It is important, in the course of a long and challenging undertaking,
to periodically stop and assess what has been accomplished and what
remains to be done. In 1996, the 20th anniversary of Conservatree's
founding as a paper company, we first published an evaluation of
the progress made over the previous two decades in developing recycled
paper's quality, production and availability. Here, we update that
report to reflect where we stand in the year 2000.
We acknowledge that the environmental paper market offers many
more ecological advantages than only recycled. Now many papers also
include tree free content, or are bleached in totally chlorine free
processes, or can be guaranteed to be from sustainably managed forest
sources. The following evaluation focuses on advances in recycled
paper manufacturing. We intend in the future to incorporate the
larger picture that has blossomed since about 1995 of papers with
other types of environmental advantages, as well.
Types of Papers
In 1976, there were few "recycled" papers to choose from. In fact,
most mills that used deinked pulp did not want anyone to know they
were using recycled fiber. The few papers that were available were
mostly book, text and cover grades. There was no recycled copy paper
or coated paper. Today we can list over 400 papers proudly presented
as recycled, with virtually every grade represented.
In 1976, almost all recycled content was pre-consumer pulp substitutes,
much of it mill scraps. There was some pressure for postconsumer
content throughout the 1980s, particularly from California's law
allowing a state price preference for paper with at least 50% recycled/10%
postconsumer. Conservatree introduced for the first time, one by
one, virtually every paper grade in a recycled sheet by using California's
price preference as an incentive to convince mills to develop recycled
papers they never before had made. After much ferocious debate about
whether postconsumer content really was required to qualify a sheet
as recycled, by the early 1990s most mills had hedged their bets
by including at least 10% postconsumer.
By the mid-1990s, in the wake of a White House Executive Order
requiring federal agencies to buy recycled paper with at least 20%
postconsumer content (10% for coated papers), many mills increased
the postconsumer percentages in their recycled papers to at least
the EO's minimum. Now, since the Executive Order mandated an increase
to 30% by the end of 1998, most uncoated recycled papers meet at
least that minimum and many exceed it.
Throughout the 1980s, definitions and content requirements for
recycled paper were a crazy quilt of demands across the country.
Recycled paper runs were small and the paper was considered a boutique
product because paper manfacturers had to meet different specifications
for different states and local governments. The federal government
had been mandated since 1976 to buy recycled products, but EPA was
exceedingly slow to write implementation guidelines, which federal
purchasers required before beginning new purchasing procedures.
In 1988, when EPA finally published guidelines for buying recycled
paper (after lawsuits by environmental groups to order implementation),
the requirements for recycled content in recycled printing and writing
papers was so vague that even many formerly "virgin" papers
The 1993 Executive Order settled it all by clarifying that, at
least for federal agency purchases, recycled paper must include
specified minimum levels of postconsumer content. Immediately, state
and city governments all over the country adopted the same standards
and many corporate policies reflected them as well. Finally, the
paper manufacturers had a de facto "national standard"
that allowed them to make recycled paper as a standard paper that
would work for everyone's definitions and specifications. Now, although
some paper representatives and wastepaper brokers still grumble
about having to track postconsumer content, the heated battles about
whether or not to include it are a thing of the past. And producing
recycled paper in larger quantities, which is possible when it has
standard specifications, has brought its price down.
Many recycled papers sold in the early 1980s were still in a development
phase and it sometimes showed. Printers complained about linting,
dusting, picking, limpness and many other problems. Customers complained
about jamming and splotches.
Now recycled papers are made by the best paper mills in the world
and many high quality recycled papers are on the market. Recycled
papers perform competitively with virgin sheets in printing presses,
copiers, laser printers, scanners, computers, inserters, and virtually
all other paper equipment.
Recycled paper used to come in tan, brown, and spotted brown. Now,
of course, it's available in bright whites, creams, and a wide palette
of colors. The "ecology spots" of the past are rare these days,
with improved deinking systems. Ironically, the flecked look of
early recycled papers has become so popular that mills often now
add the "spots" back in to otherwise clean sheets, and even virgin
papers often copy the look.
