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Consumers Underestimate the Great Recycling Rate of Paper, Latest Study Reveals

November 10, 2021

Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of their impact on the environment, and the majority of UK consumers believe the recycling rate of paper isn’t very high. This low consumer awareness is worrying considering paper is, in fact, one of the most recycled materials in the world with a recycling rate of 74%.1

A study, conducted by the not-for-profit organization Two Sides and independent research company Toluna, aims to understand changing consumer perceptions towards print and paper. This unique insight into consumer attitudes towards one of the world’s oldest and universally used materials will be repeated biennially to monitor and report upon evolving consumer perceptions, as environmental awareness intensifies and alternative digital channels of communication become prevalent.

Paper Recycling Rate Undervalued

Paper is one of the world’s most recycled materials. In Europe, 74% of paper (56 million tonnes) was collected and recycled in 2020.2 Paper Packaging has an even higher recycling rate of 85%.3

However, the study revealed that 46% of UK consumers believe that paper and paper packaging is wasteful, which highlights a real lack of understanding of the high recycling rates it holds. Only 17% of UK consumers believe the recycling rate exceeds 60%. 15% think it is less than 20%, 34% of consumers believe it’s between 20-39% and 34% between 40-59%. 18–24 year-olds have the biggest misconception relating to recycling, with just 12% believing the recycling rate exceeds 60%.

Paper actually compares favorably to other recycling rates: Glass 74%, Metal 80%, Plastic 42% and Electronics 42%.3, 4

Recycled and Virgin Paper (Fiber) Are Equally Important and Sustainable

Research found that 66% of UK consumers believe only recycled paper should be used, making it clear that most people understand the need for recycling paper and the sustainable properties it contains.

Recycled paper (fiber) is an essential part of the fiber mix. In 2020, paper for recycling made up 56% of fiber used.5 Along with that, in Europe, on average, paper fibers are recycled 3.8 times6 and, after several uses, the recycled fibers degrade. Virgin fiber, from sustainably managed forests, is therefore always required to maintain the paper cycle.

More Misconceptions Around Paper

The print and paper industry is surrounded by myths, many of which are rooted in historical misconceptions about paper’s impact on forests. For many years, service providers have reinforced these environmental myths in their efforts to move consumers to digital communications. The need to bust these myths and raise awareness of paper’s sustainability is now more important than ever.

The study found that only 9% of UK consumers understand that European forests are growing, when between 2005 and 2020, European forests grew by 58,390km² – which is larger than Switzerland and equivalent to 1,500 football pitches of forest growth every day.

Another myth commonly associated with the print and paper industry is that it uses a lot of energy in the paper making and print process. The truth is the pulp, paper and print industry is one of the leading sectors when it comes to renewable energy and mitigating carbon impact. The industry is relatively energy-intensive, but it also has a proven commitment to energy efficiency and is Europe’s biggest industrial user of renewable energy. This explains why the sector is responsible for comparatively low greenhouse gas emissions, at 0.8% of the European total.7

Through highlighting these myths and explaining the facts, people can begin to understand the true sustainability of paper as an organic material that is vital to the circular economy.

This report shows there are many environmental misconceptions surrounding print and paper products,” says Jonathan Tame, Managing Director of Two Sides Europe. “We need to inform consumers of the high recycling rate and how paper is an important raw material in the circular economy.

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  1. CEPI, 2020.
  2. European Paper Recycling Council, Monitoring Report, 2020.
  3. Eurostat, 2019.
  4. Global E-Waste Monitor, 2020.
  5. Cepi Key Statistics, 2020.
  6. Ibid
  7. European Environmental Agency, 2020.
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