Will office papers go closed-loop?

Epson's PaperLab promises to revolutionize office recycling by securely destroying documents and turning them into new paper. Source: Epson

Mark Willliamson
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

A new water-free technology by Epson may lead the way to destructive fiberizing and reforming of paper sheets in an office. The scale and economics may be right for high activity businesses.

Seiko Epson Corporation has just announced what it believes to be the world's first compact office papermaking system capable of producing new paper from securely shredded waste paper without the use of water. Epson plans to put the new PaperLab as they call it into commercial production in Japan in 2016, with sales in other regions to be decided at a later date. If successful, this could have far-reaching consequences for secure office paper recycling.

Recycling and re-use combined

A paper dry forming process has been a holy grail for the paper industry for some time, but the dreams have always been focused on making paper in a continuous sheet, as that is the industry's bread and butter way of thinking. In fact, I witnessed a pre-production prototype of an air formed process in a research lab in the early 1970s. But that shrieking monster of a machine never made it to market. However, this development by Epson is revolutionary as it moves document shredding and reforming into paper sheets right into the offices where they are re-used. Recycling and re-use, two of the three R's, are combined in one step. The present recycling loop which now involves external collection, processing and transportation steps could be closed into a much smaller loop.

The recycling loop which now involves external collection, processing and transport steps could be closed into a much smaller loop. Source: Epson
The system also solves security issues common to many business and government offices. Until now the offices have hired contractors to handle the disposal of confidential documents or have shredded them themselves. With a PaperLab, however, the office will be able to safely dispose of documents onsite. Documents are broken down into paper fibers, so the information on them is completely destroyed.

PaperLab produces the first new sheet of paper in about three minutes after loading the waste paper into it and pressing a start button. The system can produce about 14 A4 sheets per minute and 6,720 sheets in an eight-hour day. Users can produce a variety of types of paper to meet their needs, from A4 and A3 office paper of various thicknesses to paper for business cards, colored paper and even scented paper. Nevertheless, it's still micro-scale paper making compared to the traditional macro-scale where a large (9m width) paper machine running at 1,500 m/min produces about the pre-conversion equivalent of 3,600 A4 sheets per second or 216,000 sheets per minute.

Dry Fiber Technology consists of three separate technologies: fiberizing, binding, and forming. Source: Epson
This unit may not be a general solution for all offices since it is big compared to a copy machine and just looks expensive. This could be especially true since it uses first-generation technology. The cost may be out of reach for smaller companies. However, it may find a significant niche market in large office buildings and government agencies. For instance, the Government of Canada estimates that almost 7,000 tonnes of paper are used to feed government photocopiers, printers and fax machines annually, costing nearly $10 million.

Large office buildings are another possible market. For example, the First Canadian Place in Toronto is Canada's tallest office building and houses 10,000 workers who generate printouts, copies and faxes that could be regarded as temporary documents and recycled into new sheets. As a rule of thumb, a typical office worker in North America generates about 28 pages of printed documents per day. Imagine that! Those ten thousand workers could produce 280,000 pages a day of which maybe 50% - or 140,000 pages - could be destroyed and recycled rather than filed. The Epson device handles 6,740m sheets per 8-hour day so about 20 units could handle the volume of First Canadian Place – one for each three or four floors, if the logistics of waste collection and internal distribution work out. On a smaller scale, one unit could handle the needs of about 500 workers in a more modest office building.

Papermaking questions

Large office buildings like First Canadian Place on the left are another possible market. Source: WikipediaThe technology used in this product is a closely guarded secret, of course, and the product to be introduced at an upcoming trade show is still a developmental prototype, says Epson. However, its description does raise some questions that a papermaker would ask, but probably wouldn't be on the mind of an office procurement manager. There is no mention of how fillers, inks and toners are dealt with. As all papermakers know mineral fillers are a significant and increasing component of office papers. Are fillers recycled with the fibers or are they separated and disposed? As a result, could it be a dusty process? Deinking of recycled papers is a necessary part of the current processing loop. If inks and toners are kept in the closed office loop what happens to paper brightness and cleanliness? Is an occasional purge needed? Epson says that brightening agents can be added to the waste sheets along with the necessary fiber bonding agents.

(Update: In a recent ARS Technica UK publication a commenter made an astute observation that Epson filed a patent in 2013 for a process that removes ink from a fiberized sheet by a cyclonic air technique. Perhaps that is a clue as to how one step in this new unit works. If this is true, the separated ink and toner must be collected and disposed.)

But what happens to the poor old fibers after being recycled many times in a closed loop? Some fiber degradation and change in sheet quality may occur over time and many cycles. Will this have an effect on the performance in that office's printers and copiers? Will frustrating and unproductive paper jams become more common as time goes on? What about sheet strength properties, stiffness, surface quality and opacity? On the positive side, the dry sheet forming process presumably is not affected by the fluid dynamics, shear forces and vacuums of the traditional wet forming process. Therefore, a more uniform sheet with even fibre orientation, dimension stability and freedom from sheet curl may be possible. One big advantage is that no drying energy is required.

The caveat here is that the consistency of paper quality, which papermakers are good at and have developed over decades, may be placed in the hands of an office equipment supplier. That would be a major paradigm shift in thinking. Of course, Epson knows these quality issues since they have run traditional paper in their imaging processes for decades. They should know the qualities of a good sheet of paper.

It bolls down to economics

While the environmental friendliness of such a recycling scheme is laudable and should not be discouraged it is probably a major investment, so the economics and return on investment must be considered. The total lifecycle costs including the continuing costs of consumable chemicals could be a major factor. Also, there are service costs that do not exist with a usual blue box recycling program. Regular preventive maintenance, particularly cleaning, would seem to be essential. Do the capital cost and these extra ongoing costs justify the elimination of purchased paper reams and their storage? Do the external savings of a closed loop justify the purchase for a major paper user? Time will tell as this technology rolls out.