My last post on questioning conventional wisdom on recycled paper generated some terrific comments. After all, when you look more deeply into some of these issues, they aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Is possible that post-consumer waste (PCW) paper isn’t as green as we think it is? The question was worth asking.
One of the people commenting on the post made this interesting observation: “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.”
That is a question worth asking, and it generates yet another question. How does the energy to create PCW paper compare to that used to create paper from virgin paper? I did some digging and tried to find out. Here are some of the stats I uncovered:
- The Bureau of International Recycling reports that recycled pulp requires 64% less energy than virgin pulp
- Friends of the Earth puts this even higher, at up to 70% less energy than for virgin pulp.
- The United States Information Administration reports that making a ton of paper from recycled paper saves up to 17 trees and uses 50% less water.
But what do these stats actually mean? What does it mean to “create” the paper? How much of the lifecycle does it include? Does it include, for example, the energy used to harvest the pulp in the first place? How much energy does it use to move those massive logging trucks into the forests, tear down the trees, and move them to the mill? How does that compare to the amount of energy used to collect the PCW waste from the thousands or millions of homes and businesses?
You would have to contact each reporting agency individually and ask them because there is no standard way of defining and reporting each of these terms.
Therein lies the challenge in evaluating “green” processes. You have to know how each term 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.
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