Questioning Conventional Wisdom on PCW Paper

By | February 18, 2010

Digital printers these days are being pressured to “go green,” which typically starts with adding PCW (postconsumer waste) content into paper. But is PCW really all that it’s cracked up to be?

I recently did some investigating into this question and got some surprising answers. In fact, there is a legitimate argument for the fact that PCW might have a less positive impact the environment than preconsumer waste.

Postconsumer waste is only one of three waste streams for unused paper. There is also mill broke (scrap collected at the mill and recycled back into the same type of paper from whence it came); and there is pre-consumer waste (paper trimmings and other scrap collected at the printing or converting site and recycled back to the mill before reaching the hands of the consumer).

So here’s what I’m wondering. Both mill broke and pre-consumer waste are recycled back much earlier in the process, so they require less energy to transport. They also need less processing in most cases because they have not yet been printed, glued, laminated or otherwise converted. Post-consumer waste, on the other hand, has to be collected from millions of individual homes and businesses around the country. Then it has to be sorted and processed, and sometimes even bleached. The energy and processing requirements are far greater. So why is post-consumer waste considered greener?

I recently asked this question in an Inspired Economist post and am getting some terrific feedback from it. Very thought provoking. Check it out and add your own perspective.

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5 thoughts on “Questioning Conventional Wisdom on PCW Paper

  1. Joe Rego

    I’ve been wondering lately if paper recycling makes that much environmental sense.
    Since most paper mills are located near forests and not end users, you need to use fossil fuels to get the paper to the mill. Then there’s the sludge that results from the de-inking process.
    If you are interested in “carbon capture,” well, cellulose is almost 45% carbon by weight–carbon which is removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis. Also, young, growing trees remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than old growth forests.
    So if we started burying or re-purposing paper instead of recycling it, we would increase demand for more forest land, which would be good for the environment, wouldn’t it?

  2. Sabine Lenz

    Very valid questions…
    80% of the paper we (as in the end consumer) recycle is actually used in building materials, so does not go back into the paper making process.

    On another note, pre-consumer waste also includes magazines that have been sitting on newsstands and did not sell. So, not necessarily less ink and glue…

  3. David Elovich

    The critical question is which process has the smaller carbon footprint?
    I have read studies that show the manufacturing of 100% PCW recycled paper produces less carbon emissions than manufacturing virgin papers!
    In fact, the Cascades Mill in Canada produces 100% recycled papers with 94% less carbon emissions than a North American competitor producing virgin paper.
    A good resource with regards to this question is

  4. Keith Bax

    The Energy Information Administration claims about a 40% reduction in energy when paper is recycled versus manufacturing new paper from virgin pulp. If you accept this as fact, and assume on average, that the energy required to move recycled products to market is about the same as it is to move virgin wood products to market, energy savings alone would seem to justify the recycling of paper.

  5. Heidi Tolliver-Nigro

    Keith, I agree with your comment. However, the point here isn’t the use of recycled paper. It’s the importance of post-consumer (PCW) content vs. pre-consumer content. PCW is touted as more important, but the question we need to ask is why? Is it really greener? Or is it more important for other reasons?

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