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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.

Recycled Content

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 could qualify.

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 costs.

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 viable.

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 coating blades.

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.

Wastepaper Collection

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.

Government Leadership

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 customers.

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.

What's Needed?

  • 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 paper.

  • 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" to buy.

  • 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 content.

  • 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 prices.

  • 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" ever again.

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