The Paper Calculator FAQs

  1. About the Paper Calculator
  2. Is recycled paper better for the environment?
  3. How does using recycled paper benefit forests?
  4. How does recycled paper reduce pollution during manufacturing?
  5. How does recycled paper reduce solid waste?
  6. Other questions about recycled paper
  7. Other resources

1 - About the Paper Calculator

Why should I trust the Paper Calculator?

The scientific basis for the original Paper Calculator’s conclusions was the analysis by the Paper Task Force, an intensive, three-year, multi-stakeholder research project convened by Environmental Defense Fund, Duke University, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, Prudential Insurance, and Time Inc.

The resulting Paper Task Force Report, published in 1995, represents a comprehensive research effort assisted by hundreds of experts from diverse perspectives. The report continues to be the most comprehensive, independent, scientific life cycle analysis of the impacts of paper. The two-year information gathering included more than 50 visits to manufacturing, recycling and forestry sites, in excess of 400 research meetings and discussions, and approximately 200 sets of written comments received on the Task Force’s draft research. The Report created recommendations for purchasing environmentally preferable paper, and it is still today widely respected as a landmark multi-stakeholder collaboration, backed by science and executed with the highest-level of transparency.

The Paper Task Force examined environmental impacts through the full lifecycle of paper, along with economic and functional issues across major paper grades. Its findings were extensively peer-reviewed by scientists, academics, environmental experts, and government and industry representatives. The full Paper Task Force Report contains supporting technical papers and updates to the lifecycle environmental data.

The Paper Calculator was developed and managed by Environmental Defense Fund from 2005 until 2011, at which time it was transferred to the ownership of the Environmental Paper Network. The Calculator is updated regularly with new data, research, and information from trusted independent and industry sources. The Environmental Paper Network employs an independent consulting firm to provide life cycle analysis and assessment for the Paper Calculator’s methodology, and also utilizes a volunteer panel of experts who regularly review the Calculator’s assumptions and research and help prioritize updates for the tool.

What makes the Paper Calculator different than other metrics and tools?

The Paper Calculator is widely recognized as the most credible, most transparent, and most independent calculator of environmental impact estimates for a wide variety of paper choices. It is supported by a broad coalition of non-profit conservation organizations and other stakeholders, and is widely endorsed by leading companies as a balanced tool. The Calculator is also free to use and is backed by the scientific foundation of the multi-stakeholder Paper Task Force and their landmark report.

The Paper Calculator plays an important role by quantifying for paper consumers - both large and small – the environmental impacts of paper production and consumption, and by revealing environmentally friendly choices. The Paper Calculator provides easy to understand information relevant to paper use decisions. In a world of information overload, mixed-messages, and emotional appeals to consumers, the Paper Calculator is an important, independent resource for more than 50,000 users a year to attain a reliable picture of the various options and estimated impacts.

The Paper Calculator is more than just a decision-making tool. It can help offices calculate their impact from green paper purchasing initiatives in the workplace. It can be used to publicize company progress in annual reports. It can add value and quantifiable environmental resource impacts to a traditional comparison of the direct financial costs between papers. And it can help track the estimated impacts of sustainability initiatives, such as large-scale paper saving efforts.

Because the information provided by the Paper Calculator is based on aggregate industry data from North America, it slices through the competing messages of the many merchants in the paper marketplace today, and shows the true value of sustainable choices. Since many paper manufacturers do not release their environmental data, or do not reveal the methodologies they use when they calculate their products’ environmental footprints, the Paper Calculator provides the independent guidance that consumers need to evaluate the environmental impacts of various paper types and choices.

Many other calculators only provide the impacts from a particular portion of paper’s life cycle, such as the manufacturing process. The Paper Calculator provides a comprehensive environmental impact estimates that covers the entire life cycle of your paper - from sourcing to the end of its life.

For users who wish to input more specificity around pulp composition and bleaching technologies, the Paper Calculator provides an “advanced settings” option that enables users to enter custom data, such as information specific to the mills they buy from. Unfortunately most consumers do not have this information at their fingertips, and most paper manufacturers don’t disclose it. This is one reason why the Paper Calculator’s data is such a valuable resource for so many.

