Is recycled paper more environmentally friendly?

A few factors need to be weighed in order to gauge the environmental footprint of recycled versus virgin paper. Is the paper mill state-of-the-art or turn-of-the-20th-century? That makes a big difference. Is the mill in a country that does not allow pollution downstream? China’s paper factories pollute more than American factories. Does the mill reuse effluents such as liquor and sludge, byproducts of the paper-making process, or does it dump these byproducts in a landfill?

How fuel efficient is the plant sorted the recycled paper? Are its trucks low emission? Are its conveyor belt motors gas-, diesel, or solar-powered? How close is the recycling plant to the paper mill? Will the trucks collecting all the recycled paper in the city have to drive a long way to the edge of the tree farm where most paper mills are located?

Is an old growth tree going to be cut down to make the paper? This should be avoided at all costs, and several groups have emerged to certify that the source of the paper is legitimate. The two most common names heard in printing are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). If you, the designer, or print buyer specify an FSC-certified sheet, then the printer must purchase from an FSC-certified paper merchant and print on that sheet. If printers are caught substituting other paper, the FSC can revoke their certification.

FSC SFI logos

How was the recycled paper de-inked (bleached) before being made into pulp? Some bleaching methods are terrible for the environment and super expensive to boot. Traditionally, elemental chlorine was used in bleaching, but because of its negative environmental impact, most bleaching processes are now Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF).

Is the recycled paper appropriate for the project? For instance, specifying a job with 100% solid ink coverage on a 100% PCW paper stock might backfire in terms of environmental responsibility because recycled papers use up to three times the ink of a virgin sheet when solid coverage is required.

What kind of paper is it? A cardboard carton? The page of a magazine? A paper grocery bag? All those objects require much less energy to recycle into that form than a sheet of fine writing paper or the page of a coffee table photography book. Most wood pulp fibres can be recycled about eight times before they lose the structure needed to be a strong sheet of paper and wind up in the sludge at a paper mill. Virgin paper is important for introducing strong fibres into the paper-making stream and complementing the mix of recycled pulp. It is also important for that coffee table book you want to pass down to your children. Let’s assume the paper comes from a state-of-the-art US mill and was chosen by a very environmentally conscious recycler in a city where all the paper is sorted close to the mill. If all of these conditions are met, then the resulting recycled paper is more environmentally friendly. Recycling is great so let’s all do our part. Buying recycled paper and specifying recycled paper creates demand. Just don’t specify recycled when you really need virgin, and remember, we need to add virgin paper to the recycling stream.

Designing for Print
Designing for Print.

Is recycled paper more expensive?

It depends. Kraft paper is recycled, brown, and inexpensive. Recycled paper that is whitish with flecks is more expensive than kraft, but less costly than a bright white recycled paper with no flecks. To make recycled paper, the mills need to buy or make pulp from paper that has been de-inked — pulp costing more than pulp from a tree. That cost is passed to the customer who can then weigh the value versus the cost.

Does the paper industry plant more trees than it cuts down?

Yes, but increasing tree farm acreage at the expense of natural forest is not equal in terms of biodiversity, habitat, etc.

Does recycling paper save trees?

When used paper is substituted for virgin pulp, it reduces demand. Recycling helps to reduce the amount of land that needs to be used for tree farms and may preserve native forests. However, a tree in a native forest is not the same as a tree on a tree farm. A natural forest differs from a tree farm in biodiversity and habitat. In ecologically sensitive areas where pressure to convert natural forests to tree farms exists, recycling can help decrease the demand that causes that type of pressure.

Marina Poropat Joyce
Marina Poropat Joyce.

Marina ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund production of her Designing for Print book (available for pre-order). She’s clearly an expert in her field, with the book covering topics such as inks, specialty coatings, finishing techniques, paper choices, colour models, choosing a printer, job schedules, fold considerations, press checks, and a lot more. Best of luck with it, Marina, and thanks for the review copy.

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September 12, 2017

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