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Many people think recycled printing and writing paper is one of the greatest success stories of the whole recycling effort over the past couple decades. After all, recycled paper went from:

  • being almost impossible to find for government and business uses in the 1970s to being available in virtually every grade from almost every distributor in the 1990s,
  • poor quality 20 years ago to extremely high quality today,
  • being made by only a handful of mills to now being made by almost every paper company,
  • frequently being 20% or more higher in price to now being very competitive in many grades, and costing only slightly more than virgin in others.

In fact, people are so proud of recycled paper's success that many claim, "It's not necessary to specify recycled paper anymore because all the paper is recycled. It's a done deal!"

The sad truth, though, is that it's not a done deal. Recycled paper is actually in grave danger of becoming only a boutique paper, a small niche market, and losing its promise for conserving resources, environmental sustainability, and creating markets for city wastepaper collection systems.

How Did This Happen?

Creating recycled postconsumer-content printing and writing paper took more than 20 years of enormous effort and coordination, pressure and demand from thousands of buyers all over the country, aggressive education and advocacy efforts, a handful of mills willing to take risks, and dedicated determination and vision. One of the most significant catalysts was Conservatree Paper Company, which jumpstarted the market for recycled paper in the United States by developing the first (and for a long time, the only) distribution system for commercial quantities of recycled papers. It developed expectations for recycled paper quality and standards, identified many papers as "recycled" for the first time, made them available to printers and major buyers, and collaborated with mills on developing new recycled grades that previously had always been virgin.

Traditional paper distributors took over the markets in the early 1990s, making recycled paper available on demand from local suppliers. Conservatree closed its sales division in 1994. But buyers' loss of commitment and distributors' apathy, combined with a number of other factors, have turned a win for recycled paper availability into a black hole that severely threatens the market.

What's Going On?

People think that recycled paper is "taken care of" and have gone on to other concerns. But even at the height of its success, recycled paper only had about 10% of the printing and writing paper market and even that had mostly virgin content. Now distributors and paper mills estimate it's dropped to 6-7%, fast becoming just a niche market, a boutique paper. Demand for paper is increasing dramatically every year, but demand for recycled paper isn't even keeping up, let alone increasing.

People think that now all paper must surely be recycled content, since almost all the paper companies are now making recycled paper. But most paper companies own many mills. One or two might be making recycled, but the rest are all making virgin paper. Even many of the recycling mills are making a lot of virgin paper. More than 90 percent of the printing and writing paper made in this country is still virgin paper.

Many buyers have stopped specifying recycled paper. Some assume they don't need to anymore. Other backed off when paper prices shot up in 1995 and they haven't returned. Still others say it costs too much, even though many recycled papers are now competitive with virgin. Some claim recycled is passé and pursue other hot environmental papers, not comprehending that even tree-free and chlorine-free papers need recycling as the foundation for a sustainable paper production system.

No demand? It's outta here. Paper distributors and printers say they're hearing very little call anymore for recycled paper. Both have limited warehouse space, so if there's little demand for a paper, it's no longer stocked.

Distributors aren't interested. Even though traditional distributors took over the markets for recycled paper, most of them know very little about it, don't promote it, and don't tell their customers about it. Many actually actively discourage customers from buying it. In a recent phone survey to major paper distributors in Los Angeles, one supplier didn't know what recycled offset paper was, another offered a much more expensive text paper (thus suggesting that recycled paper costs too much, when in fact it was not a comparable paper), others were vague and uninterested, and only one - which held a City of Los Angeles contract for recycled paper - actually was informed and responsive.

Buyers are giving up easily. Rather than insisting on meeting their specifications, many purchasers are giving up as soon as a printer or distributor tells them there's an extra wait for recycled paper or they can get virgin paper cheaper. When suppliers meet little resistance, they're not compelled to keep the papers stocked, lower prices, or design faster access.

Searching. Still, committed recycled paper printers and suppliers do exist, but buyers increasingly have to search for them. At many distributors, buyers are finding recycled paper choices limited mostly to text and cover, a miniscule part of the market. The workhorse papers, the ones that are the real tonnage in the printing and writing paper market - offset, coated, and copy papers - are becoming harder to get, even though there are great papers being manufactured.

The paper market also is becoming more decentralized, with increasing numbers of small businesses buying from office supply stores and general retail outlets that stock only one or two recycled papers, if any.

New deinking mills failed. Nearly a dozen new deinking mills were built in the U.S. from 1994-1996. That should have been the good news. They were to help increase the amount of recycled paper available and the postconsumer content in those papers, breaking the previous bottleneck of too little clean postconsumer pulp to expand the market. However, those promising new deinking mills opened one after the other into the most awful circumstances they could have imagined:

  • Finished paper prices shot up to their highest level in years and buyers quit asking for recycled paper, which often cost more than virgin.

  • Recovered paper prices went so high that some paper mills stopped recycled paper production because they couldn't make it cost-effectively.