There is a push for paper suppliers to construct their own calculators.  Why is it important that paper buyers use a third-party calculator over any other?

The key difference is that the Environmental Paper Network isn’t trying to sell you paper. Our goal is to provide independent information to help you make more sustainable paper purchasing choices. We do not have a vested economic interest in your purchasing one paper over another.

The Environmental Paper Network applauds paper producers with transparent and accurate information about their environmental impacts, and is enthusiastic to work with major producers to allow customers to compare results from specific mills and the industry as a whole. However, there is currently no other independent, transparent calculator in the NGO or corporate landscape that matches the comprehensive scope of the Paper Calculator. And because there is also no industry-NGO consensus on the full scope to be included in a life cycle assessment of paper, using an independent, third party tool like the Paper Calculator is the best way to ensure that you receive scientifically credible and unbiased information that is not produced by a corporation or industry group with vested interests in selling more paper.

Today, there are a handful of calculators on the web created by paper manufacturers that utilize the data and methodology from the EPN’s Paper Calculator to compare their paper’s environmental performance to the rest of the industry. Some of these industry calculators are unauthorized and outdated because they have not been updated on a regular basis, like the Paper Calculator has. Look for a proper and current citation of “Environmental impact estimates were made using the Environmental Paper Network Paper Calculator” and always feel free to contact us if you have any questions or concerns about sources of information.

My paper supplier says that they have their own calculator and it’s more accurate than the Paper Calculator. They even showed a side-by-side comparison and the Paper Calculator results were much different. Who should I trust?

By showing the environmental impacts of different papers across their full lifecycle, the Paper Calculator is the most comprehensive tool available to quantify the many benefits of better paper choices. Because there is currently no consensus on the full scope to be included in a life cycle assessment of paper, the way one company calculates their product’s footprint might be very different from how another does. Therefore, we recommend that you use independent sources like the Paper Calculator, in addition to asking your paper representatives questions similar to these about their environmental impact statements and/or calculators:

What are the boundaries of the analysis?
The Paper Calculator is a “cradle to grave” assessment tool, meaning its methodology and impact statement estimates the impacts of the paper’s entire life cycle - everything from the harvest of materials to the end of the paper’s life. Most paper manufacturers, when releasing environmental information through a calculator or a report, are only “counting” the environmental impacts of making the paper in their facility (a gate-to-gate assessment) and generally not the more comprehensive life cycle captured by the Paper Calculator. Consequently, if the results are shown side by side with the results from the Paper Calculator, there will be significant differences since the Paper Calculator covers much more than just the manufacturing process.

Is the methodology made available to the public and/or explained somewhere? Can I ask questions about it?
Because there is currently no agreed upon consensus between industry and ENGOs on the full scope to be included in a life cycle assessment of paper, companies can omit processes, activities and certain impacts that others may include. For example, burning wood for energy at a paper mill is considered by many paper companies to be carbon-neutral. Or they may not include the impacts of burning wood as an energy source at all, preferring to include only purchased energy. Unfortunately, many companies do not disclose their boundaries or assumptions, leaving the customer unsure about what’s included in the methodology. Asking your suppliers helps to encourage full transparency and disclosure.

What are your “renewable energy” sources?
Many mills today publicize their use of “renewable energy” and most people think of wind or solar derived energy when they hear this term. But for the majority of paper manufacturers, the renewable energy source is trees, or to be more specific, black liquor (the common fuel source for virgin tree fiber paper). This is an efficient industrial process that has been used by the industry for many decades that prevents byproducts from being landfilled and displaces the use of fossil fuel for a portion of the mill’s energy use. Most paper mills report the burning of wood and pulping byproducts such as black liquor as entirely carbon-neutral. However, the assumption that there is no impact on the climate from these emissions has been found to be false by recent scientific research. The Environmental Paper Network is engaged with leading NGOs and forest carbon researchers to correct this error and to ensure that paper products follow a full and accurate carbon accounting methodology. In the future, we will be incorporating this research into the Paper Calculator. In the meantime, when a paper mill reports that it uses renewable energy, it’s important to ask what that source is for full transparency.

