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Looking for a Green Resolution for 2011? Could It Be Laying Off the Recycled?

Did you know that in the paper community, it’s an open secret that recycled paper has a higher carbon footprint than virgin paper? It’s more evidence that things in the environmental world are not always as conventional wisdom would suggest.

What factors impact the carbon footprint of recycled paper?

  • transportation of the fiber (distance of the collection center from the recycled mill)
  • de-inking process
  • bleaching method and chemicals used
  • disposal of the de-inking waste (which can be landfilled)
  • energy use and production inefficiency of many recycled mills (which can often be older plants with less efficient technology)

These, among other factors, can make the carbon footprint of recycled papers double that of papers made from virgin fiber from sustainably managed forests. (They key here is “sustainably managed.”) Especially if the mill is close to the fiber supply, virgin papers can be much kinder on the environment than papers using recovered fiber.

What about keeping recycled fiber out of the landfill? Isn’t that just as important? Again, in a break from conventional wisdom, paper experts point out that every time the paper is processed, some of the wood fibers break. After you recycle recovered paper enough times, they become so small they slip through the filtration screen. Then they end up in the landfill anyway. All you are doing is delaying the process in order to use the fiber for a less efficient manufacturing process in the meantime.

This is why there are a growing number of voices encouraging people — for the sake of the planet — to lay off the recycled paper and focus on papers manufactured from virgin fiber from sustainably managed forests.

It’s something to think about.

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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