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Remember - to use paper, any paper, is to have an impact on our environment!
Our greater goal should to be to promote reduction of consumption.


And We Lived Happily Ever After
Some Realities and Myths of Recycled Paper

by Rick Meis, Treecycle Recycled Paper

It is not easy to tell the difference between all the recycled paper products out there.
"Difference?" you ask, "what'd'ya mean difference? Isn't recycled paper recycled paper?"
No.Let me explain.

Recycled paper is like many things today. When most of us think of recycled paper, we think of all that waste paper we save to take to the recycling center, which is called post-consumer waste. We assume that it is being remanufactured into recycled paper products. This, we assume, will help curb the waste stream/landfill problem and is beneficial to our environment.

Sorry. This is not a fairy tale. Things often don't happen the way we think they should.

When some companies think of "recycled paper," they may be thinking of how to do something cheapest and easiest, sell it to you and make money doing it. Sound like everything else? It is!

About 40% of what goes into our dumps is discarded paper products. The media often carries stories on the woes of recycling paper. One answer is demand. If we want to recycle our wastes, then we must use products made with those materials -- post-consumer wastes. Of the recoverable waste paper discarded in 1990, over 85% was post-consumer. A lack of demand for post-consumer recycled paper products is the limiting factor in recycling more paper.


Recycled paper is an often misused term stemming from the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines. Those concerned with recycling were hoping these EPA guidelines for recycled paper (purchased by federal agencies) would provide a consistent definition.

The guidelines turned out to be so loosely worded that many of the recycled papers on the market are essentially fake -- made with materials that never left the mill or the converter (where paper is cut into sheets or envelopes). These types of waste have historically been reused in papermaking. So nothing new is happening except a label. (It's good this material is being reused, but it simply doesn't meet the public perception of recycling.)

As defined by the EPA, in 1988, recycled paper can include paper made with a minimum (50%) fiber content of "wastepaper": mill waste, converter clippings, printer's scrap, and/or post-consumer waste (pcw). Even wood chips (which are the byproduct of another industry, e.g. a lumber mill) are considered recycled paper fiber. The guidelines do not call for any use of post-consumer waste or post-mill waste for high grade printing and writing paper. (EPA guidelines for newsprint, packaging materials, and tissue products do require some pcw.) Currently EPA is updating the guidelines, but it may be 1994 before we see them.

A worst case scenario would be a paper labeled "recycled" that meets the EPA guidelines and is made of 50% wood chips and 50% pulpwood. It would have none of the characteristics or advantages of paper made with recycled paper fiber.

Paper in stores labeled "recycled paper," may actually be made of material other than the waste paper we recycle. Most of us think recycled paper is made with waste we have recycled, not just a product made with measured mill wastes labeled "recycled." Much of the recycled paper on the market is made of mill waste and converter clippings. This type of recycled paper does not truly address the issue of waste stream reduction through recycling.

When mill wastes comprise the recycled material in paper, recycling is not truly being done. Post-consumer wastes are not being collected and recycled. EPA's guidelines are such that recycled paper could meet these guidelines and not reduce the solid waste problem by one truckload, let alone reduce environmental degradation associated with making paper.

In fact, these fake recycled papers actually hurt our ability to recycle our waste paper. The demand for post-consumer and other post-mill materials is less because paper companies can label mill waste as recycled. When consumers buy what they think is recycled paper, they often get fake recycled and unwittingly torpedo their efforts to recycle waste paper.

In October, 1993, an Executive Order was issued to rectify some of the problems. It requires a 20% post-consumer content in recycled printing and writing papers used by U.S. government agencies by the end of 1994. It also should eliminate mill waste as a component of recycled paper. This Order, however, only covers papers used by the federal government. There is still no consistent definition for recycled paper sold to the public. But this is a start.


To make consumers aware of the minimum content and type of recovered material, a few paper companies, several states, and a number of retailers have taken the next step and identify for consumers the type of "recycled" material in the papers being sold so you know the quality of the paper you are getting and that it meets your goals. Treecycle can help you with this.

There have been several attempts from the private sector to get consistent and effective definitions for recycled paper so that the public can be assured that when they buy recycled paper, it is truly reducing the solid waste, as well as being more environmentally benign than other papers. But without the support of the major paper manufactures, whose lobbying arm also is the major lobbying agent for timber cutting, it will be an uphill struggle. This leaves the consumer as the ultimate key in the resolution of the issue - through their ability to choose more benign products.


Most of the discussion above applies basically to printing and writing paper. Tissue products: toilet paper, napkins, facial tissue and towels, have different requirements set by the EPA, which are somewhat better than for those stated above for printing and writing (fine) papers. It seems logical to put low-grade post-consumer materials into toilet paper. Kinda like having a catalog next to....

However, unlike the fine paper, when a tissue product in the store is labeled recycled, it does not mean it even meets the EPA guidelines. The variance in recycled content in tissue products labeled recycled is normally much greater than in fine paper.

Be aware that some of the so-called 100% recycled tissue products on supermarket shelves have only 10% pcw, not even meeting the EPA guidelines. Some companies fail to provide information on the type of "recycled" material or the bleaching process. One product (which has appeared on the shelves of Montana stores) was mislabeled as to the bleaching done. But it is getting better.


What about bleaching and de-inking?

Papermaking is a dirty business. Paper mills are among the most polluting of industries. The paper industry is the greatest energy consumer in our country. The U.S. paper industry's reliance on chlorine-intensive bleaching places this industry as the worst water polluter in the world.