In addition to asking questions of your supplier, the Environmental Paper Network encourages paper purchasers to use the Paper Calculator and if possible, to go further: talk to your suppliers, work with conservation groups to create a strong paper purchasing policy, avoid sourcing from high carbon and high conservation value forests, and increase the post consumer recycled content of the papers you use. Where virgin fiber is required, work to increase the percent of fiber from forests certified to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. We encourage everyone to help bolster greater transparency from the pulp and paper industry regarding its environmental impacts.

Since the Paper Calculator uses industry averages, is the information safe to use in my environmental marketing claims?

The Paper Calculator is transparent about the fact that it uses industry averages to make estimates about the environmental impacts of paper (see “terms and conditions” on the Paper Calculator home page). The Environmental Paper Network takes great care to research, update and verify the information in the Paper Calculator with independent sources. We stand by the data and environmental impact estimates provided. And as long as users properly cite the Paper Calculator, as suggested in the required citation located on the Paper Calculator home page, your statements will be clear and understood as independent estimates.


2 - Is recycled paper better for the environment?

Yes! It's common sense that making new paper from old paper is easier on the Earth.

Here's why:

  • It helps preserve forests, because it reduces demand for wood;
  • It conserves resources and generates less pollution during manufacturing, because the fibers have already been processed once; and
  • It reduces solid waste, because it diverts usable paper from the waste stream.

Rigorous scientific research and leading transparent life cycle assessments support the benefits of recycled paper, and government agencies, environmental groups, and many other large purchasers have adopted policies mandating its use. You can be assured that you are doing the right thing for the environment by buying recycled paper, and the higher the level of recycled content, the better. Read on for answers to more specific questions about why recycled paper is the right choice for the environment.


3- How does using recycled paper benefit forests?

Using paper with the highest amount of recycled content reduces the amount of virgin fiber (i.e., trees) needed to produce a given amount of paper. This helps to reduce pressure on forests, species/biodiversity and climate – all of which commercial forestry impacts.

Does recycled paper save trees?

Using recycled paper alleviates the pressure to log forests for paper. By substituting used paper fiber for virgin tree fiber, recycling reduces the overall intensity of forest management needed to meet a given demand for paper, and the pressure to convert natural forests and ecologically sensitive areas like wetlands or endangered species habitat into tree plantations. Using recycled paper maximizes the paper already in the supply chain. Thus, recycling helps reduce the pressure on the full range of values that forest ecosystems provide, including carbon storage benefits, clean water, wildlife habitat and biodiversity.

Doesn't the paper industry replant more trees than it cuts down?

Generally yes, but replanting trees is not the same thing as preserving forests and ecosystems. Growing demand for paper has fueled the rapid conversion of natural forests to tree plantations.

In the U.S. South, where most of the trees used to make paper are grown, the area of natural pine forests have declined by more than half in the last 50 years. Pine “plantations” have displaced natural forests, and now occupy over 40 million acres (20%) of the current Southern “forest.” Many important forest ecosystems (such as the longleaf pine ecosystems) across the South have declined and now occupy only 2% of their original range. While pine plantations are excellent at growing wood, they are far less suited than natural forests to providing wildlife habitat and preserving biodiversity.

In Canada, 90% of logging takes place in old growth forest ecosystems that are home to endangered species. 50% of what is logged in Canada goes into pulp and paper, and a significant portion of which is consumed in the U.S. Yes, you can replant trees once they are cut, but you can’t replace an old growth ecosystem or provide the habitat of an endangered species such as the caribou that need large original forests ecosystems to maintain healthy herds.

And although the paper industry publicizes that they plant more trees than they cut down, many more trees are replanted than ultimately survive the agricultural processes of harvest and production (thinning). By extending the overall fiber supply, recycled paper can help to reduce the pressure to convert remaining natural forests into tree farms.

My paper representative says that all paper produced today comes from managed forests and that natural forests are not being logged for paper products. Is that true?

