Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Recycled - a tricky word to figure out

"Recycled" - we can all agree that re-use, reduce, and recycle is the right way to go. Most of us revel in a tiny little twinge of good-for-me when we purchase something that says recycled, and the people who are working in marketing, sales and advertising know that all too well. Take a look at the papers that are for sale the next time you need a ream for your printer. Almost all the packages have the recycled symbol printed on their packaging. But those triple triangles, unfortunately, can be misleading and deceiving; and we too often fall prey to a slick marketing campaign that takes advantage of our green intentions. When it comes to those little looping arrows - not all of them are created equal.

Yesterday I was looking at sticker labels, and when I flipped over the packaging, I was greeted by the happy little revolving arrow recycled symbol and teeny tiny 3 point type that said, "This package can be recycled. Please take care of the environment."

The alarms should be going off right about now - the greenwashing horror of it all. No recycled material in the actual product, but the package could be recycled (where facilities exist, of course.) So there are, quite obviously, no rules surrounding the use of the recycle symbol. We can, however, make informed paper purchases that make a big difference in the end.

Let's take a closer look at what recycled means.

Something labeled as recycled could have as much as 100% never-before-used material. (Yes, you read that right.) Mill scraps, leftovers from other processes, can be used to make "recycled paper." The paper could be 95% new tree and 5% mill scrap.

This sort of "scrap" is also called pre-consumer waste, and it has always been used in production of papers. It is left over materials from the production of another product and it is not considered recycling in the traditional sense of the word. It's hardly a step forward for the environment, just a step forward in marketing things to the would-be responsible consumer.

Is pre-consumer waste really something that can be "recycled" ?

Not really. Put yourself in the shoes of the owner of the paper company. If you had access to a mill, and access to scraps, wouldn't you use those for paper making and save yourself money instead of cutting another few trees ? This is not recycling at all, but simply frugal use of purchased/cut resources. So the first thing to look for when purchasing paper is its Post Consumer Waste content.

What is the post consumer waste used in paper ?

Post Consumer waste (PCW) is material that has already been purchased, used, and then discarded. Types of post consumer waste include product packages, paper left in the recycling bin, old newspapers, last week's grocery list, etc.

When you are buying your recycled paper and choosing a higher % of Post Consumer waste you will make your purchase as helpful and harmless as the package claims it to be. There are 100% PCW papers readily available, (even Walmart is selling the 100% Post Consumer Waste Boise Aspen Series) , though they are more expensive than their 30% PCW counterparts.

This is recycling in the traditional sense, and this is the process that we tend to envision when we read "recycled" on the package. If you buy PCW papers you are putting your dollars where your greener heart is, and saving trees along the way.

*There are certification bodies out there, to ensure that PCW claims are true. One of the most trustworthy is the 100% Recycled FSC designation.

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