Paper Mills and Deinking Systems
In 1976, there were more than a dozen printing and writing mills
with deinking systems. But in the 1980s, a number of these closed,
either because of outdated systems or because the mills were bought
by virgin paper companies that junked the deinking. Prospects were
looking bleak until the end of that decade, when pulping technology
companies made breakthroughs. Particularly crucial was the newly
developed ability to deink laser and copier toner. The then-James
River took the lead in building a new deinking mill in Halsey, OR,
opening in 1992 to recycle office paper - including that with copier
toner, plastic windows and other formerly non-deinkable contaminants
- into pulp for both tissue and fine paper products.
Still, only a few companies pioneered upgrades or new systems until
the White House Executive Order in 1993 made it clear that the federal
government wanted recycled paper with postconsumer content. Suddenly,
new high grade deinking projects were being announced all over the
country and at least 10 of them opened from 1994 to 1996. Alas,
they hit so many snags, including sky-high raw material prices,
severe price undercutting from foreign pulp mills, and technical
difficulties, that most of them closed within a year of opening
or operated far below their projected capacities and at much higher
Today, though, the deinking scene is starting to brighten again.
A few of the mills found market niches and held on to them. A couple
were sold for other purposes. Others are poised to re-enter the
market when conditions improve. As demand for recycled paper builds
again, the costs of fixes for these facilities will become more
Paper Machines and Equipment
In 1976, recycled paper was made on the then-current state-of-the-art
paper machines, running 250-300 tons per day. But in the 1980s,
world-class mills with machines making 1,000 tons of paper or more
per day took over the virgin paper commodity market. With such an
out-of-balance economy of scale, recycled paper prices couldn't
compete. Paper company officials swore that they could not make
recycled paper on the big machines because potential dirt spots
might catch on the delicate equipment and ruin miles of paper. Coated
mills claimed that making recycled paper might break the fragile
Today, there are many recycled coated sheets to choose from and
recycled commodity paper is being made on some of the largest, fastest,
most advanced papermaking machines in the world.
In 1976, Conservatree Paper Company carved out a niche market by
convincing paper mills that it could produce new customers without
competing with the mills' existing distributors. That was easy,
because the traditional distributors didn't know or care what "recycled
paper" was, but Conservatree knew there were customers who did.
Throughout the 1980s, Conservatree was the only national paper distributor
specializing in recycled paper for major paper buyers. Now, of course,
recycled paper is available from virtually every paper distributor
around the country, although most need to become much better informed
and stronger advocates for recycled paper. And, while Conservatree
closed its paper sales division in 1994, other dedicated regional
and national environmental paper distributors have developed as
stocking merchants of the best ecological papers available.
The market for pulp substitutes (scraps that can be dumped right
back into the pulper without cleaning) was well-developed in 1976
because it had always been an integral part of the paper industry.
But there was very little high grade postconsumer wastepaper available.
The only office paper collected was computer print-out (CPO) and
even much of that went to tissue mills, not printing and writing.
The rest of the office paper was "contaminated" with copier toner,
which could not be cleaned by the deinking systems of the time.
By the late 1980s, when some systems could cautiously accept clean
white office wastepapers, people still had to sort out plastic window
envelopes and cards with sticky labels.
Now, most companies have office paper collection systems and wastepaper
dealers are developing new postconsumer sources. Most deinking systems
can handle laser and copier toner, plastic windows, sticky labels,
most colors, and much of whatever else is thrown at them. The current
deinking problem is the proliferation of adhesives in recovered
paper, especially labels, barcodes, stickers and self-stick stamps
on home and office mail. The U.S. Postal Service, source of a large
percentage of the problem "stickies," has been leading
research into deinkable adhesives.
