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Does “100% Recycled” Mean Anything? Yes. Sort of.

| Monday December 27th, 2010 | 9 Comments

Some years ago I wrote a bit of a rant about the term “100% Recycled” and how it has a very ambiguous meaning (at best). My argument: Most consumers assume that “recycled” means material that was used by some other consumer, collected, and remade into something new. The reality is that the legal definition of “recycled” includes vast quantities of material that has never passed through the hands of any consumer – it includes waste trimmings, scratched and damaged merchandise, material spilled on the floor and so on. This is material has always been processed back into the manufacturing system to keep it from going to waste. But should it really be called “recycled?”

Only material with the specific phrase “post consumer” can be assumed to have rolled through the hands of consumers, sat in a blue bin, and been re-processed into new material and products. So calling something “100% recycled” could mean 100% nothing. Therefore, I argued, the term is potentially so misleading it ought to be illegal!

Naturally, there’s more to it than just that. Steve Silver, CEO of FutureMark paper was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with me going over the nuances of recycled paper and the various terms used to define it.

For starters, in some countries, paper trim at the printer is still considered “post-consumer” for the simple reason that it’s already been turned into the final printed product. Likewise, news-stand magazine returns are considered “post-consumer” even if they were never bought. That starts to alter what the term means in my eyes. Furthermore, even if “recycled” means a lot less than one thinks, it’s still something distinct from virgin paper – something we might want to avoid if we were trying really hard to lower our overall footprint.

Although Steve agreed that both terms can be misleading, the complex reality of measuring the sustainability of the final product renders the whole thing a bit of a moot point. Processing waste paper into new paper is a much less energy and water-intensive process than making paper from virgin trees. So ANYTIME ANY waste paper is used to make new paper, that’s much better for the environment than making it from Virgin. Whether or not its Pre or Post Consumer. Almost always, the process is much less energy and water intensive than manufacturing the original virgin paper.

Another issue is whether 100% recycled paper is ‘greener’ than, say, 80 or 90% recycled. The reality is that each time paper is recycled, the fibers that control strength grow shorter. For this reason, 100% recycled paper often will not run through high speed printing presses without unacceptably high break rates. Mixing in the longer fibers from only 10 or 15% virgin pulp solves this problem and makes the recycled paper acceptable for high speed printing presses. So while 100% recycled printing paper might SOUND greener, in fact it would not be widely accepted in the market place. Adding in a little bit of virgin makes it a more practical solution, making a product like FutureMark’s paper more commercially competitive and allowing their operation alone to save more than 2 million trees per year

In other words, depending on various factors, buying 93% recycled paper might be a greener choice than buying 100% recycled paper, or even 100% post-consumer – especially when the quality of the final product is critical.

Getting confused?

I don’t have all the answers, but I want this post to be the start of something more inquisitive and could use your help. As always, the best solution is to ask lots of questions and do your homework. The EDF’s Paper Calculator tool is a great place to start. If anyone knows more than I do about this, please comment away. I didn’t even get into aluminum or other materials! Feel free to start a conversation in our new forums too… hint, hint…


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  • Nicholas Gower

    Why does it matter if something is post consumer when it is labeled recycled? As long as it is being kept out of the landfill and substituting for a virgin product, isn’t it serving the same common good? Interested

    • Mael

      I think it’s about perception. We’re recycle things expecting good use to be made of them, so we want to see that reflected in an accurate label. I definitely think it’s misleading to call non-post consumer material “recycled”, but I see the point here that anything diverted from landfill ought to be applauded. Perhaps there needs to be another term?

  • http://energysolutionswecanbelievein.blogspot.com/ Richard Mercer

    What we really need is hemp based paper making. Wood pulp paper uses about 4 times the land hemp does. Hemp is far more renewable, growing large enough to harvest in a matter of months. Hemp makes better paper than wood pulp and doesn’t need bleaching.

