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Defining Recycled Content in Paper Products

Despite the fact that paper products with recycled content have been around nearly forever, there is still much confusion regarding basic definitions. For some of us, recent changes in the FSC labeling guidelines have added an extra layer of confusion.

First, let’s consider the difference between recovery and recycling.  While these terms often get used interchangeably there is a difference.  Recovery speaks to keeping products out of landfills. Once collected, recovered paper can be either recycled or incinerated.

Recycling in its most basic sense refers to a process in which used materials are turned into new materials.  Paper is typically recycled into new paper products but can also be used for other applications like insulation and wall board.

In papermaking, we typically refer to two distinctly different sources of recycled fiber, most commonly referred to as post consumer or post industrial sources. Sometimes the term pre-consumer will be used interchangeably with post industrial fiber.

In the US, post consumer fiber is defined by the EPA as paper recovered in our homes and offices and they clearly indicate that it does not include newsstand returns and printers overruns.  If the paper does not reach its final intended use – it is not post consumer.

But of course, the newsstand returns and printer waste should be collected and if recycled it is considered as post-industrial or pre-consumer fiber. Post industrial fiber also includes damaged stock and waste generated after the reel (i.e. it does not include broke). It does not include paper that is re-cut and repackaged – it must be re-pulped. The EPA also clearly indicates that this fiber source does not include forest product residues like sawdust and woodchips (although the industry does use these sources too).

But the plot thickens…

In the ISO definition, widely used in Europe and north of the border in Canada, printers are essentially treated as consumers. In other words, the newsstand returns and printer waste is considered post consumer fiber according to ISO. It is a broader definition than EPA’s. So recycled fiber content claims on imported papers should be scrutinized.

Regarding FSC…

Despite the fact that they are an international organization, the FSC definition of post consumer fiber is consistent with the EPA’s. And up until recently any time you saw the chasing arrows and a recycled content claim as part of an FSC logo, it referred to post consumer fiber. However with the “new” FSC labels (i.e. starting with those that require the Trademark License Codes instead of CoC numbers) the recycled content can now include both post consumer and post industrial fiber. This change has triggered a lot of customer inquiries and is not well understood in the market.

Regardless of whether you are looking at ISO or EPA definitions, both post industrial and post consumer fiber falls in the category of recycled fiber content. So when making claims it is safest to simply state a certain percentage of recycled fiber. But if you want to be more specific about the type of fiber for making a claim (or when trying to understand a supplier’s claim) be sure to check the definitions and more specifically whether the definition in use is coming from the EPA or ISO.

We use the EPA definitions in labeling our products.

Laura M. Thompson, Phd, is director of sustainable development and technical marketing at Sappi Fine Paper North America. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of New Hampshire and an M.S. and PhD in Paper Science from the Institute of Paper Science and Technology.  Since 1995, she has held a variety of positions within the paper industry including R&D, mill environmental, product development for specialties and coated fine paper, and, most recently, sustainability.  Since joining Sappi in 2006, Laura has quickly emerged as an industry leader in the field of sustainable development.

Reposted from the eQ Blog with permission from Sappi Fine Paper North America. For more information, please visit Sappi’s eQ Microsite.

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3 thoughts on “Defining Recycled Content in Paper Products

  1. Be sure to work with specialty green outlets like EcoGreenOffice.com to learn about which FSC certified paper is best for your needs. The higher the PCW the better and it performs equal or better to non-PCW paper.

  2. Although the ‘new’ FSC labels communicate the combination of pre + post consumer content the ‘calculation’ for FSC products remains the same. For example, products with the FSC Recycled claim are still required to have a minimum of 85% post consumer waste.

    FSC also makes sure that independent third-party auditors have verified that this fibre is actually post-consumer. Unfortunately, if you don’t have independent verification there is no way of knowing whether a company’s claims are accurate or not.

    For more information on what FSC considers pre and/or post consmer waste, visit http://fsccanada.org/docs/fsc-std-40-007.pdf?LanguageID=EN-US

  3. Nice article, bur where should I put this?
    Where do fibers fit in, when they are up cycled from a no papermaking process such as diapers or other incontinence material. These products can be collected and the fibers can be used in the papermaking process instead of using it as landfill or insoles. So we can speak of up cycling instead of recycling or recovery

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