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Does PCW Paper Really Save Energy? It’s Worth Asking the Question

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.

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. Excellent questions well-worth asking. Many of the answers will need to be addressed internally by the companies operating each of those processes. As more businesses realize the multiple benefits of operating on a reduced impact diet (lower emissions, toxic chemicals, materials, just to name a few), they will likely take these concepts to task. As engaging in comprehensive management and environmental certification systems, for example, ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, becomes more widely accepted, the questions you pose to them will evolve into their own questions.

    However, I believe you hit the nail on the head of why people often want to just look at a feel-good label on products or services: the reality is extremely complex. The good thing about it all, though, is that you can no longer just stop at one question anymore, so, to quote an old story, “if you give a mouse a cookie…”

  2. I think your readers would find value in the information that can be found at whatsinyourpaper.com. I think you ask good questions that are fair to be answered. Its definitive that on average there is much less total energy used to make paper from paper than to make paper from trees, when looking at the complete life cycle. But the world is more complex than that, as we all know, and we can dig a little deeper if we really want to take advantage of the environmental opportunities for us in making choices about paper. We need to use less, most of all, be more efficient and less wasteful with paper. Value it more, because there are some places in the world where people have little access to paper and its benefits. Also, we have to look at using any virgin fiber in our paper from certified, well managed forests, by a credible certifier like the Forest Stewardship Council. In addition we can look into other factors like the energy source at a mill, etc. The site I mentioned gives good step by step guidance to make this understandable, but not oversimplified.

  3. Hello,
    I would like any ones input on this oil additive I am using.I am getting a increase of near 30% in total gas tank mileage.It is made from total Biomass not from crude oil.If every motor driver would use it it would cut the worlds fuel consumption 20 to 30% WOW!Please go to the website and check it out.I believe this product is a green “Massive Energy Solution”

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