  • Tein Fan Atkerson

    Regardless of whether recycled paper is made from pre- OR post-consumer fiber, it yields similar environmental benefits. The main difference between pre- and post-consumer waste is the latter is more likely to end up in landfills, because it’s usually more contaminated, harder to clean, and thus more difficult to recycle. Thus, diverting post-consumer waste through recycling is considered more laudable, because it’s reducing the landfill problem. (Paper is the #1 ingredient in U.S. landfills by volume and is thus a leading generator of methane. Diverting paper from landfills is a consequential benefit.)

    That said, this article is incorrect in stating that recycled paper is more resource-intensive to make than virgin paper. The Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Paper Network and several other respected NGOs have published reports stating it simply takes less water, energy and chemicals to make new paper from old paper than paper from wood pulp.

    That said, not all recycled paper is created equal. If you’re having to truck waste paper from cities (where the waste paper is) to the boondocks (where most paper mills are), you’re really not doing the environment any favors. But siting recycled paper mills in urban areas can be quite an effective, efficient way to process waste paper and convert it into new product.

    I can only assume that Nick is saying recycled paper may be more resource-intensive to manufacture than paper from wood pulp, because he’s buying into the paper industry’s practice of counting (or should I say NOT counting) the burning of biomass (wood chips/scraps), which they dismiss as carbon neutral — a claim that most environmental NGOs have said is absurd.

    Recycled paper, when made in a sensible way, is simply less resource-intensive to make than virgin paper. I’d also argue that pre-consumer distinctions in paper recycling don’t matter as much as they do in other recycling industries. For instance, when recycling glass, metals and plastics, you can throw industrial scrap (the hardened melt) from the manufacturing process back into the melting vat and easily recycle it. The pre-consumer (industrial) scrap – which is stuff like printers’ sample sheets – can’t be made into new product quite as easily, because the paper must undergo a *remanufacturing* process (including de-inking) to recycle it. This important difference between paper and other forms of material recycling makes the pre-consumer brouhaha a moot point, in my opinion.

  • Emmy

    The FTC has not yet implemented its rules requiring an investigation of each company’s claim. As of today, any product maker can outright lie about the content of their product. This makes the “recycled” labels all but useless.

    Habitat loss has become the most underappreciated ecological crisis of all time. In the 1970s, it was overshadowed by endangered species. In the 1980s, it was overshadowed by pollution. In the 1990s, perhaps global warming. Today, plastic and oil spills are a huge concern and rumors are even going around that paper bags are somehow eco-friendly.

    We need trees. They filter our air and water, they provide habitat and food for wildlife (and us)! Many plants have yet untapped potential as medicine. Yet from agriculture, development of Walmarts, sprawl and products, we are losing forests at an unprecedented rate.

    Each time we buy something it should not be a puchase; it should be an investment. If we must use paper, we should research a company’s credibility and try and stick to that product. Too bad the FTC is letting us down in this way.

    • Tein Fan Atkerson

      The FTC’s forthcoming rules will/should provide the enforcement means to police environmental marketing claims. In the meantime, the FTC’s guidelines are pretty explicit regarding what constitutes “recycled.” The guidelines state, “A recycled content claim may be made only for materials that have been recovered or otherwise diverted from the solid waste stream, either during the manufacturing process (pre-consumer), or after consumer use (post-consumer).” You can find the FTC’s environmental marketing guide here: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm

  • http://GlobalPatriot.com/ Global Patriot

    While I prefer terms to be clear and accurate, keeping our waste out of the landfill is critical, so I’m supportive of all efforts to reduce, reuse, recycle.

  • http://green-and-energy.com Thomas – Electric Car

    I also think its not necessary that a product is gone through several hands. Its also an improvement when e.g. production waste is further used. For the same production step or even to substitute other “virgin” products.

  • Designer Jewelry

    I always thought that 100% recycled meant that the product is made out of the same materials over and over again but it doesn’t calculate the fact of all the machines and electric used to create the product again. Designer jewelry is created this way.