BLOG: Cradle to Cradle® beyond recycling!

Paper is well known for its recycling potential. However, although seen as the recycling industry’s biggest success story, the paper recycling process itself brings along several challenges: 7 500 000 ton of paper sludge is produced each year as a by-product of paper recycling Can we bring it back safely into our biological systems (soil, air, water)?  How can we make sure that food contained in packaging made from recycled materials is safe and not contaminated with mineral oils?  How can we maintain the quality of our soils used for forestry and agriculture that is necessary for the production of raw materials (like cellulose) for new paper products?
These questions show there is a clear need to redesign our paper and printed products ánd the system of industrial material flows in which they circulate. Read on to find out more about the Cradle to Cradle® answer to these challenges.

Paper cannot be recycled endlessly: Theoretically, one could recycle the same fibers up to 6 -or 7 times before fiber properties have diminished to such extend that they cannot be used for paper anymore. These short cellulose fibers are a major source of organic material. In some countries, paper sludge is still used as a soil amendment to improve soil fertility. This may seem like a perfect solution, but the sludge is contaminated with many additives that were never  designed for return to the biosphere.

The de-inking sludge (which is a mixture of short fibers and inks removed during the recycling process) is usually “thermally recycled” which is a nice word for incineration. `Waste-to-energy’ seems a viable option, but currently the flue gases need to be cleaned and the ashes cannot be used as fertilizer for soils..

From a  Cradle to Cradle®  perspective, the use scenario of a material is crucial: in the conventional paper making process paper fibers cannot be recycled endlessly and can therefore not be considered technical nutrients. Thus, the paper making process has to be optimized in such a way that fibers can be re-used as often as possible until they become unsuitable for paper, cardboard or tissue, and then serve as valuable biological nutrients for soil amendment and/or energy generation. The by-products from the paper recycling process (e.g. from de-inking) can be designed to be safe for humans and the environment. 

Using Cradle to Cradle® we can think even further: why use wood logs in the paper making industries or even as biomass in incineration plants for energy, when they can be used to make furniture or construction materials first? From a Cradle to Cradle® perspective wood should be used in a cascade: starting with the applications that make use of the full potential of the material (e.g. furniture) and over time and use towards the lower end of the spectrum (burning for energy, and recovering of ashes).

Van Houtum developed Satino Black hygienic paper (hand towels and toilet paper) that are Cradle to Cradle  CertifiedCM Silver. All ingredients have been analyzed in collaboration with EPEA and meet strict requirements for suitability in the biological cycle. Once flushed, the toilet paper can be recovered as a nutrient for e.g. soil amendment instantly, or can be used as a fuel first, and then be returned to soil. In addition to toilet paper and hand towels, the Satino Black concept includes soaps (hand soap, foam soap, toilet seat cleaner and alcohol hand gel) and dispenser systems.

Gugler* is the first printing company worldwide that has succeeded in developing a printing product that has passed the strict criteria of Cradle to Cradle CertificationCM and has received a silver certificate. All off-set printing product components within this Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM product group have been assessed by EPEA and are optimized for their suitability in biological or technical cycles. The ashes of the burned printed products are intended to be beneficial in the future as safe biological nutrients and can be returned to the soil to feed organisms, grow biomass and restore soil organic matter. This complies with the first principle of Cradle to Cradle®: Waste = Food (Nutrients are nutrients, or, everything is a resource for something else) in which nutrients remain part of continuous biological or technical cycles.

Van Gansewinkel Office Paper is Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM Silver and is a clear example of collaboration between three different partners: Van Gansewinkel Group, Océ and Steinbeis who work together toward accomplishing a continuous cycle for paper cellulose fibers. Confidential office paper is collected by Van Gansewinkel under the name Destra Totaal  and brought to Steinbeis in Germany, where the paper is de-inked and shredded into pulp for new paper in a process that is friendly for both environmental and human health. Steinbeis has developed a method in which the paper fibers can be re-used more than the conventional 6-7 times so that in the future the cellulose fibers can be viewed as a technical nutrient in this specific scenario. The paper is then sold by Océ to companies that use and discard of the paper, to be collected by Van Gansewinkel again, and so the story continues..

There is still a great potential to optimize our paper making industries, starting at re-thinking what the exact use scenario of our paper products is. How can we make sure that valuable materials such as cellulose fibers are used in such a way that they are re-used until further use is not possible so they can be converted into biological nutrients to contribute to soil organic matter and plant growth? How can we optimize the process in such a way that by-products do not harm human and environmental health, but can be beneficial as either biological or technical nutrients?

Paper does not necessarily need to be made from cellulose fibers from wood: a large range of other materials is suitable. We are not even restricted to cellulose based information carriers. For instance,  Cradle to Cradle® - Remaking the way we make things is designed as a technical nutrient. Made of waterproof synthetic fibers, inorganic fillers and soy-based inks; it is recyclable by conventional means.

Looking closely at the proposed use scenario and end of use helps in making the right decisions. EPEA developed a broad framework and specific tools for businesses to make Cradle to Cradle® work in the paper & print industry.

Frieke Heens
Scientific project manager
EPEA Nederland


[1] Figure from Project report “Maximum value from paper for recycling. Towards a multi-product paper mill. CEPI, August 2011.


[2] In 2011, Swiss research raised concerns over mineral oil migration from recycled paper in food packaging (cereals, rice, pasta, advent calendars) to foods. The oils were linked to newspaper inks that entered the recycling stream. Mineral oils pose health concerns and are found to accumulate in the liver, lymph nodes and heart valves when ingested. There are additional concerns about aromatic mineral oils being carcinogenic, though their toxicological data remains uncertain.


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