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Not All REcycled paper is Equal

August 23, 2019

A google search for “recycled paper” can overwhelm the typical user, often leaving them confused as to what they are actually buying. When one thinks of recycled paper, they think of paper that has been previously used, reduced to its basic fibers, and then made into a new sheet of paper. While this is true, recycled paper goes much deeper from the type of recycled fibers that are used, pre-consumer or post-consumer, to the differing amounts of recycled content that is put into the paper. 

Recycled paper can be made of two types of fibers, post-consumer recycled waste and pre- consumer recycled waste. Post-consumer recycled waste are materials that came from a finished product, were used by a consumer, and then recycled to make a new product instead of ending up in the trash to be brought to the landfill. These materials range from used notebooks to junk mail. 

Pre-consumer recycled waste are materials that have been discarded during the manufacturing process. These materials never actually left the manufacturing site, and were never used by consumers so these materials could still be considered virgin materials. In terms of paper, pre-consumer waste are the scraps and trimmings that were cut off and thrown out when cutting the paper to the desired size. This is typically not considered traditional recycling.

Post-consumer recycled fibers are the most important material that can be recycled and used again. Using post-consumer recycled fibers helps to keep waste that is typically thrown away, from taking up much needed space in our landfills. Consumers must focus on products with PCRF in order to move the needle towards a more sustainable paper making process. Consumers can find these products by looking for certifications on the packaging or the companies website.

However, like recycled paper, not all certifications are created equal. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), Ancient Forest Friendly are a few examples of certifications and many others can be used to explain a paper product. These certifications are designed to help consumers buy more responsible products while allowing companies to take steps towards a more sustainable production method. For example, a FSC certification deems a product was created using wood fibers from a responsibly managed forest that meets standards set by the FSC. If a product is Ancient Forest Friendly, it does not contain fiber from an endangered or ancient forest, is made with 100% recycled paper, and does not use chlorine to whiten it. There are many different certifications that mean different things, so it’s important to familiarize ourselves with them.

In relation, some of these certifications can also be misleading at times. Putting “recycling” logos for example may not tell you the whole story. While the product could contain pre-consumer recycled materials, it could be free of PCRF which has the greater impact when it comes to reducing environmental impacts. Deceptive marketing tactics, such as misleading logos or “green, eco” phrasing, can be used to push green certifications that are not fully applicable, or rename products with green terms in order to misrepresent their true contents.

Out of all the many different “green” certifications and logos, when using paper products, the most important green indicator to look for is the amount of PCRF that the paper contains. The greater the amount of PCRF, the more effective it is in diverting waste from the landfills and preserving our native forests. Additionally, the use of PCRF helps to close the loop in a product that is normally discarded very quickly, and instead, encourages recycling.

The use of post-consumer recycled fiber has the ability to move the needle towards a more circular economy by promoting the reuse of materials that are used on a daily basis. The reduction in environmental impacts such as less organic waste in landfills, less harmful chemicals in waterways, and fewer trees being cut down all lead to a more healthy planet while still creating a paper that is of a very high quality.


Julia Silva Jonathon Duffy