Natural and ancient forests around the world are still being logged for paper and other timber products. Protecting natural forests preserves biodiversity and protects the rights of forest communities. It is also one of the quickest and cost effective ways of curbing global warming.  Certification that the trees were sustainably harvested is essential to prevent destruction of old growth and high conservation value forest areas. Currently, environmental experts consider the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification to be the most robust and comprehensive. But certification only assures the source for the wood fibers. If the product does not also include recycled fiber, the resulting paper is still virgin paper, without any of the other environmental savings available through including recycled content, such as reduced energy and water use, greenhouse gases and pollution. It’s important when choosing paper to ensure that any virgin fiber is FSC-certified, but it’s even more important to maximize recycled content first.

Is carbon dioxide from wood and paper considered a greenhouse gas?

As a tree grows, it removes carbon dioxide from the air. Once the carbon is trapped in the wood it can be released in a number of ways. Parts of the wood can be burned for energy while making pulp; paper that is thrown away can be burned in a municipal waste incinerator; or methane that is produced when the paper decomposes in a landfill can be transformed into carbon dioxide through oxidation or incineration. Recycling keeps the paper out of landfills, preventing its contribution to creating methane, a climate change gas 25 times more potent than the carbon dioxide used to measure greenhouse gases. Recycling also keeps the paper out of incinerators that burn resources that could have been used many more times.

Methane emissions at landfills must be reduced because curbing methane emissions is key to reversing global warming. Landfills are the third largest human-caused source of methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for 17% of methane emissions. Over 24 million tons of paper was landfilled in the U.S. in 2011, representing almost 15% of total municipal solid waste discarded, according to the EPA.

Landfill gas to energy projects seek to capture methane emissions, yet only a fraction of the methane gas generated is actually captured for conversion into energy. These projects usually increase the short-term impact methane emissions have on global warming and fail to recognize that the environmental impact of methane escaping from the gas collection system far outweighs the modest benefit of offsetting carbon dioxide emissions on the utility grid.

Recycling paper can significantly decrease landfill methane emissions. Only organic discards such as food scraps, yard waste, and paper generate methane when they decompose in a modern landfill. Keeping organic material out of landfills is a cost-effective option to reduce landfill methane emissions and combat global warming.

Carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood or pulping byproducts are not counted towards the total greenhouse gas emissions in the Paper Calculator as of yet. Institutions such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others are currently developing scientific methods that will provide better guidance on measuring these emissions over a product's life cycle.


4 - How does recycled paper reduce pollution during manufacturing?

Making paper from used paper is generally a cleaner and more efficient process than making paper from trees, since much of the work of extracting and bleaching the fibers has already been done. That means generally less total energy, water, and chemical use, and lower releases of air and water pollutants.

Which takes more energy to produce, recycled or virgin paper?

Producing recycled Kraft pulp uses 33% less energy overall, on average, than mills making virgin chemical pulp. So why are there contrary claims? The chemical (Kraft) pulping process results in very strong papermaking fibers, but only half of a dried tree consists of fibers (one-quarter of a fresh tree, half of which is water). The rest of that dried tree is sent as part of a waste product, called "black liquor," to use for cogenerating energy. Some mills don't count this as part of their energy requirements, even though it is essentially creating energy from trees. Some argue that recycling mills use more fossil fuels than virgin pulp mills because they must buy their energy from the grid. That is because recycling mills don't produce wood waste like black liquor to burn onsite. But using fossil fuels is not an inherent requirement for making recycled paper. Rather, it is a criticism of a different system, the sources for the national energy grid. As those sources become more renewable, they will fuel recycling manufacturing just as well as the currently unsustainable fossil fuels.

Indeed, several forward-thinking recycled paper manufacturers already invest in truly renewable energy sources (such as windpower) in order to speed up the development and availability of renewable energy, even when their own mills do not yet have access to them.

Is it better to use wood as an energy source rather than fossil fuels?

Both energy sources have significant – if different – environmental impacts. Extraction and use of fossil fuels for energy depletes a non-renewable resource and releases air pollutants and greenhouse gases. But there are analogous impacts associated with extracting and using wood for energy.

