As the old saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” There seem to be a lot of well-intended paving on the roads traveled in search of environmentally-responsible choices. Perhaps none of the road signs along the way are more confusing than the messages regarding recycled paper.
It should be a simple “motherhood and apple pie” issue: Recycled paper is better, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are degrees of “recycled,” and not all recycled materials have the same impact on the environment.
So before you purchase your next case of copier paper, take a few minutes to learn more about these sheets that we take for granted so easily.
The Good News
Before we start, however, let’s cover the “Why should we care?” aspect of this topic. Whether or not you believe in carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas or if human activities contribute significantly to global warming, there are some good, solid reasons to consider paper recycling. It can save valuable resources, including landfill space and fossil fuels. It can help reduce the amount of seriously nasty chemicals that we should avoid releasing into our streams, rivers, and oceans, not to mention our air.
And the fact is: We’re good at recycling paper products and getting better at it all the time. The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) has worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for years. By 1998, a quarter of the materials used at paper mills in this country was recovered paper. The industry has set higher goals repeatedly, only to achieve those targets years in advance. The last goal of 55% recovery was set for 2012, but was reached back in 2007. The bar for next year has been reset at 60%.
According to the EPA, recycling one ton of paper saves enough energy to power the average American home for six months. It saves about 7,000 gallons of water. It saves 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space. And it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by one metric ton of carbon equivalent (MTCE). When you consider that almost 45 million tons of paper and paperboard were recovered, those savings add up. In some segments, we are doing an amazing job of recycling; about 85% of all corrugated cardboard was recovered in 2010.
New Paper: Same as the Old Paper?
So what do we get with all this effort? Is the recycled paper as good as the paper made from “virgin” fibers? As so often is the case with such complex topics, the answer is a resounding, “It depends.”
One problem is that the recovered material cannot be turned back into fresh paper for free. It still takes processing to remove the ink and toner (and staples and paperclips and sticky notes) from the paper before it can be reused. Also, the cycle is not endless; each time you recycle paper fibers, they get shorter. Eventually they are broken into bits so small that they cannot adhere together to be a sheet of paper. The paper industry estimates that paper fibers can be recycled five to seven times before they are no longer useful for paper.
Not all recovered paper is the same, either. Some is a byproduct of paper manufacturing or other waste, such as trimmed pieces of cardboard boxes. This material is never really used, and just gets cycled back into the paper production process. The other type is the paper that you set out in your recycling bins at home or work. This is often called post-consumer waste (PCW), and represents the most valuable paper in terms of preventing negative impact on the environment.
When you shop at your favorite office supply service for paper, you will find that products vary widely in terms of their PCW content. You will find many choices for 100% PCW paper, but you can also find papers with 50%, 30%, or even less PCW. It’s difficult to make hard and fast comparisons, but in general the more PCW in a sheet of paper, the more it costs. You may find that 50% PCW paper costs 15% to 20% less than 100% PCW paper. For 30% PCW paper, the savings can be 25% to 30% or more.
Not All Fibers Are Created Equal
In spite of the increasing proportion of recycled materials entering the paper production stream, there still remains a prodigious demand for new fiber to meet all our paper needs. The most common source of this material is still wood. Wood is a sustainable material that can be grown much like any other crop, such as corn or soybeans. One problem is that not all wood is grown and harvested in the same way.
There can be a significant difference in terms of environmental impact. Some pulpwood is grown on plantations using tree varieties that have been carefully developed to provide maximum growth in the shortest amount of time. Other wood is harvested from natural forest ecosystems, often using clear-cutting practices that cause damage to the soil, the streams, and to the habitats of the animals and plants that live in those forests.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has worked with the logging and paper industries to develop safe and sustainable practices. The organization relies on “chain-of-custody” documentation of wood products in its certification program. By choosing FSC Certified paper products, you have some assurance that they were produced in adherence with conservation and environmental standards.
You also have options to use other fibers. Other crops can be used instead of wood to produce paper as well. For example, the Green Field Paper Company produces a line of paper that is made from 75% PCW material and 25% hemp. Hemp was the fiber of choice for sailors for centuries (until modern synthetics became available), and now is used to make up some of the demand for new fiber in paper production.
A Blank Sheet
Whether you choose to rely on 100% PCW paper to tread more softly on the earth, or you choose how the new fiber in your paper is produced, you can have a significant impact on the environment. Encourage recycling in all aspects of your home and work life, especially with paper. It does not appear that the mythical “paperless office” is going to arrive any time soon, but with just a little effort we can limit the number of trees required to feed our printers and copiers.