The Benefits of Recycled
Even though there has been some controversy about the benefits of using recycled versus virgin pulp, most environmental organizations and independent studies have concluded that there are clear benefits to recycling paper. The simplest way to think about the issue is that every sheet of paper that is reclaimed keeps material out of overflowing landfills.
Labeling on paper that contains some percentage of reclaimed material can be confusing and even misleading. There are no regulations for when one may use the recycled logo, nor are there standards for what percentage of reclaimed content a product must have in order to be classified as recycled. Therefore, the term "recycled" can mean very different things to different manufacturers. When evaluating reclaimed paper, the most important distinction to make is between preconsumer and postconsumer waste.
What We Save
Conserveatree, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing expert advice and leadership on paper choices, reports that one ton of recycled paper saves 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space. It also cites an Environmental Protection Agency study that estimates that a ton of 100 percent postconsumer recycled paper saves 7,000 gallons of water, 4,100 kilowatt hours of electricity, and 60 pounds of air pollution.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's own standards for paper in their offices require minimums of 30 percent postconsumer content for uncoated papers and 10 percent for coated papers. This requirement is broad enough that one should be able to find a competitively-based sheet in this range, and it can be a good benchmark to shoot for.
Preconsumer waste refers to scraps and ends from the manufacturing process, as well as test sheets and over-runs from printers; both of which are collected and remanufactured into new paper.
Postconsumer waste refers to material that has reached the consumer, been used, and then is collected to make new product. It is postconsumer waste that people commonly think of when they want recycled paper. However, preconsumer waste is reported to make up 20 percent of the reclaimed content used in paper today. Copy paper often has some percentage (usually 10 to 30 percent) of recycled content, and unless otherwise specified, this labeling may simply indicate that mill waste is being fed back into the manufacturing process. While preconsumer waste is an important indication that mills are being efficient, it is vital that companies label products so consumers understand where reclaimed content comes from.
Recycled content is only part of specing paper from environmentally preferable sources. More sheets than ever before are being produced with a combination of recycled content and virgin fiber from sustainably managed forests. FSC's mixed source label can now include some recycled content and provides a great option at competitive prices.
The Life Span of Paper
The life span of organic fibers is limited, and generally paper can be recycled only up to six times. As paper goes through multiple de-inking and remanufacturing processes, the natural fibers begin to break, and they eventually become too short to be used to make new paper. The more times fibers have been reused, the lower the grade of paper that can be made from them and/or greater amounts of virgin fiber will need to be added to offset the lesser quality of the recycled content. Newsprint and cardboard can be produced with lower quality reclaimed material and are ideally suited for high percentages of recycled content.
Spotlight on the Process
After being collected, sorted, and bailed, paper is sent to a de-inking mill. Unwanted material is removed with the help of chemicals called surfactants, which help separate ink, adhesives, and other contaminants from paper fibers. The pulp is washed and (for white paper) bleached, usually with a product similar to hydrogen peroxide. Because hydrogen peroxide is used instead of chlorine derivatives, this bleaching is considered less harmful than the bleaching that's done to virgin fiber. For lower grade products such as paper towels, tissue, or packaging, pulp doesn't need to be bleached. Recycled pulp is dried and bailed in thick sheets before being sent to papermaking mills to be used to make a range of different products.
One of the main environmental concerns associated with the recycling process is sludge that consists of leftover materials from the de-inking process. Though some mills reprocess sludge for use as fertilizer, the practice is controversial because sludge and the resulting fertilizer often contain the heavy metals from ink. Since reclaimed material may have been printed before environmental regulations took effect, even materials that are banned for use today can show up in sludge. The safe collection and disposal of de-inking waste remains an important environmental concern. However when paper is de-inked, any toxic elements found in sludge are less likely to contaminate ground water supplies than if waste paper was sent directly to landfills.
For its Japanese market, Toshiba has developed "disappearing ink," which can be used in office printers on paper that will be recycled. The ink can be removed easily from large quantities of paper using thermal processing and a specially developed decolorizer. Toshiba's process allows reclaimed fibers to be used up to ten times and this product is in the same price range as conventional printer ink. Unfortunately "disappearing ink" is currently available only in Japan, but if there is enough demand, Toshiba may have the incentive to introduce the product in other countries.