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Is PCW Recycled Paper the Holy Grail of Sustainability?

Written By Jack Budington

April 27, 2022

Increasingly, our clients are requesting papers with recycled content. At face value, it seems like a sustainability home run, but it’s not quite that simple. Is recycled paper the right choice for your project or business? Like all environmental decisions, it’s complicated. To understand how recycled content works, it’s helpful to understand the paper making process in general.

How the sausage (or in this case, paper) gets made

Paper is made from pulp, a fibrous product made from plants or wood. The process for manufacturing pulp requires machinery to debark and convert trees into wood chips, chemicals to separate the wood fibers from the lignin, or glue, that binds them, and a bleaching process that whitens the pulp. Most pulp mills are located near rivers, as the process also requires a lot of water. 

The finished pulp is then shipped to a paper making plant. Here the liquid pulp is pumped into a tank and essentially poured onto a moving screen. The water falls through the screen, leaving the damp pulp suspended on the wire mesh (thus called the wire side of the sheet). This damp paper is dried and then wound up onto rolls for sheeting and eventually shipped to a printing company like More Vang. But how does recycled content fit into this process? 

What goes into recycled paper?

Recycled paper requires the conversion of waste and scrap paper back into pulp. It’s classified into two categories: pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer recycled pulp is made from scraps and off cuttings during the printing process. Post-consumer waste is exactly as it sounds. It’s made from the magazines, mail, and other natural fibers we throw into the blue curbside recycle bins. In both cases, these materials are collected and sent to special recycled pulping facilities where they are shredded, rehydrated, de-inked, and bleached. The final product looks a lot like virgin fiber pulp; once again, it’s shipped to the papermill. 

It’s important to note, however, that this process does somewhat reduce the positive environmental impact of recycled paper. Re-bleaching and de-inking are both energy intensive processes that produce a lot of chemical waste. There is some advantage to recycling printing paper into other products, like napkins, that do not need require as much reprocessing. Despite the process of re-bleaching and de-inking, Post-Consumer Waste Pulp (PCWP) still has some significant environmental benefits. Producing one ton of PCWP reduces total energy usage by 33% and total water usage by 49%, compared to virgin pulp paper. Using recycled paper made without chlorine bleaching can reduce those impacts even further. 

So if PCWP is better for the environment, it stands to reason that the more PCW content in recycled paper, the better, right? Well, not so fast. Very few sheets of paper are made from 100% recycled pulp. Virgin fibers are longer, stronger, and have more predictable ink absorption tendencies. Recycled pulp is most often mixed with virgin pulp to produce fine printing papers. Around 20% recycled content is the most common ratio. So, if we are only using sustainably forested pulp (FSC Certified) papers in the first place, why the need to support the expensive process of paper recycling? 

The argument for recycling paper

Recycling prevents paper from rotting in a landfill. Trees turn carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into wood, which is mostly carbon. The vast majority of paper, of course, is made of wood. This makes the material a carbon sink until it decomposes and releases much of that carbon back into the atmosphere. Keeping paper fibers in circulation as long as possible—either by creating products that are valuable enough to be long lasting or recycling them—is vital for reducing carbon emissions. 

Since quality printing paper is near the top of the recycling chain, it is especially important to make sure that you put it back into the blue bin. Fine printing paper can generally only be recycled back into printing paper once. Each time paper is recycled, the fibers within it become shorter and weaker. Once printing paper goes through a second round of recycling, however, it can be made into different products with less need for long fibers. This includes items like egg cartons, newsprint, and napkins. But while PCWP can extend the recycling chain, there will always be a need for virgin pulp to begin the process.  

More Vang is committed to sustainability and exclusively uses 100% FSC certified virgin paper. This is an environmentally conscious choice, as 100% FSC certified paper products ensure that all of the virgin pulp used in our paper is sourced from responsibly managed forests. One of the greatest threats to the world’s trees is development and permanent deforestation. Keeping forestry profitable and incentivizing sustainable management of our woodlands helps preserve these important ecosystems and ensure a sustainable source of virgin pulp.

The bottom line

Printing your next job on mixed PCW paper is a sound choice for reducing your business’ environmental impact. But it is not the only option. Should you need a more durable or brighter paper stock for your project than recycled options can provide (or, let’s be honest, if there’s just no PCW recycled paper stock available at that time), you can also feel good about using virgin fiber paper that is FSC Certified. This paper kicks off the chain of events required to produce more PCW recycled paper in the future.