Paper in the office: four green alternatives - An overview of virgin pulp paper, recycled paper and paper alternatives

An overview of virgin pulp papers, recycled papers and paper alternatives


Germany ranks fourth1 on the list of the world’s biggest consumers of paper, right behind China, USA, and Japan. The use of paper in the office also continues to be much too high. This includes everything paper-based that serves a purpose in the office to

  • write and print on, such as a sheet, a certificate, booklet, book and pad;
  • be sent as an envelope, a bag or a box;
  • help identify things either as a label or sign;
  • show who we are, like a business card; 
  • and to organise things, such as a folder, file, binder, register, box and separator.

Use of paper in the office 


While an office worker in Belgium without any personnel responsibility prints on average 15 pages per day in the office, this number comes to 21 in Germany. If the office worker has personnel responsibility, such a person will print out around 17 pages daily in Belgium, and a solid 77 pages in Germany.2

Considering the roughly 10 million office workers there are3, this results in a minimum 210 million printed pages every day in Germany alone. Placed on top of each other, this stack of paper printed daily – provided the paper is 0.1 millimetres (mm) thick – would be 21 kilometres (km) high, topping the highest mountain in the world almost three times (Mount Everest: 8.848 km). Weighing this printed paper mountain would show a whopping 1,050 tonnes (t) on the scales.

Sustainability comparison: virgin pulp paper vs. recycled paper


The amount of CO2 emissions generated during the production of paper is not the only thing we are doing to the environment. The production of paper also consumes a lot of water and power. A comparison shows why recycled paper, compared to virgin pulp paper, has a better life cycle assessment and is therefore a healthier alternative for the office:

The following consumptions apply for the above 1,050 t of paper printed daily in an office4:

  • 1,176 t of recovered paper for recycled paper, and 3,146 t of wood for virgin pulp paper
  • 21.5 million litres of water for recycled paper compared to 54.8 million litres for virgin pulp paper
  • 4.4 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power for recycled paper compared to 11.3 million kWh for virgin pulp paper
  • and then there is this: paper pulp can be recycled up to seven times. 

According to the numbers, recycled paper is clearly a more eco-friendly alternative to virgin pulp paper.

Quality of recycled paper does not leave much to be desired


Even in terms of quality, there is nothing that speaks against the use of recycled paper instead of virgin pulp paper in offices and educational facilities. Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency states that recycled paper is in no way inferior to virgin pulp paper in terms of durability (life)5. Even in terms of optics – and here in particular paper whiteness – it comes very close to, if not being just like, virgin pulp paper even though it is important to note that the whiter recycled paper is, the more elaborate the process steps are to achieve this. Recycled paper scores especially when it comes to the price. According to the Environmental Agency, prices are between 5 and 10 per cent less for a whiteness measure of 70 or 80 compared to virgin pulp paper of comparable whiteness. 

Paper alternatives


There are already alternatives on the market for paper made from wood (virgin pulp paper and recovered paper). 

One of these is bamboo paper. It must be noted that this is always a fibre blend with a minimum 30 to 40 per cent share of bamboo fibres. The remainder still comes from wood or recovered paper fibres. Bamboo used to supply fibres scores with its incredibly fast growth during which it ties up to two and half times more CO2 than wood does6. Also, bamboo is easy to recycle. But: Bamboo grows in Asia. Transportation has a negative impact on the life cycle assessment of paper made from bamboo. 

Paper made from grass fibres, on the other hand, practically grows in our garden. According to vendors7, the production of grass paper – again, this is a mix made from up to 50 per cent of grass pulp with the remaining 50 per cent coming from wood/recovered paper fibres – does not need chemicals and uses 99 per cent less water compared to virgin pulp paper made from wood. Moreover, grass paper, which is easy to recycle, cuts out 95 per cent of CO2 emissions. 

Hemp – traditionally a plant cultivated for the production of paper which also thrives in Europe – is currently experiencing a renaissance as a fibre supplier. Hemp paper was known 2,000 years ago already. The Gutenberg Bible, for example, is made with hemp paper, and the share of hemp paper globally up until the end of the 19th century was close to 90 per cent8. Hemp grows fast (it is harvested three times a year) and produces very robust fibres. For this reason, hemp paper is very durable and particularly easy to recycle. Hemp paper comes in a variety of different fibre blends and is even available as paper made 100 per cent from hemp fibres. 

And last but not least, there is stone paper. Four fifths of stone paper is made from calcium carbonite (CaCo3), which is a waste product from quarrying, with one fifth added from ideally organic high-density polyethylene (HDPE) as a binding agent which, for example, can be gained from sugar cane waste. 

How to turn a paper-wasting office into a paper-saving one


Using as little paper as possible is one way to protect the environment – by reducing the consumption of resources and lowering CO2 emissions.


  • Only print out what is absolutely necessary and be sure to use a paper saving mode: If possible, print text in smaller font sizes so that two document pages will fit on one, or on both sides, without photos and graphics, as well as in black and white. 
  • Work digitally as much as possible. Use email and PDF as well as modern Document Management Systems (DMS). This saves both paper and time, and also helps to keep things tidy, assists with mobile processing, and results in a more efficient, safer collaboration.
  • To share paper in-house, USB data sticks are a paper-free alternative. In-house and outside cloud services are available to help with the archiving of files.
  • Use paper multiple times: Paper that has been printed on one side only can double as paper used for notes. Envelopes can be reused. 
  • Replace note slips that are often used for a specific job only with digital alternatives; or switch to re-writable whiteboards or tablets.

And the best advice at the end: Be sure to use 100 per cent recycled paper or paper alternatives made with fibres from recovered paper! 

About the author:

The freelance journalist on organic issues and #motherof4 Doreen Brumme blogs on about how to enjoy a green lifestyle at work, in school and at home.

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