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‘Unprinting’ process could bring about cleaner paper recycling

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Scientists have developed a process to “unprint” paper by removing ink from it that could prove to be more environmentally friendly than traditional paper recycling.

A team from Rutgers University found that pulses of light could be used to remove toner, curbing environmental impacts compared with conventional paper recycling.

Unlike laser-based methods, this new process can work with the standard, coated paper used in home and office printers.

It uses pulses of light from a xenon lamp, and can erase black, blue, red and green toners without damaging the paper, according to a study in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

“Our method makes it possible to unprint and then reprint on the same paper at least five times, which is typically as many times paper can be reused with conventional recycling,” said study co-author Rajiv Malhotra.

“By eliminating the steps involved in conventional recycling, our unprinting method could reduce energy costs, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Conventional recycling of coated paper is a major contributor to climate change emissions, chemical pollution and energy use, according to the study. Extending the life of paper while avoiding these recycling steps would yield significant environmental benefits.

The engineers’ next steps are to further refine the method by testing additional toner colours on a wider range of paper types.

Unprinting can be done with simple equipment and a wipe with a very small amount of benign alcohol, and the engineers are working to integrate unprinting with typical office and home printers.

Boosting recycling is becoming an increasingly big issue in the UK and countries around the world and, although it comes with its own environmental cost, this is generally considered a better option than alternatives such as dumping waste in landfill.

Earlier this month several major food packaging producers backed a scheme to create a “plastic credit” system, which would funnel money towards recycling projects in developing nations.

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