First, cutting trees can deplete a non-renewable resource – natural forests. The paper industry now calls trees a "renewable resource," giving people the impression that there is no problem with cutting trees. It is true that trees can be replanted, in contrast to oil, ores and minerals. But it is not that simple. Counting trees individually misses much of their value. While some trees are grown on plantations for the paper industry, these replanted trees do not make a true forest. They are usually managed intensively, with heavy use of petrochemical inputs such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. They are monocultures, without the mix of types of trees, different ages, bushes, undergrowth, snags, etc. that true forests have. Therefore they also do not have the wildlife, birds, amphibians and biological diversity of a true forest.

People often justify their commitment to reducing paper use and using recycled or tree-free paper by saying that it will "save trees." But it's really "saving forests" that should be the resource focus. Trees are not a "crop" in the normal sense of the word. They are not planted on agricultural farmland. Before a tree farm is planted, forests have to fall.

As noted above, intensive management practices used to grow trees for paper – including both the part of those trees that goes into the paper itself and the part that is burned for energy – can adversely affect water quality, biodiversity, habitat for endangered plants and animals, and the integrity of natural forest ecosystems. Thus, while intensive management can arguably regenerate the quantity of wood, it cannot renew many of the ecological values of natural forests.

Second, burning wood for energy creates air pollution just as burning fossil fuels does. On a lifecycle basis, when all energy sources are considered, releases of air pollutants are generally much lower for recycled than for virgin paper.

Third, even when recycled paper production uses more fossil fuel than its virgin counterpart, on a lifecycle basis the recycled system generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Please see the next question for more information.

How does switching to recycled paper reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The environmental advantages of recycled paper hold true even when more fossil fuel derived energy is used to produce it. In the landfill, the decomposition of paper produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 25 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Paper recycling recovers used paper from the waste stream, directly reducing the amount of paper landfilled. Thus, for recycled papers, any increase in greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing is more than outweighed by reductions in emissions from landfills.

What about the energy needed to transport fiber to mills?

Analysis shows that even after the energy used to collect, transport, and process used paper is accounted for, the recycled paper system uses much less total energy than the virgin paper system. This is because the energy needed to recover used paper and get it back to the mill is quite small relative to the energy saved by using recovered paper rather than trees to manufacture new paper. Don't forget that making virgin paper also requires energy to cut, collect and transport trees to the mill, all of it fossil fuel-derived. And the magnitude for virgin wood fiber is much greater - between 2.2 and 4.4 tons of wood are cut and transported for every ton of virgin pulp produced, depending on the type of pulping used, versus 1.4 tons of waste paper for a ton of recycled pulp produced. Numerous studies have calculated the transport shipping into the energy equation and found that recycled paper production still requires considerably less overall energy than producing virgin paper.

The Paper Calculator accounts for much of the transportation throughout the life cycle of a paper product. This includes harvesting trees, collecting recycled paper and transporting commodity chemicals, but not transportation from a paper mill to a final user. You are welcome to include the energy and emissions from this step yourself.

Isn't it simpler to create energy by burning recovered paper in waste-to-energy plants instead of recycling it?

It takes energy to get the moisture out of the paper so that it will burn. But worse, you lose all the resources that could have been reused many more times, including all the cumulative savings in energy, water, and fiber, as well as the cumulative reductions in greenhouse gases, toxics, pollution and waste that could have been provided by repeated recycling. Converting paper to energy can only happen once – recycling fibers can, if done correctly, be repeated several times before the fibers are too short to be usable, saving environmental resources each time they are recycled. Paper incineration also creates air emissions and results in toxic ash or residue that has to be landfilled. From the perspective of conserving resources, the highest and best use of recyclable paper is to recycle it, not to convert it to one-time energy.

What other manufacturing impacts are reduced by using recycled paper?

Aside from reducing total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, switching to recycled paper cuts emissions of other air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (which contribute to smog), and particulates (which contribute to respiratory problems). It also reduces the volume and improves the quality of wastewater from the paper mill.

