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There are no laws that tell printing and writing paper manufacturers what products they must make. There are no laws telling private consumers what types of paper they must buy, with the exception of newsprint in a handful of states, and even those requirements have been falling by the wayside. Instead, the U.S. has chosen to rely on the "free market" to favor or reject new products and production processes. Theoretically, this gives enormous power to consumers to make or break a product.

In practice, though, consumer power is limited by the amount and credibility of the information they receive and by the choices they are offered. At the very least, consumers need product labeling which is not misleading. Even better, labels should be informative. Better yet, consumers should be able to compare two products that appear similar. But this type of information is difficult to come by for environmentally concerned consumers because U.S. manufacturers are regulated by so few labeling requirements and have such wide latitude.


Most other developed nations have established some type of multi-dimensional environmental product labeling that includes components of life cycle analysis (which attempts to measure a product's impact from "cradle to grave"). But in the U.S., all the states that once had labeling requirements stricter than the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) environmental marketing claims guidelines (the Green Guides) now defer to the weaker national standards. The FTC guidelines require no postconsumer content for an advertising claim of "recycled content," although they do advise that labels indicate the percentage of recycled content if it is less than 100%.

In 1995, when the FTC was considering revisions to its guidelines, many commenters urged it to add a requirement for products labeled "recycled" to either contain postconsumer content or identify the percentage of postconsumer, even if it is zero. But the FTC declined.

Eventually, though, the FTC declared that any product that displays the "chasing arrows symbol" () must meet both the requirements that it contain 100% recycled content and that it be recyclable in a reasonably available collection system. If the product does not meet both those criteria, the label must include text next to the symbol clarifying what claims it makes about the product. Therefore, if the product only has 50% recycled content, it must state that on the label.

Unfortunately, that 50% need not be postconsumer. The FTC only specifies recovered content, which can be either preconsumer or postconsumer. Therefore, a product labeled with the recycling symbol could have up to 100% preconsumer manufacturing scrap and no postconsumer, yet still be compliant with FTC guidelines. But most companies that label their product as "recycled" nowadays also include a notice about the postconsumer content. If the label does not indicate postconsumer content, buyers should assume there is none until further research indicates otherwise.


Canada and many Asian nations, as well as European nations both individually and as a community, have developed voluntary government labeling programs that incorporate a wider range of environmental considerations based on some quantifiable aspects of life cycle review. Canada, in particular, has taken the lead with an innovative "load point" system, which measures a product's environmental burden in several categories.

The U.S. has no government-sponsored "seal of approval" program for recycled products. U.S. environmental labeling laws focus only on single attributes and give wide latitude to allowable information. However, people increasingly recognize that single attribute labels do not adequately inform consumers about a product's overall environmental quality.

In the U.S., only private organizations are tackling the identification and balancing of more complex multiple environmental impacts. Green Seal, a national nonprofit organization, develops environmental standards for products through a public review process involving manufacturers, environmentalists, consumers and government agencies and then awards its seal-of-approval to products that meet its standards and that have gone through its certification process. Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a for-profit business, will substantiate single attributes for manufacturers wishing to certify particular claims. It also pioneered the "certified eco-profile," a "report card" that profiles a product's environmental burdens on a long list of indices. The Chlorine Free Products Association certifies chlorine free (TCF and PCF) papers. It also has developed a Sustainable Manufacturing and Marketing Initiative (SMMI) that evaluates a paper manufacturer across many dimensions.


An international network of ecolabeling programs operates informally to attempt some cross-cultural harmonization between programs. But the primary focus is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Switzerland.

Multi-national U.S. companies are subject to many different labeling requirements around the globe. They want global standards so that they can make their labels consistent across all their markets rather than manufacturing or labeling by many different criteria country-by-country. However, meaningful access to the ISO process is so expensive that very few non-corporate entities can afford to participate in meetings all over the globe. Therefore, standards have been developed by corporate attendees, with very little input or oversight by the environmental community, often resulting in definitions and standards weaker that those in the U.S.

Some international programs, however, go far beyond anything contemplated in the U.S. and require that manufacturers take responsibility for the life cycle impacts of their products. Germany, in particular, requires companies to take back packaging and refill, reuse or recycle it.

Many U.S. multinational companies are already complying with international requirements for manufacturer responsibility, including reducing packaging and using refillable bottles, in countries that require it, while at the same time they refuse to provide such opportunities here. Some states and cities have become interested in the potential for manufacturer responsibility rules tailored to the unique U.S. solid waste management system, in order to reduce the enormous financial burden the U.S. production system places on local governments to recycle, landfill or incinerate consumer discards. Interest in "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) has become especially active regarding computer and electronic disposal issues.

What Are Buyers To Do?

If U.S. public labeling programs are offering little of the information that recycled paper buyers want and private labeling programs cover only a limited number of products, how can buyers assure themselves that they're getting the most environmentally sound products possible?

Buyers can research the papers they plan to buy as thoroughly as possible, including questioning the manufacturer and using product guides such as the one on this site. Environmental claims from vendors and printers should be verified with the manufacturer if they are critical to a purchase decision. Paper purchasers can also check whether papers have been certified by Green Seal, SCS or others. Major buyers, in particular, can influence manufacturer decisions on what feedstocks and processes they use to make their papers by requiring specific criteria or setting a timetable for developing papers to meet their specifications. But for the most part, U.S. purchasers are left to rely on manufacturers' voluntary labeling.

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