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

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…

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He was instrumental in the creation of TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years as well as an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.