  • Recovered paper characterization changed when stickies took over the mails - barcodes, direct mail labels, return addresses, peel-off labels, and the unfortunate development of the nonrecyclable self-stick postage stamp (now accounting for more than 80% of postage sales) - all using different adhesives, many of which can't be deinked.

  • New deinking technology didn't perform to expectations. Many of those new deinking mills closed within a year of opening. Some of them went bankrupt. The ones that hung on were forced to run much cleaner grades of wastepaper, which is more expensive. And most of those still open are running far below capacity and economic viability.

  • Several new virgin pulp mills built overseas, particularly in Indonesia, started shipping in virgin pulp at cut-throat prices, sometimes even below the cost of wastepaper before it's deinked. Now there's a glut of domestic virgin pulp, as well, driving down prices for virgin finished paper.

  • The General Services Administration (GSA), the government purchasing agency, refused to switch to recycled paper, despite President Clinton's 1993 Executive Order requiring federal procurement of postconsumer-content paper. Only now, years later, is GSA discontinuing virgin paper sales. Even if the federal government completely lives up to its commitment, as the new Executive Order 13101 requires it to do, it is still only 2% of the U.S. paper market. So, while it's critical as a model and a major buyer, it alone is not going to create the market.

Customer Demand Is Still the Key

Recycled paper was created by customer demand. It was the insistent, pervasive, increasing demand from customers, large and small, specifying it over and over again, backed up by recycled paper purchasing policies at state and local government levels and in many companies, that made the paper exist and increased its market from zero to 10%. Now that that foundation is laid, it will be easier to get to higher market shares.

After all, the mills started out not even knowing how to make recycled paper. Now almost every paper company makes some, plus there are new deinking mills. Fixing the new deinking technology makes sense if customers are clamoring for the paper made from their pulp. After all, no virgin pulp, no matter how cheap, can destroy the markets for our deinking mills if customers insist on postconsumer content. Suppliers would be stocking their shelves with wide varieties of recycled paper if customers would accept nothing else. Printers would realize they'd lose business if they didn't have recycled paper at affordable prices. Remember, that single distributor in Los Angeles was well-informed because a major customer insisted on recycled paper, benefiting all other potential recycled paper buyers, too.

There's Much You Can Do

  • ALWAYS specify postconsumer recycled paper. If you don't ask for recycled, you're virtually guaranteed to get virgin paper.

  • Specify recycled for all contracts. Require all print and copy jobs, contractor reports, bid responses, and other printed documents to be on recycled paper. That gets all those other companies asking for recycled paper, too.

  • Publicize the need to buy recycled paper. Educate employees and the public to specify and buy recycled paper. Put messages on internal e-mail and public brochures, flyers, and bills.

  • Label all printed materials, including letters, bills and publications, as printed on recycled paper. People need to see that all the time, so it becomes strange if something isn't on recycled paper.

  • Solve complaints, don't quit buying recycled paper. There are several "traditional" complaints about recycled paper that people have long used to avoid buying it. Some have been proven false, and others can be solved. For example, if you hear, "Recycled paper jams my copier," it's guaranteed that the problem is not that the paper is recycled. Rather, several other causes can be corrected.

  • Deal with cost issues. Most recycled papers today cost the same as or less than virgin paper, particularly letterhead, stationery, business cards and brochure papers. It's now inexcusable to use virgin paper in those grades.

    The papers that are most likely to cost more are white commodity papers, primarily copier and offset papers. But even their costs have come down dramatically, often to within 3-9% of virgin paper costs. That last difference won't be eliminated until people realize that recycled paper actually costs a lot less than virgin paper on environmental levels and buy it even when the price is slightly higher.

    When cost is a problem, buy in larger quantities that yield price breaks. Even decentralized systems can set up internal cooperative purchasing. Get more aggressive about source reduction. Many newspapers and magazines have reduced their size by 1/8 or 1/4 inch all the way around. Their customers rarely notice the change, but their budgets do. Ask printers for help in carefully matching publication designs to the full size of the printing paper. Mismatches can result in a surprising amount of waste, all of which you pay for.

  • Get accurate information. There's a shocking amount of misinformation and disinformation floating around now. Be sure you're getting accurate facts. One place to check is Conservatree's website,

Getting A Done Deal

If recycled paper continues to be up to "someone else," we're going to lose it. That would be tragic. Rather than settling into a small niche market, recycled paper's market share should be up to 80-90%. Virgin paper should be regarded as the "alternative choice," with a small and failing market.

Paper manufacturers argued for years that recycled paper was just a fad and that deinking investments would fail because buyers would abandon them. Recycling's supporters counterargued that recycled paper was the future, and the industry made huge investments. Now that the paper industry's fears appear to be coming true, you'd better believe that manufacturers of other materials are watching. For the future of all recycled products, as well as recycled paper, this potential for disaster must turn into a wakeup call that will make recycled paper so popular and so normal that people will be embarrassed to use virgin paper. It's only then, when most of the paper actually is recycled, that we won't have to ask for it and we can consider it a done deal.

First published by Susan Kinsella in Resource Recycling, November 1998
© Susan Kinsella 1998

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