Daniel K. Benjamin, in his often cited paper "Eight Great Myths of Recycling" (2003), cites a 1989 EPA study to make the claim that recycling paper is more polluting than making new paper:
"...the EPA examined both virgin paper processing and recycled paper processing for toxic substances. Five toxic substances were found only in virgin processes, eight only in recycling processes, and twelve in both processes. Among these twelve, all but one were present in higher levels in the recycling processes (Office of Technology Assessment 1989, 191)."
Daniel K. Benjamin is most famous for his appearance on Penn & Teller's Television Show "Bullshit!".
"Recycling also helps prevent pollution. For example, recycling paper instead of making it from new material generates 74 percent less air pollution and uses 50 percent less water." And as far back as 1995 the EPA was confirming this:
"When compared to manufacturing and disposing of a ton of virgin office paper, manufacturing and recycling a ton of recycled paper reduces solid waste, energy use, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, manufacturing and recycling a ton of recycled office paper:
Reduces solid waste by 49 percent.
Reduces total energy consumption by 43 percent.
Reduces net greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Reduces hazardous air pollutant emissions by 90 percent and particulate emissions by 40 percent.
Reduces absorbable organic halogen emissions to water by 100 percent and suspended solids by 30 percent."
"The Task Force’s extensive research shows that paper recycling
significantly reduces releases of numerous air and water
pollutants to the environment, reduces solid waste, and conserves
energy and forest resources. These environmental advantages
generally are found across all comparable grades of
recycled and virgin paper studied by the Task Force."
(The Environmental Defense Fund. 1995)
Benjamin Quotes a More Recent Assessment But Disregards It
Benjamin himself quotes a more recent 1997 Natural Resources Defense Council assessment but inexplicably chooses to promote the conclusions found in the outdated 1989 EPA study:
“It is virtually beyond dispute that manufacturing products from
recyclables instead of from virgin raw materials—making, for
instance, paper out of old newspapers instead of virgin timber—
causes less pollution and imposes fewer burdens on the earth’s
natural habitat and biodiversity”
(Natural Resources Defense Council 1997, ch. 1)
Benjamin on Penn & Teller's "Bullshit!"
Daniel K. Benjamin was featured prominently in an episode of Penn & Teller's "Bullshit!". It is interesting to note that Penn & Teller were actually more careful in their statements on this topic than was Benjamin in his "Eight Great Myths". They never explicitly say that Recycling paper is more polluting than creating new paper, although it is heavily implied by this skit: (Warning: Explicit Language)
While the claim that "recycling paper does not save trees" is for the most part true (as we cover in this other De-fact-o article), the impression Penn & Teller give here (without directly stating it as Benjamin does) that recycling paper pollutes more than creating new paper, is false.
Actual Water and Air Pollution Reduction Today
Modern mills produce considerably less pollution than those of a few decades ago. The US EPA has found that recycling causes 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution. Pulp mills can be sources of both air and water pollution, especially if they are producing bleached pulp. Recycling paper decreases the demand for virgin pulp and thus reduces the overall amount of air and water pollution associated with paper manufacture. Recycled pulp can be bleached with the same chemicals used to bleach virgin pulp, but hydrogen peroxide and sodium hydrosulfite are the most common bleaching agents. Recycled pulp, or paper made from it, is known as PCF (process chlorine free) if no chlorine-containing compounds were used in the recycling process. However it should be noted that recycling mills may have polluting by-products, such as sludge. De-inking at Cross Pointe's Miami, Ohio mill results in sludge weighing 22% of the weight of wastepaper recycled.
"Compared to virgin pulping, recycled pulping consumes much less energy and generates smaller releases to air, water, and solid and hazardous waste streams. Virgin pulp mills recycle and reuse most pulping and bleaching chemicals, and use many process wastes in-house (for example, they burn bark, wood scraps, and wood chemicals to produce steam and electricity). Nonetheless, the sheer scale of pulpmaking operations, and the harsh nature of many pulping and bleaching processes, makes them the source of significant impacts to all environmental media. Recycled pulp operations, on the other hand, bypass the most energy-intensive and environmentally harsh steps in the pulpmaking process, and so are able to produce pulp at a smaller energy-use and environmental cost. The processes used in recycled pulping operations -- washing and deinking -- use relatively benign chemicals, and are not the source of major environmental impacts."