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Part V - Buyers: Consumers are Key


Source Reduction

Recycling addresses "how" a product may be produced in a more environmentally sound process than its virgin counterpart. But it is not designed to answer the even more important question, "Why?" Source reduction, or waste prevention, should come before any purchase. Buyers should rethink, Why is the product needed? Are there ways to eliminate the need for this product? Could better use of computers, or double-sided copying, or two-way envelopes meet the need instead without requiring a purchase? Reducing resource demand at the source is the foremost conserver of resources because it doesn't require them at all.

Putting source reduction together with recycling, or asking Why and then How, is a more powerful combination for environmental soundness than either alone. There are dozens of ways buyers can reduce their paper use and yet not threaten the quality of their enterprise.

For example, Alameda County (in the San Francisco Bay Area) eliminated the cost of printing new letterhead by switching to the use of templates in its word processing program. Now staff simply type their letters and memos on the appropriate computer template and print them out with an always-up-to-date letterhead design, which can be customized for every office. Federal Express (Memphis, TN) reduced paper use, inventory, warehouse and handling costs by using a two-way envelope rather than an outbound and return envelope for its millions of bills a year. Many Pacific Gas & Electric Company (northern California) offices programmed their copiers to default to double-sided copying and save substantially on paper costs. Users can manually choose single-sided copying if they truly need that option.

A number of state and local governments now offer reports on disk to users who welcome that alternative rather than stacks of printed paper. Some courts around the country are now requiring double-sided copying for briefs filed in their systems. And all sorts of offices are reusing paper by printing internal drafts on the blank side of no-longer-needed copies, or cutting up used paper for note and telephone message pads.


Of course, source reduction doesn't eliminate the need for paper. It simply ensures that paper purchases are the most efficient and effective way to meet a specific need. The choices you make as buyer affect the choices that paper mills eventually make as investors in new technology and processes. So how does a buyer make the most environmentally sound choice?

First of all, consider the decision points outlined here and then choose the best combination of paper contents that respond to your environmental concerns, balanced by your economic realities. Choose paper whenever possible that is bleached by TCF or PCF processes. And buy real recycled paper. Knowing the paper's recycled content is crucial to choosing the most environmentally sound recycled papers. To do that, one must rely on definitions, standards, and labeling.


Clear, strong definitions in specifications are essential to be sure you get what you expect. Define the terms you use in bids, contracts, and phone quotes. You also need to know what others mean by the terms they use. Because there is not absolute agreement on recycling terms, others may use the same terms that you do, but have a different meaning. Ask for their definition and, if it's still not clear, ask for examples of materials that qualify under their definition. Distributors may not know the specific types of recycled content in a paper or may be under misconceptions themselves. To be certain, go to the manufacturer and, if necessary, have specifics written on company letterhead.

Among the most critical definitions are:

  • Postconsumer material/fiber: Those end products generated by consumers that have been separated or diverted from the solid waste stream.

  • Consumer: Any person, government agency or other entity which uses goods for its own needs, and not for resale or for manufacture of other goods.

  • Recovered material/fiber: Paper materials, excluding mill broke, that have been separated, diverted, or removed from the solid waste stream for the purpose of use, reuse or recycling.

  • Totally chlorine free (TCF): Virgin paper that is unbleached or processed with a sequence that includes no chlorine or chlorine derivatives.

  • Processed chlorine free (PCF): Recycled paper in which the recycled content is unbleached or bleached without chlorine or chlorine derivatives. Any virgin material portion of the paper must be TCF. Must contain at least 30% postconsumer content.

These definitions and many more are discussed in greater detail in Recycled Content Definitions and Chlorine Free Paper Terms.


The percentage of recycled content, particularly postconsumer content, in a paper makes the difference between one that "gets by" as recycled and one that truly fulfills its potential for environmental conservation. The White House issued an Executive Order in 1993 that decreed, along with a subsequent amendment, that the federal government will buy recycled printing and writing paper with a minimum of 20% postconsumer content, increasing to 30% in 1999. Many federal agencies, including its purchasing agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), as well as the Government Printing Office (GPO) seriously lagged in implementing the mandatory order. Nevertheless, many states, businesses and organizations joined the federal government in adopting the 20% standard.

The level of 20% was originally chosen to encourage supermills, which make most of the virgin copy and offset papers, to get into recycling. If recycled paper were made on the same size paper machines, it would benefit from the same economies of scale and prices would fall.

But 20% is a very low recycled content. The other 80% of the paper can be virgin fiber. Many printing and writing papers are produced with higher postconsumer contents, some up to 100%. It is important for buyers to encourage mills to keep increasing the amount of postconsumer contents in their papers, rather than settling for 20%. While the Executive Order does provide for the standards to rise to 30% by 1999, it does not reward recycled papers that do better.

The postconsumer content "floor" is not supposed to become a "ceiling." Rather, it is important to reward mills that expand the capacity for fine papers to use recycled content. A recovered paper requirement, in addition to a postconsumer floor (such as 50 recovered/20 postconsumer), can encourage mills to include more postconsumer content when preconsumer material becomes more scarce. It does not require preconsumer material to meet its standard (all 50% can be postconsumer) but allows mills to choose what kind of recycled content to include for the portion beyond the minimum postconsumer requirements. This can effectively increase the overall consumption of postconsumer material, while giving mills flexibility.

