How Well Do You Know Recycled Paper

By Tim Fitzpatrick

[Apr. 17, 2006]

In my town, every other Monday is recycling day. I try to be as diligent as possible sorting out the recycled from the non-recycled. Plastic goes in one bin, paper goes in a brown paper bag and then both go out to the curb. I always thought that the paper I used would someday be re-used or re-sold as environmentally friendly paper. After delving further into the recycling business, I'm not so sure. Just like anything else, sometimes things aren't always what they seem. This article will explore the possibility that the recycled paper you buy may not be what it seems.

A Short History of Paper

The Chinese invented paper some 2000 years ago. However, the paper we know today, made from wood pulp, has really only been around for 200 years. Before the transition to wood pulp, paper was made from recycled rags and textiles. In the 1950's and 1960's, it was made exclusively from virgin wood pulp. Manufacturing paper from virgin wood had profound effects on the world's resources. It takes 2 to 3.5 tons of trees to make one ton of paper. The manufacturing process also uses more water per ton than any other product. Due to public pressures, many mills retrofitted their operations to allow for some recycled material to be used in the paper making process. Today, consumers know the importance of recycling. Americans are recycling over 300 pounds of paper per person so it appears we are doing something right. That amount is approximately fifty percent of the paper produced in the United States. Since 1975, we have tripled our recycling volume. Given that fact, bear in mind that almost 60% of our paper still does not get recycled.

Definition of Recycled Paper

The EPA defines recycled paper as paper that contains a minimum of 30% post-consumer waste. If you buy a notebook that says 100% recycled paper, it should mean that it was made from 100% post-consumer waste. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Words can sound similar but have different meanings sometimes. Recyclable and recycled are two prime examples. Recyclable can be a misleading term. Just because an item is recyclable does not mean it contains recycled material nor does it mean that there is any guarantee that your local recycling authorities will accept it.

Let's explore some recycling terms

Recycled Paper

An ambiguous term that could be meant paper recovered after consumers haul it out to the curbside or paper made from pre-consumer scraps, hence not recycled at all.

Post consumer fiber

The EPA defines this material as paper, paperboard, and fibrous wastes from retail stores, office buildings, and homes. Used corrugated boxes, old newspapers, old magazines, junk mail, and mixed waste paper fall under this category. These items have been diverted from the waste stream. The two key words to keep in the back of your heads are end products and consumers. Scraps, cuttings, and loose ends from the mills do not qualify here.

Recovered Fiber

Post consumer fiber consisting of paper, paperboard, and fibrous materials from retail stores, office buildings, and homes after they have passed through their end-usage as a consumer item.


Dry paper and paperboard waste generated after the paper making process. This includes waste generated in the manufacturing operations up to and including the cutting, trimming, and forming steps.

These have been separated from the solid waste stream for recycling purposes. Both pre-consumer and post-consumer products fall under this category.

Mill Broke

This consists of scrap generated in a mill prior to the completion of the papermaking process, which can be re-used. The EPA defines mill broke as being only that portion of scraps produced in the initial paper manufacturing process.

De-inked material

Waste paper that has had the ink, fillings, and coatings removed before being recycled. Examples are magazines and newspapers that were printed but never sold.

Seeing is Believing?

You would think that when you buy paper that states it is one hundred percent recycled, it should mean it actually is one hundred percent recycled. This is not always the case as the familiar recycling logo you see on paper falls under the realm of free domain. What that means is that a product does not have to be recyclable in order to wear the logo. Many people, including yours truly, get duped into thinking that paper and other material claiming to be 100% recycled would be made from 100% post consumer waste. The reality is that it may contain very little post consumer waste. Read the labels carefully on all products and pay attention to the percentage of post consumer fiber used when making your decision. The higher the percentage, the better it is. To determine if a particular paper is indeed environmentally friendly, you need to know more than the recycled content. A good question to ask yourself would be how the paper was bleached, if at all. To answer that, you need to be armed with some information before you hit the checkout counter.


Buying white paper means that you are buying paper that has been bleached in some way. The bleaching process requires large amounts of water and can put a strain on the environment. As the water goes through the manufacturing process, it also releases dangerous chlorinated compounds into our water including dioxin, commonly accepted to cause cancer. By being cognizant of bleaching terms, you can be sure that you are buying environmentally friendly paper.

Bleaching Terms and Paper

TCF = Total Chlorine Free

Virgin, non-recycled paper indicating no chlorine or chlorine related compounds were used.

ECF = Elemental Chlorine Free

No chlorine gas used. However, other elements that contain chlorine are used such as chlorine dioxide, which still produces the carcinogen, dioxin.

PCF = Process Chlorine Free

Recycled paper that is re-manufactured into consumer paper without the use of chlorine. It also meets the EPA's 30% minimum requirement for recycled/post consumer waste content. You can be certain that this paper was also re-bleached using non-chlorine alternatives such as oxygen, hydrogen peroxide, and enzymes.

The Printing-And-Writing-Paper Industry

In Recycled Papers: An Essential Guide, author Claudia Thompson states that much of the content of recycled paper is made from scraps left over from the paper manufacturing process that is swept off a mill floor. She states that the term "recycled" is a marketing strategy introduced in the 1980's to satiate the consumer demand for recycling opportunities. Paper that bears the name "recycled" may have no paper that has been through a cycle at all. The typical recycling paper made were leftovers from the original paper making process. This practice was an industry standard long before the public hue and cry. The processing of post-consumer and post-industrial waste is a very expensive process and requires expensive de-inking facilities and the cost is passed on to consumers. This makes buying recycled paper more expensive than virgin paper. Many don't mind paying the higher price for a more environmentally friendly paper.

Alternative Paper to Consider

Non-wood based paper, made from hemp, cotton, or other fibers may be an alternative that consumers can pursue. These so called agrifibers yield more pulp per acre than forests or tree farms and use less herbicides and pesticides. Some environmentalists say that switching to these types of products doesn't actually address the real problem that is paper consumption.

How Much Paper We Actually Use

According to a March 2004 report from the American Forest and Paper Association, total fiber consumption declined in 2003 by 0.9% but is expected to rise at an average annual rate of 1.0% from 2004-2006.

An Interesting Psychological Study of Paper

Just saying that we need to use less paper probably will not solve the problem. Paper is an integral part of business. In an article titled The Social Life of Paper in the March 25th, 2002 edition of the New Yorker, such a case was made. The article, among other things, outlined a book written by two social scientist called The Myth of a Paperless Office. In it, they detail how paper stacked on desks represents active thinking and to dismiss that is probably not feasible. Collaboration between business associates becomes much easier when papers can be spread out, talked about, and scribbled on. In a paperless office, doing these things with a computer would be much more difficult. It seems that a compromise could be reached that might lessen the use of paper while still allowing for "business to be done."

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Related Resources


  • American Forest and Paper Association. Fiber Consumption Expected to Grow Modestly, According to New AF&PA Report. . Accessed on-line March 2006.
  • Environmental Protection Agency. Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines, Definitions, Specifications, and Other Guidance. Accessed on-line, March 2006.

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