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Questioning Conventional Wisdom on PCW Recycled Paper

I’ve been thinking about postconsumer waste lately (apparently, I have too much time on my hands). What I was wondering was this:

Postconsumer waste is only one of three waste streams for unused paper. There is also mill broke (scrap collected at the mill and recycled back into the same type of paper from whence it came); and there is pre-consumer waste (paper trimmings and other scrap collected at the printing or converting site and recycled back to the mill before reaching the hands of the consumer).

So here’s what I’m wondering. Both mill broke and pre-consumer waste are recycled back much earlier in the process, so they require less energy to transport. They also need less processing in most cases because they have not yet been printed, glued, laminated or otherwise converted. Post-consumer waste, on the other hand, has to be collected from millions of individual homes and businesses around the country. Then it has to be sorted and processed, and sometimes even bleached. The energy and processing requirements are far greater. So why is post-consumer waste considered greener?

The answer isn’t based on the actual greenness of the process. The answer is that mill broke and pre-consumer waste have always been recycled as part of the papermaking and production stream. Thus, many do not even consider them “recycled.” They consider them “recovered.”

Postconsumer waste is waste that has always gone into the waste stream and takes up inordinate amounts of space in the landfills. Thus, while it may take more energy to collect and recycle, it’s considered greener because you’re reducing landfill volume.

So here’s my question. Which is greener? Or reducing landfill volume? Or conserving energy and reducing chemical use? I guess it depends on which you see as more important.

Like this post? See all my “Greening Print Marketing” posts.

Written by Heidi Tolliver-Walker

Heidi Tolliver-Walker has been a commercial and digital printing industry analyst, feature writer, columnist, editor, and author for nearly 20 years. She is known for her meticulous research and no-nonsense perspective. In addition to having written thousands of industry articles for top industry publications, she and Richard Romano have been the face of the well-respected industry research firm The Industry Measure (TrendWatch Graphic Arts) for many years. In her more than 13-year tenure with the firm, she has written countless reports on digital printing, 1:1 (personalized) printing, Web-to-print, personalized URLs, and other hot industry applications. She is also a long-time contributing editor and columnist for Printing News, for which she writes two monthly columns, including "Personal Effects," which features monthly analysis of 1:1 (personalized) printing case studies. She is also the author of three titles for the National Association of Printing Leadership: Designer's Printing Companion, Ink & Color: A Printer's Guide, and Diversifying Via Value-Added Services. As a small, niche publisher (Strong Tower Publishing), she is active in utilizing these technologies in her own business, as well.


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  1. Heidi,

    You make a series of good points. Post-consumer wastes do consume more energy to recycle than mill-broke or pre-consumer, but if the energy required to reacquire it all is less than producing new paper from trees, then I believe it is still a worthy quest. Putting a “greener” face on PCW over the others provides encouragement to consumers to “do their part”, wherein pre-consumer is based solely on the paper company. Plus, PCW allows nearly all original production to be reused, instead of only the waste products.

    Seeking a target of “treeless” paper is only achievable with widespread consumer adoption of PCW recycling. Besides, isn’t “going green” all about giving everyone the opportunity to make a difference?

    And that doesn’t even get in to Certified and elemental chlorine free…

  2. This is a great post. I’m often thinking of these process’ as well. I use post industrially recycled wood. To me the argument that it is recycled does not even count. The business that I get our limber from will always try to get the biggest yield of it’s raw material. So I actually think that the way to look weather materials are green or not is to determine how much harm you caused to the environment. This means that one must look at the full life cycle of the product/material. My ultimate goal is to use FSC lumber, then I’m not causing harm at the beginning of the chain, then energy use must be from renewables and transportation as efficient as possible, and finally, how much damage does the material cause when it’s discarded. Does it need to be properly recycled because it would otherwise be toxic or harmfull, or in the case that someone accidently discrads it into the regular dump, will it just rot away without any damage to the environment. I think if everyone that manufactuers something would pay attention to this would, we would actually cause almost minimal harm to the environment.

    Those are just my two cents. Let me know if you disagree with any aspects of my thinking.

    Cheers, Hans

  3. @Hans

    You are right on the money. Too many products are currently graded on the basis of secondary characteristics (pre/post consumer, partially recycled content packaging, etc.), not the true cradle to grave impact. Unnecessary material use is still waste, no matter what its “green” credentials may be.

    Thinking about impacts from source to final destination (compost heap, waterway, landfill, etc.) is the best way to minimize environmental harm.

    For paper, it is, as you mention, taking every phase of production into account. The most significant improvements can be made at the source (FSC, SFI, PEFC), then there are manufacturing processes (elemental chlorine free, totally chlorine free), and finally, distribution (alternative or fuel-efficient transportation) and packaging (bioplastic, biodegradable, material reduction). Each step down the line results in fewer net benefits, but doing it all provides significant improvements.

    I think we’re on the same lines. Now to get this understanding out to the world.

  4. Great comments! I recently looked into the energy use for virgin vs. recycled paper and was surprised to find that estimates on the percentage of energy savings for processing the pulp ranged from only about 28% to 70& or so. But I’m not sure whether that takes into consideration the energy used to harvest the pulp in the first place. Therein lies the challenge in evaluating these processes. You have to know how each is defined and all that goes on under the hood. That means asking hard questions (“What do you mean by that”) that few people are willing to take the time to do — or even know they need to do. It’s too easy just to accept the label and feel good about it.

  5. You also need to count the greenhouse gases emitted from the waste paper as it degrades in the landfill. A pound of paper degrades to more than a pound of carbon dioxide. And if the landfill is not capturing methane the paper might be degraded to methane and released into the atmosphere that way.

    In general it is more relevant to focus on emissions than energy use alone. Using energy doesn’t wreck the planet, but excessive GHG emissions might. Using too much energy might be an economic problem, but since that should be reflected in the price of the recycled paper the market should take care of it. Unless the taxpayers are getting mulcted to make up the difference.

    Also when considering the cost of recovering post-consumer paper for recycling you can only count the transportation emissions in excess of those that would have been caused anyway by hauling it to a landfill.

    Waste paper could be composted, but the GHG balance of composting is a complicated problem in itself. And if all the waste paper now sent for recycling went into the composting stream instead, the value of finished compost might be driven down well below zero.

  6. Great Post! I agree, The answer isn’t based on the actual greenness of the process. The answer is that mill broke and pre-consumer waste have always been recycled as part of the papermaking and production stream. Thus, many do not even consider them “recycled.” They consider them “recovered.” Very well said.

    • It’s difficult to find information about the TRUE savings when recycling post-consumer paper, and this post is great.

      Two thoughts:
      1) Speaking with a friend in the paper business, he was disappointed that the doubled transportation costs are never included when calculating the “benefits” of recycling. And he was pleased by the fact that we have made trees in the US one of THE most heavily-renewed resources! Add that to the fact that paper degrades quickly in landfills – we should focus more effort on those hard clear plastic shells that so many products are now sold in.

      2) So we save energy by recycling, turning off lights, etc. Here’s my concern – NEVER in the history of economics (supply and demand) has using LESS of something brought about better or cheaper products. Only by stressing the supply and causing shortages (and higher prices) do we motivate scientists and entrepreneurs to bring alternatives to the market.

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