Will paper recycling reduce the environmental impact of the Europeanpulp and paper sector? If so, is maximal paper recycling the best policy to optimize the lifecycle of the pulp and paper sector? We explore these questions using an approach that combines materials accounting methods and optimization techniques. Environmental impact data are inputs for a linear programming network flow model to find optimal configurations for the sector. These configurations consist of a mix of different pulping technologies, a geographical distribution of pulp and paper production, and a level of recycling consistent with the lowest environmental impacts. We use the model to analyse scenarios with different recycling strategies. Recycling offers a reduction in environmental impact in regions with a high population and a large production of paper and board products. Regions with a large production of graphic products should focus on cleaner virgin pulp production with energy recovery. We conclude that relocation of paper production also offers a reduction in environmental impact. However, the severe effects on the economy make this policy less attractive than a combination of recycling, cleaner pulp production and energy recovery.