Paper is not all paper. It can be 20 to 40% fillers, coatings, and chemicals. Making paper requires a great deal of water, energy, and chemistry. Many chemicals associated with the manufacture of paper are toxic or result in toxic waste. Although the recycling of waste paper requires less of all these, the chemicals used and subsequent waste produced varies greatly.

The biggest culprit is the bleaching process. There are 3 basic types of bleaching: chlorine gas, hypochlorites (a chlorine derivative), and hydrogen peroxide or oxygen. Bleaching paper with chlorine is harmful to our environment. Period.

The toxic byproducts we hear about the most are dioxins. Dioxins are one type of organochloride, which result from the combination of chlorine and other substances. Pulp and paper mills using chlorine for bleaching produce up to 1,000 of these chlorinated organic compounds. So far, only about 300 of these have been identified, including dioxins, furans, and PCBs.

Dioxin is considered to be the most potent chemical toxin known, and studies have shown it to be highly carcinogenic. (Keep in mind that DDT is an organochloride!) Toxic emissions from paper mills are concentrated in fish, then are further concentrated when those fish are eaten, whether by a bird or a person. New studies indicate potential impacts to the reproductive and immune systems.

To give a perspective, the pesticide Endrin, a recognized carcinogen, created quite a stir in Montana when found in waterfowl and upland game birds. It is no longer registered for use due to its persistence. Dioxins can be 10,000 times more toxic than Endrin. Pulp mills discharge around 35 tons of toxic organochlorides each day. Many of these cause cancer or genetic damage, lead to reduced reproductivity in fish, and are persistent and accumulate in the environment.

Due to the nature of the pulp source for virgin paper in this country containing large quantities of lignins, powerful bleaching is thought necessary to make the paper white. However, in countries like Sweden and Germany, chlorine-free papers are being made today. In fact, Sweden has a law requiring the elimination of organochloride emissions from paper mills by the year 2000, and the Canadian province of British Columbia by the year 2002.

Recycled paper is made from paper which probably was bleached the first time around, as well as being as much as half virgin fiber anyway, so it is tough to truly say a paper is unbleached. The better term is unREbleached for making recycled paper that is not bleached. It is possible, and better, to do no bleaching.


One advantage of recycled paper is that it CAN be made easily with less toxic processes, and thus result in less environmentally unsound wastes from manufacturing processes. Not all recycled paper products are made using more benign processes. But some are.

If a recycled paper is made from 100% recycled fibers, it does not require much bleaching, let alone as strong of bleach. This could be easily done with an oxygen-based bleaching process. A few paper mills in this country are beginning to use this process, mostly for recycled tissue products, but a few fine papers are produced using this more environmentally sound process.

Several of the recycled paper mills in this country are using a chlorine derivative, sodium hypochlorite, which does not promote the development of organochlorides as readily as elemental chlorine (gas). While it is still a major problem, a hypochlorite bleached product is a better choice than one bleached with chlorine gas.

With the recycling of waste paper comes the necessity to de-ink the fiber. Depending on the type of process, de-inking can range from a simple detergent process to a much more caustic process which may again involve chlorine or other more harmful chemicals and result in dangerous wastes.

Keep in mind that what we think of as ink from copy machine and laser printers is actually a plastic polymer burned onto the page. This requires much more caustic chemicals to "de-ink" than paper printed with ink at a print shop or with a typewriter, inkjet or impact printer. Using ink rather than lasers and copiers whenever possible can help to reduce toxic wastes in the long run.

Printing inks may contain a variety of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds which require strong solvents (also containing VOC's) for cleaning. Vegetable-based inks are an alternative and make the deinking process easier. The technology is advancing, but demand for these alternative products must be there.

"Recycled-ness" and "bleached-ness" are at present two distinct issues and ideals. The goal, of course, would be to meld these two into readily available unrebleached, recycled paper products. At present, very few paper products meet both. It is through informed consumers that we will see the changes to have both. And hopefully we can also see chlorine-free virgin papers on the market without having to bring them half way around the globe.

There are a few very environmentally benign papers available. Usually they come from smaller mills and often cost a little more. Treecycle stocks a couple 100% post-consumer papers which have not been de-inked. One of them has not been bleached or dyed. There is also a 100% de-inked, 50% pcw paper available that has been bleached with hydrogen peroxide.

Ask your paper supplier or printer to find you papers that meet all your goals. If they can't answer your questions, then maybe they simply want to sell you something; not necessarily meet your goals.


A quick pitch . . . we must reduce our level of consumption if we are to really have a major impact on environmental degradation!

Recycled paper, done right, can reduce energy consumption, reduce both air and water pollution, conserve forest resources, reduce water consumption, and save landfill space. And save tax dollars! But watch out! Even if we see an increase in the use of recycled paper, paper consumption is increasing so rapidly we will not see a reduction in the cutting of trees for pulpwood.

There are many myths spread about recycled paper. Often you can't tell the difference between a recycled paper and one that is not; whether it's recycled or not does not determine a paper's quality.

The planet is showing signs of our excessive demands on it: air and water deterioration, overflowing landfills, disappearing forests. We can only resolve these problems by each and every one of us looking at the facts and making responsible decisions.

Recycling on a large scale is new. As the industry catches up with the recycling wave, we will see changes -- but only if the demand is consistent. This must come from the consumer.

Reduction of wasteful consumption is a primary need. Recycling and buying recycled are positive options. Remember: reduce, reuse, and recycle!

Recycled paper is a necessary step in resolving the very real waste stream problem. Recycling is a loop. Buying and using recycled papers closes this loop. If you're not using recycled products, you are not really recycling.



This paper ©1992, Rick Meis, Woodelf Inc. Contact Woodelf, Inc. for for permission to reprint all or part of this article.(vO94)

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