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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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