Environmental Labeling

Without accurate labeling of recycled content, consumers don't know whether the paper they're buying contains postconsumer content from curbside or office collection programs or is simply made from paper mill scraps. Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates deceptive advertising, has not been very helpful on this issue. It did issue guidelines in 1993 which eliminated the most egregious misuse of the term "recycled." But it still does not require that manufacturers include postconsumer content in products labeled as "recycled" or even list the contents that are in the product.

The chasing arrows recycling symbol was designed by a University of California student, Gary Anderson, in a national competition for the Recycled Paperboard Division of the American Paper Institute (now the American Forest & Paper Association, AF&PA). It was adopted in 1970 as a public relations tool for the paperboard industry, which had a long history of using recycled paper. This symbol is in the public domain, which means that anyone can use it. In recent years, the symbol has been used on some labels to mean recycled content and on others to mean "recyclable." (Since for many products and packages there may be no collection systems available in some parts of the country, the designation as "recyclable" may be meaningless at best, if not deceptive.) AF&PA recommends that labels using the chasing-arrows symbol to indicate "recycled" always carry an indication of the recycled content next to it, but not all labels do that. Without a specific statement of recovered and postconsumer content, there is no guarantee that paper products displaying the symbol contain any recycled content at all.


Business and government purchasers drive the environmentally sound paper system by specifying recycled, tree-free and chlorine-free papers. This, in turn, encourages paper mills to invest in the technology to provide those papers.

In order to produce high quality recycled papers, mills must receive good quality scrap paper to recycle. Purchasers affect the quality of the recovered paper system, as well, by their specifications and applications.

For example, choose papers that are compatible with your recycling collection system so that when consumers are finished with them, they will be able to recycle them. Virtually all paper is technically recyclable, but not all deinking facilities are set up to take all kinds of paper. Therefore, the types of paper acceptable in your recycling system will vary by geographic location and the local recyclers' end-users.

Some office collection systems do not accept groundwood papers. Others cannot take goldenrod colored paper. Some papers are virtually unrecyclable in any system, particularly papers with ultraviolet coatings, fluorescent ink, and metallic coatings like holograms.

In addition, a few of the older deinking facilities, designed to deal with printed material, still have problems with plastic toners and, as a result, papers with laser and copier toners on them may not be considered desirable for recycling in some areas.

Coated papers, which can be up to 50% non-paper material (usually a polished clay surface layer) are recyclable, but not many facilities currently accept them. This is usually not due to technical problems but rather because the fiber yield from coated papers is so low. However, the newer newsprint deinking facilities actually require a mix of 30% coated papers and 70% newsprint. (The clay assists in the deinking process.)

The biggest problem deinking facilities have with paper collected from curbside and office collection programs is contamination and lack of proper sorting. Contaminants, like plastic windows in envelopes, glues, labels and other non-paper materials, make deinking much more difficult. If the level of contamination is too high, the paper cannot be reused at all.

In addition, in order to deink paper, it must be sorted into relatively homogeneous categories. Mills don't accept newsprint mixed with white paper, brown bags with coated paper, or packaging with printing and writing paper. Collection programs can handle this problem in one of two ways. Either the collection program is set up to keep the various kinds of paper separate, or the material is collected and then sorted. The most economic, and efficient, method is to "source-separate" before collection.

Choose the Right Ink

Writing inks have been around for almost 4,500 years. The first inks, made with lampblack (soot), a binder and water, appeared in Egypt and China around 2,500 B.C. With the advent of metal type in the Middle Ages, a new oil-based ink was developed. The first colored inks didn't show up until the printing of the Mainz Psalter in 1457 in Germany, when blues and reds were first used. The use of colored inks was not widespread until the 19th century, due primarily to a shortage of raw materials for pigment.

Inks have three major elements: pigment, vehicle and binder. The pigment carries the color, the vehicle (or base) is a liquid that holds the pigment and allows it to be applied, and the binder attaches the pigment to the paper or object being printed. Most environmental problems stem from the pigment, which often contains heavy metals, and the vehicle, which often uses petroleum.

The majority of all commercial inks use petroleum, a non-renewable resource, as a vehicle. Vegetable oil-based inks such as soybean, linseed, corn, cottonseed, canola, China wood and rosin are widely available and more environmentally sound, as well as easier to deink. Ask for vegetable-based inks and be sure that the one used has a high percentage of vegetable oil. Some replace only a small percentage of the petroleum and are little better than the petroleum-based inks.

Environmentally toxic metals are commonly used to make pigments. Fluorescent and metallic inks are almost always made with these metal pigments and should be avoided. But many traditional colors contain metal compounds, too. Environmentally conscious printers and customers can greatly reduce their toxicity by using environmentally benign pigments whenever possible.