The federal government passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery
Act (RCRA) in 1976, directing federal agencies to buy recycled products,
but then dropped the ball until 12 years later, when it came out
with guidelines for buying recycled paper. Even then, the guidelines
were very weak for printing and writing paper. In the meantime,
several states, most notably Maryland, California, New York, and
Oregon, had passed different types of price preference and set-aside
laws. These laws both stimulated the recycled paper market and also
fractured it in ways that precluded standard products nationwide.
Nevertheless, the state laws, and particularly California's content
requirements, drove recycled paper development until the early 1990s.
By then, all 50 states had passed some form of legislation or executive
order favoring recycled products.
The federal government stepped firmly back into leadership in 1993
when a White House Executive Order put an end to arguments about
postconsumer content by requiring at least 20% in recycled paper
bought by federal agencies, increasing to 30% at the end of 1998.
While federal agency purchases of recycled paper were very slow
the first few years, now the government is one of the most committed
Are We There Yet?
What a world of difference in recycled paper these past twenty-four
years! A round of applause to all of us who made this possible:
paper advocates, paper buyers, legislators, designers and specifiers,
paper mills, pulp and paper technology companies, wastepaper dealers,
distributors, and more!
Are we done yet? No. One only has to go into an office products
warehouse or look at the vast majority of magazines published on
virgin paper to see that recycled papers still occupies a relatively
small segment of the paper business. But our impressive progress
so far makes it obvious we can achieve our goal: recirculation of
scrap paper back into our paper production system in as environmentally
sound a manner as possible.
- Buyers, specifiers and advocates to keep up and increase
the demand for recycled paper with high postconsumer content,
so that mills will continue to invest to produce the paper.
- Major national magazines to lead a switch to recycled
- Corporations to make recycled paper the paper of choice
for all corporate uses.
- Advocates to remain vigilant in national and international
venues, insisting on meaningful postconsumer definitions and content
requirements. In particular, the World Trade Organization has
targeted recycled content specifications as a "restraint
of trade." Advocates must not allow paper companies or trade
associations to dictate what kind of paper they are "allowed"
- The Federal Trade Commission to require the term "recycled,"
described in its environmental labeling guidelines, to indicate
postconsumer content, even if it is zero.
- Federal, state and local governments to favor increased
postconsumer content levels over the minimums specified by the
White House Executive Order and the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA). Currently, EPA publishes a range of achievable postconsumer
contents for many papers, although most paper companies aim for
the minimums. The Executive Order, incorporated into the EPA guidelines,
only states a minimum postconsumer content. Governments use many
purchasing strategies to favor specific goals, such as inclusion
of small and minority businesses, preferences for veterans, and
awards to local businesses. Many helped developed the markets
for recycled paper through application of price preferences for
specific minimum contents. Similar strategies can be employed
now to reward paper manufacturers that produce environmental papers
with more than the minimum recycled or other ecological specifications.
- Pulp and paper companies to continue investing in deinking
technology and incorporating postconsumer content into their papers.
- Office products companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Xerox,
IBM, and others that offer "private label" papers under
their corporate name to require that those papers include postconsumer
- Technology companies to continue improving deinking systems
so that they can take wider ranges of wastepaper, and to produce
recyclable glues for labels and notes.
- Mass-mailers and their providers, including the U.S.
Postal Service, direct mailers, magazine publishers, billing entities,
and others, to insist on the development of recyclable adhesives,
and then commit to using only recyclable products.
- Wastepaper dealers to mine the deeper and harder-to-get-at
veins of postconsumer wastepaper, particularly from smaller companies
and decentralized offices.
- Distributors to become far better educated about and
committed to promoting recycled papers, and to stocking it so
that buyers can easily get it.
- Office supply stores and retailers to supply recycled
content alternatives for all products feasible, at prices as cost-competitive
as possible, and to revamp their purchasing policies which often
unnecessarily limit recycled content options and increase their
- All of us to seriously practice source reduction and
minimize paper consumption, even while valuing, using completely,
and recycling the paper we do need.
Let's hope that soon we will have the most efficient and environmentally
sound paper production possible, with no paper considered "waste"