Recycling paper ... and recycled paper

Paper is a voracious consumer of natural resources - which makes recycling critical.

by David Bainbridge

atural systems re-cycle everything, through short and long ever-repeating cycles. We need to do as well with the resources we rely on, including natural fibers and especially paper. Paper is one of the largest components of the waste stream going into landfills.

Paper recycling is increasing at an encouraging rate after struggling through the 1980s, yet there is still a long way to go. A requirement for recycled content in Federal government purchases has provided a boost, and the push for rapid adoption of recycling in Europe has also helped paper mills progress here. The subsidies for harvesting fresh or virgin wood fiber have decreased some and the market has responded. Office paper recycling is now up to 36 percent of total use and newspaper recycling is up to 46 percent. The demand for recycling has led to rapid increases in recovered pulp paper production, from 574,000 tons in 1994 to a forecasted 2.3 million tons in 1997.

Paper use can be substantially reduced by printing on both sides and by reusing paper that is only printed on one side. Some types of printers and copiers are more tolerant of used and slightly rumpled paper than others. Simple impact printers and inkjets are more likely to tolerate reuse. Dartmouth College has reused paper stations at some public printers. Professors and teachers can encourage students to turn in papers on used paper.

The term "recycled" is often used to describe fiber that is pre-consumer recycled. The scraps and wastes generated in the paper production process have always been recycled. Post-consumer fiber content is what really counts.

The long and short of it

Paper derives its tensile strength from fibers; the longer the fibers, the greater the strength and stability of the paper. Each time paper is recycled, the fibers are broken, leading to a weaker product. To overcome this problem, recycled fibre is generally mixed with virgin fiber. The quality of carefully mixed and prepared recycled paper can be as good or better than pure virgin fiber.

Most recycled papers will work well in copiers, laser printers and high speed copiers. High speed copiers are the most sensitive and need more long fiber in the paper than other uses to run well. Recycled paper may also be equally sensitive to changes in moisture and orientation. The need for long fiber often restricts post-consumer content to 50 percent or less. Several big users in the county use primarily recycled paper in high speed copiers and report only slightly more dirt and dust than virgin paper. Traditional ink presses can use a much wider range of papers.

Envelopes, place mats and paper towels - items that are used once and not expected to be recycled - plus other less critical applications can use 100 percent recycled fiber with very high post-consumer content. Compliment Pacific Bell for switching to recycled paper envelopes!

New fibers

The source of the long fiber can also be improved. Alternative fibers that are more ecologically favorable are gaining acceptance. These include kenaf, hemp, flax, cotton, straw, and wood fiber produced in cottonwood fiber farms. Kenaf, hemp, flax (linen) and cotton are excellent fibers and can be combined with recycled fiber to improve paper quality. Patagonia mail order has used kenaf paper and likes it. Italy uses almost 7 percent straw fiber for paper production. California has 1 million tons of rice straw looking for a market - much could be used for paper, especially for basic uses like place mats.

James River has developed extensive fiber plantations in the Northwest. These suffer the problems of all monocultures but are high yield and short rotation. They are much more appropriate sources of fiber than old growth forests. Ideally, paper labels should include the fiber source and a sustainability rating.

To the source

A comprehensive report on green copy papers can be obtained from Green Seal; see the accompanying story below.

Staples carries a 100 percent recycled/50 percent post consumer paper, Hammermill Unity DP, which works well in many uses but not all high speed copiers. Many other recycled papers are available from a wide range of suppliers, including Xerox, James River, Fox River, Crane and Hopper; ask for them at your paper supplier.

Mail order paper supplier include: On Paper (800) 8209-2299; Real Goods (800) 762-7325; Earth Care (800) 347-0070; and 7th Generation (800) 456-1177. Many others now carry recycled paper goods.

Test paper and paper products before buying in bulk. A few of the recycled towels and tissues perform poorly due to poor specifications and quality control. Also, some copiers are more persnickety than others and may require the higher cost recycled papers.

It's up to you

You can help by asking your school, office, company or family to look for and use recycled paper and to recycle all paper waste. To help avoid the need for recycling, consider avoiding the use of paper by calling or using e-mail.

Ask your supervisor and state legislator to encourage recycling and waste reduction. Illinois passed a law in 1990 that requires the state universities to reduce their waste streams 40 percent by the year 2000 and to adopt purchasing policies favoring recycled materials.

For further reading, check out Prime Time for Post-consumer Recycling (N. Basta, Chemical Engineering 102(2):31-35 1995) or Recycled Papers: The Essential Guide (C. Thompson, 1992, MIT Press.) (dated already but a good reference).

David Bainbridge is Environmental Studies Coordinator at United States International University, San Diego.

Green Seal publishes report on 'green' copy papers

reen Seal's Environmental Partners Program announces the release of its annual Choose Green Report on copy paper which examines environmentally preferable copy papers and lists 21 of the greenest copy papers available.

This Choose Green Report makes it easy for businesses and organizations to purchase the most environmentally responsible copy paper by listing the 21 greenest copy papers available and highlighting 10 leadership products. This list includes product brand names, manufacturer names, percentages of post-consumer and total recycled content, bleaching process used, basis weight, paper brightness and other specific information to assist businesses and organizations in buying the greenest copy papers available.

The copy paper report reviews the environmental impacts associated with the production of copy paper, explains why the use of post-consumer recycled content and totally-chlorine free bleach are environmentally significant, discusses the role of alternative fibers in copy paper production and gives suggestion on how to save money in your copy paper use.

E. Jay Murphy, editor of the Choose Green Report, pointed out that copy paper is an essential purchase of businesses, making it a perfect focus due to its huge environmental impact. "Every time we recycle a ton of paper, we save thousands of gallons of water and valuable landfill space," he remarked.

Green Seal's Environmental Partners Program publishes a new Choose Green Report each month which focuses on a different product purchased by businesses across the country. Recent reports examined computer monitors, general purpose cleaners, interior latex paints, tissue products and vehicle maintenance supplies. For subscription information or a sample copy of the Choose Green Report on Copy Paper, call Green Seal at (202) 872-6400.