainable paper is in practice depends on its type. Due to practical applications, different variants have developed, including:

    • Packaging (paper and cardboard)
    • graphic papers
    • Sanitary paper

Old packaging and graphic papers play a role in recycling. Components such as printing ink are removed from the paper in technical processes and it can be reprocessed. According to figures published in 2017 by the bvse, a trade association for paper recycling, graphic papers have a recycling rate of 83 percent, which is even higher than the average.

But: Not all paper is recyclable. Sanitary papers in particular must be disposed of with household waste, as they cannot be recycled. The same applies to special paper - for use in thermal printers, for example. Due to the special coating, this paper must not simply be introduced into the cycle. This naturally has a negative impact on the sustainability factor.


Are you interested in the sustainability of materials like paper? In our blog you will find a lot more information on this topic!

How does paper perform in terms of sustainability?

Paper is a sustainable everyday product - at least in comparison with many other products used in everyday life. This assessment is supported by several factors, but especially by the very high recycling rate. However, a critical perspective is always required for the overall assessment:

  1. Use of resources: waste paper as a major source
    Nearly 80 percent of paper consumption in Germany is statistically Waste paper covered. In other words, only a small amount of virgin fiber is needed for production. The Lion's share of paper demand can be covered by refurbishing cardboard and graphic paper.
    Only just not completeLosses in the paper cycle occur, for example, when paper is processed into waterproof paper or thermal paper. Hygiene products can also only be returned to the cycle to a limited extent.
    To improve the sustainability aspect, the use of Weak wood or wood from thinning or wood waste one possible approach. The use of valuable wood and wood from illegal sources is detrimental to sustainability.

    Infographic: Resources for paper production
  2. Energy mix determines sustainability: Renewable energies are the key
    The balance sheet for paper is also a question of energy resource utilization. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, 41 percent of the electricity mix in Germany is based on renewable energy sources, the rest on conventional ones.
    The higher the proportion of renewable energy sources in production and recycling, the more sustainable the process. This is not just about electricity or heating energy. Transport routes also play a role in the paper cycle. If the focus here is on road transport, fossil fuels must be taken into account. If the focus is on road transport, fossil fuels have to be taken into account, while if rail transport is used instead, electricity consumption is a major factor. In this context, it becomes clear how difficult a comprehensive assessment of the sustainability of paper ultimately is.
  3. Chemicals as a sustainability factor: the less, the better
    Chemicals play a role in the production of paper from the very first minute - an aspect that has an impact on sustainability in the paper cycle. Chemicals used to dissolve the fibers from the wood often remain in the process water.
    On the other hand, chemicals and additives for specific tasks, such as adhesives and printing inks, can have a negative impact on reusability. On the one hand, they can accumulate in the paper. On the other hand, paper becomes unusable for recycling.
    Although perfluorinated alkyl substances - PFAS for short - improve the properties in such a way that paper can be used as food packaging, these compounds are harmful to health and the environment and are also so persistent that they cause problems in recycling. However, use in certain sectors such as the food service industry can also have a detrimental effect on the sustainability of paper due to the use of fats.

How could paper become even more sustainable in the future?

One modern approach is materials research. How can fiber properties be used in the future not only to produce clean paper, but also to reduce the use of chemicals and energy?


Basic research is definitely needed here. In addition, high-tech is needed. Modern paper mills are not only becoming highly engineered, in the long term artificial intelligence will also take over their role in paper production. Intelligent control systems achieve low resource and energy consumption because they can specifically control even small deviations.

Conclusion: Paper - innovative in sustainability

Sustainability also plays an important role in the production of paper. The big advantage is that it is made from a renewable raw material. However, this alone cannot guarantee the sustainability of the paper. Development work is still needed to increase the sustainability factor.

So far, the recycling rate is very high. Waste paper already covers a significant proportion of the demand. But paper manufacturers want to go much further - with efficient use of raw materials, clever energy management and optimization in the area of chemicals used. We stay on the ball for you and inform you regularly about innovations in the paper industry.

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