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Where can you buy small quantities of environmentally sound papers at reasonable prices?

  • Specialty paper retailers often have a selection of papers hard to get elsewhere, are usually very knowledgeable about the papers' environmental characteristics, and frequently have been the backbone for building the alternative paper market.
  • Major office supply stores, mega-stores, and office products outlets now carry some recycled office papers at competitive prices.
  • Some types of printers specialize in small print jobs.
  • But the best-kept secret has been the existence of distributor retail stores.
  • Check out Small Quantity Sources, as well.



Rarely do paper mills sell their products directly to end-users, unless it's for large magazines or catalogs. Instead, most paper is sold through paper merchant chains such as Unisource, Xpedx, or many smaller regional distributors. Most deal in large ($300-500 minimum) wholesale orders only, usually only to large printers or other major frequent buyers.

Commercial printers and most resellers of all kinds, from large office supply stores to small specialty paper catalogs, buy from distributors. Paper mills also sell to converters, who turn the paper into envelopes, computer paper, forms bond, or other value-added products.


Specialty Paper Retailers and Catalogs

A number of retailers specialize in environmentally sound papers, with inventory available regionally and sometimes nationally as well. These companies may sell through catalogs, supply papers in various quantities, and provide printing and custom-papers, too. They function as paper resellers and/or service providers and in most cases have to buy through paper merchants. Often they can take advantage of the merchants' large-quantity discounts and may get price breaks by convincing the wholesale distributors that they can pick up the smaller customers the merchants are missing.

Depending on the structure of the specialty retailer's business, customers may be able to buy quantities as small as reams or sheets, although some target larger businesses and have minimum purchase requirements just as the distributors do. Their prices range from very competitive to very high.

One of their advantages is that they usually are very knowledgeable about the papers, especially their environmental attributes, and many carry a number of papers, especially tree-free, not easily found elsewhere. Many of the specialty paper retailers have been the backbone of building the environmentally sound paper market and deserve customers' support for their commitment.

Major Office Supply Stores

Recycled-content office papers such as copier, computer, and sometimes fax papers are available at many office supply stores and through office supply catalogs. Major office supply stores such as Staples, Office Depot, and OfficeMax usually sell recycled papers in quantities as small as a carton or sometimes a ream. The recycled content is well-marked on the cartons or wrappers. The brands often change depending on market factors, but the stores tend to keep at least one recycled alternative available. Most of these stores also have catalog delivery services and may provide an even wider variety of recycled papers through phone orders than is available on their store shelves.

The recycled alternatives typically cost a few dollars more per carton than their virgin counterparts. But this is where small quantity buyers can make a significant contribution to supporting the markets for environmentally sound papers. Two to four dollars more for one carton bought every six months is a much easier decision than the same amount for a company that buys much larger quantities more frequently.


Some mega-stores, such as Price/Costco and WalMart, also carry some recycled papers, especially copier. The selection is often not as consistent as at the office supply stores and they may not always provide recycled alternatives, but when they do, the prices tend to be very competitive. Price/Costco has a business-to-business phone and delivery service, where more papers are available than are on the floor in the stores.

Office Products Catalogs

Many office products catalogs, including Quill, Viking, and others, carry recycled products, including office papers, and prominently label them as recycled in their catalog pages. Some even have special sections for recycled products and list postconsumer content percentages.

Distributor Retail Stores

The best-kept secret, though, is the existence of distributor retail stores. Originally, these were set up by some of the major paper merchants to serve the small-quantity needs of quick printers and graphic designers. They usually carry a wide range of text, cover and printing stocks, as well as envelopes and copier papers, provide extremely competitive prices, and sell in quantities as small as a ream and sometimes even a few sheets.

They typically do no advertising and are located in industrial parts of cities, hidden from the usual shopping traffic. These retail stores are well-known to local printers but have been slow to grasp the possibilities of the emerging small business and home office markets. Few outside the printing and design communities even know they exist, that they are open to the public or that some even deliver for larger orders.

Not all paper merchants operate such stores. Those that do usually supply only the papers they carry as a major paper distributor, not an entire selection of all the environmental papers available. To track down a specific paper, you need to determine which merchant carries paper from the mill that makes it, and then find out whether that merchant has a retail store outlet. Fortunately, many papers are carried by more than one local distributor.

Buying paper from a distributor retail store can be particularly helpful if you're looking for a specific paper in a quantity too small for your printer to order it (printers have minimums from distributors, too), or if you're buying second sheets or envelopes to match your letterhead, or if you want small quantities of paper for a use other than commercial printing, such as printing letterhead out of your computer word processing program or brochures you'll reproduce at a copy shop. You can browse the retail shops, too, and sometimes even take home a sample, similar to the practice of wallpaper and fabric stores, to decide whether it will work best with your plans. If samples are not displayed, ask for a mill swatchbook. While the distributor-owned retail store may have only a partial selection of papers on-site, you can usually get access to any paper stocked by the merchant if you are willing to wait a few days for your order to arrive from the main warehouse.

The downside to the retail stores is that the sales people often are not knowledgeable about the environmental papers they carry. But The Conservatree Guide to Environmentally Sound Printing and Writing Papers should fill in some of those gaps.

There are also a few regional, retail-only paper outlets, such as Kelly Paper on the West Coast and Lewis Paper Place in the Midwest, which tend to have a wider selection of papers on-site than the merchant retail stores.

How do you find these retail stores? Check the listings in the Where To Buy In Small Quantities Table (listed by distributor chain names) for leads for your area. Also, many of the distributors and retail stores are setting up Internet web sites that can direct customers to local outlets or even allow cyber-orders. In addition, you can find local distributors under "Paper," "Paper Distributors" or "Paper Dealers" in your phone book's Yellow Pages and call to ask if they have a retail store open to the public.


Some printers, especially quick-printers (such as Sir Speedy, PIP, Alpha Graphics, and Minuteman Press, as well as independents), should be able to handle small paper orders for their print jobs. Increasingly, they also offer high-quality copying as a lower-cost alternative to printing for many small jobs. But printers are subject to purchase minimums from the distributors that provide their paper, so they may concentrate their purchases with one or two local merchants, thereby limiting the paper available to you. Check out several printers if you're not satisfied with the paper options presented to you. Another printer may buy from different local merchants and therefore have a different paper selection. There are also printers that specialize in printing on recycled or other ecological papers.

Paper distributors and retail paper stores charge printers wholesale trade prices, which might be up to 20% less than the price to retail customers. So you may get a good price for paper-combined-with-printing. But you may still want to buy a specific paper and then bring it to a printer. Typically, the printer will discount the paper costs of the job, but still charge you a "handling fee." This may not actually result in much discount to you, since the paper costs for a small job are minimal compared to the printing costs. The printer may also hold you liable for problems caused by paper you supply. When using a printer, consider whether there are any corollary pieces you need, such as blank second sheets or matching envelopes. These would need to be ordered at the same time as the print job.


Clearly, then, a number of alternatives exist for small-quantity buyers. They can make environmentally sound paper both accessible and affordable, and enable even small purchases to add up to powerful support for market development of more recycled, tree-free, chlorine-free, and old-growth-free grades.

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