Holiday cards, wrapping paper could be feedstock for biofuel

By Erin Voegele | December 29, 2011

While most of the greeting cards and wrapping paper used this holiday season will end up in the landfill, a group of U.K. researchers has shown that these materials could serve as feedstock to produce a significant amount of biofuel. The research is the focus of a study completed by scientists at Imperial College London. The study, titled “Technology performance and economic feasibility of bioethanol production from various waste papers,” has been published in the scientific journal Energy and Environmental Science.

According to information released by Imperial College London, estimates show that nearly 1.5 billion cards and 83 square kilometers (32 square miles) of wrapping paper are disposed of in the U.K. alone over the Christmas period. These paper products are currently landfilled, or in some cases recycled. Rather than disposing of these materials, the researchers found that this quantity of waste paper biomass could be used as feedstock to produce 5 to 12 million liters (1.32 to 3.17 million gallons) of cellulosic biofuel. To put that number in perspective, the researchers note that is enough fuel power a bus for up to 18 million km (11.18 million miles)

"If one card is assumed to weigh 20 grams and one square meter of wrapping paper is 10 grams, then around 38,300 tons of extra paper waste will be generated at Christmas time," said Richard Murphy, study author and scientists in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. "Our research shows that it would be feasible to build waste paper-to-biofuel processing plants that give energy back as transport fuel."

According to the study’s co-author Lei Wang, the fermentation process addressed by the study would be able to deal with “contaminated” wrapping paper and cards, such as those that feature glitter or are affixed with tape. Insoluble components like glitter could be easily filtered out of the process, while the cellulose portion of tape could be fermented also with the cellulose found in the paper and card products.

Information released by Imperial College London shows that approximately 60 percent of the U.K.'s waste paper is currently collected for recycling or other waste management schemes, which equates to around 8 million metric tons. The scientists say that using a well-tested fermentation method and a novel cocktail of efficient and cheap chemical enzymes, their system could be scaled up to the size of existing industrial processing plants and be used to convert 2,000 metric tons of waste paper per day into biofuels.

According to Imperial College London, the authors of this study are currently analyzing the environmental performance of ethanol made from waste paper using life-cycle assessment and comparing those assessments with conventional transportation fuels.