Inks can create environmental problems when used paper is landfilled because the heavy metals can eventually leach into the groundwater, even in lined landfills. When paper is incinerated, the remaining toxic ash, which includes the heavy metals, must then be landfilled, leading to the same potential groundwater problems. Recycling paper is the most environmentally sound method of handling potential problems, such as from heavy metals, because the inks can be skimmed from the deinking vat while the paper's fibers are reused. If the skimmed ink and other contaminants test as hazardous, they can be handled in an environmentally safe manner and as a much smaller volume of material than if they had remained on paper or in incinerator ash scattered throughout a landfill.


This Green Paper has focused primarily on the role played by major paper purchasers and policymakers on continuing to create the demand for environmentally sound papers. But individuals, too, can have an impact. Organization staff members and even the general public can add to the pressure for more environmentally sound papers by implementing the following recommendations for influencing the largest paper users:

  • Magazines and Newsletters: Threaten to cancel subscriptions to publications not printed on environmentally sound paper (ESP). On average, a magazine (e.g. Newsweek) weighing eight ounces will cost just four cents per copy more to print on ESP. If only 5% of subscribers (threaten to) drop their subscriptions because the publication is not printed on ESP, publishers would find it more profitable to switch to recycled paper.

  • Catalogs: Buy products only from catalogs printed on ESP. If an average catalog costs four cents per copy more to print, and catalog producers average $2 in gross profit per copy, buyers would create an incentive to print the catalog on recycled paper if just 5% of their purchasers switched to companies promoting their products on ESP.

  • Direct Mail Solicitations: Contribute only to organizations that use ESP. Even if ESP is 10% more expensive than virgin paper, it would add only $2 per thousand to the cost of a typical direct mail package. If just 2% of those who would normally respond (or 1/100 of 1% of those mailed to) withheld their contribution, it would be beneficial for the organization to use ESP!

  • Print Shops: Frequent print shops that offer ESP at no additional cost. Even if the print shop pays 10% more for ESP, the extra cost per copy should be only 4/100 of one cent! Some quick print chains already charge no extra premium for printing on ESP.


We are at a fortunate time in the development of environmentally sound papers. Several new high grade deinking pulp mills have opened or are in the development process, enlarging the potential for recycled paper production. Technological breakthroughs have solved problems with processing many contaminants such as toners. Several producers and distributors are strongly dedicated to providing kenaf and hemp papers. One U.S. kraft pulp mill is producing TCF virgin market pulp, and several mills and distributors are providing TCF or PCF papers. In addition, paper mills have dramatically reduced the amounts of water and energy they use and the pollution they produce compared to even fifteen years ago.

But there is still much more to do. We cannot stress enough that purchasing agents are the key to making the shift from a 19th-century industrial development/environment-be-damned model of papermaking to a resource-conservative, minimal-impact 21st-century system.

Among the next steps are:

  • Source reduction (waste prevention) must become the first focus in all procurement decisions.

  • Buyers, specifiers and advocates must keep up the demand for recycled paper with high postconsumer content so that mills will continue to invest to produce the paper.

  • The Federal Trade Commission should redefine "recycled" in its environmental labeling guidelines to specify inclusion of postconsumer content and should require a listing of the recovered and postconsumer content on each label.

  • Businesses and corporations should make recycled paper the paper of choice for all uses.

  • Publishers and direct mail houses should use recycled paper for all their needs as a matter of course. Many of them are in a position to have recycled papers custom-created for their needs, thereby making new papers available to the whole marketplace as well.

  • Federal agencies should get serious about implementing the Executive Order's mandates. They should be using and stocking only recycled paper that meets the Executive Order's minimums.

  • EPA should require TCF as Best Available Technology in its cluster rules and give strong incentives to converting to closed-loop systems.

  • All new paper mills should incorporate TCF technology.

  • New pulp mills, and old mills as they are re-tooled, should include structures which allow them to incorporate tree-free fibers.

  • Some mills, whether new or converted, should be dedicated to pulp tree-free and agricultural residue fibers.

  • Production mills should develop papermaking processes that replace some of the wood-pulp in their papers with tree-free and recycled contents.

  • Industrial hemp should be decriminalized so it can be grown in the U.S. as a commercial crop.

  • Large, traditional distributors should stock tree-free and chlorine-free papers so that they become more available.

  • Corporations should commit to buying at least a small percentage of their paper as tree-free each year.

  • Federal and state tax and subsidy systems should be revised to favor resource conservation and environmental quality and sustainability, rather than resource depletion.


Paul Hawken, in his book The Ecology of Commerce, quotes from the futurist Willis Harmon, "Business has become, in the last century, the most powerful institution on the planet. The dominant institution in any society needs to take responsibility for the whole. Every decision that is made, every action taken has to be viewed in the light of, in the context of, that kind of responsibility." Hawken follows that up with, "Business is the only mechanism on the planet today powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse global environmental and social degradation. Doing that will depend in large part on the willingness of customers to change what they buy, how they buy, and from whom they buy their products and services."

All of us have responsibility for shaping the future. Our consumption choices form a significant part of that responsibility. Paper is one of the most ubiquitous purchases in our economy. Choices in buying something so simple can mean so much for our own quality of life and for future generations.



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