Why does water consumption matter?

Water consumption volume is a meaningful environmental measure, as it indicates both the amount of fresh water needed in production and the potential impact of wastewater discharges.

The withdrawal and return of large amounts of water from rivers and streams can have major ecological impacts, which are made even worse at drier times of year and during droughts. Our side-by-side comparison found that, on average, virgin paper production requires substantially more water throughout its life cycle than does recycled paper production.

What about the impact from sludge from recycled paper mills?

All mills produce some sludge, and deinking mills produce more than virgin mills because deinking leaves a residue mixture of inks, used coatings and fillers, tiny fibers too small to recycle, and contaminants such as staples, glass, plastics and non-fiber materials. But those materials would all have ended up in a landfill or incinerator in any case if the paper had not been recovered to send to a deinking mill. Instead, recycling and deinking provides the best waste management by reusing useful resources while leaving the much smaller amount of unusable material to be safely handled according to government regulations. This is a much more environmentally sound outcome than scattering those materials throughout a landfill where the organic materials can create methane and potentially toxic inks can eventually leach into groundwater. When paper sent to an incinerator is burned, the residues become part of the toxic ash that is then landfilled.

Aren't pulp and paper mills much cleaner than they used to be?

Some are, thanks to environmental regulations implemented during the last several decades. However, pulp and paper mills in the U.S. and Canada lag far behind good mills in Europe and South America in terms of cleaning up their pollution, and mills in the U.S. have not significantly reduced their water pollution over the past decade. Many mills in the U.S. would be much cleaner if they adopted proven bleaching technologies such as oxygen delignification and improved their spill control in the manner that European and South American mills, as well as good mills in the U.S. have. The paper industry as a whole would also be much cleaner if the manufacture and use of recycled paper increased. For more information on the environmental performance of specific pulp mills, please visit, a project of the Environmental Paper Network.


5 - How does recycled paper reduce solid waste?

Recycling paper means that less of it is disposed of in landfills and incinerators. This lowers air and water pollution at these facilities, as well as greenhouse gas emissions that arise when paper breaks down in landfills.

Don't we have plenty of landfill space? If so, why recycle paper?

The environmental advantages of recycling extend well beyond saving landfill space, which varies cyclically as well as regionally across the U.S. Paper recycling also reduces environmental impacts "upstream," in the forest and at the paper mill. By adding to the available fiber supply, recycling paper conserves wood and other forest resources, and reduces environmental impacts (energy use, air and water pollution, and solid waste) during manufacturing. By reducing paper's contribution to landfills, recycling avoids releases of methane and other pollutants, and reduces the need to site additional landfills where such releases would occur.

Why are methane releases from landfills an environmental concern?

The most serious global environmental impacts that result from landfilling municipal solid waste are greenhouse emissions, which contribute to climate change and global warming. Methane gas is the primary greenhouse gas released by landfills and is created by the process of anaerobic decomposition. According to the U.S. EPA’s 2011 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, landfills account for 17% of total U.S. methane emissions. Methane is a significant contributor to global warming because it has a global warming potential 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, so relatively small amounts of methane can cause proportionately greater warming than other greenhouse gases.

If recycled paper is ultimately landfilled, how does recycling reduce solid waste?

Each time paper is diverted from the waste stream and used to make recycled paper, there is a direct reduction in solid waste. Think of it this way - if you use a piece of paper once, then erase and use it again before throwing it away, you create less waste than if you used two pieces of paper and threw them both away. Similarly, even if a sheet of recycled paper is eventually landfilled, the recycling process still reduces the total amount of paper landfilled.


6 - Other questions about recycled paper

What's the difference between postconsumer and preconsumer recycled content?

Postconsumer materials are finished products that have served their intended end use by a consumer and have been separated or diverted from the solid waste stream. The critical words here are "end use" and "consumer." Products, scraps and materials still in the production or value-added process do not qualify. Examples that do qualify include office wastepaper, junk mail and magazines from people's homes, undeliverable mail at the Postal Service's dead-letter office, office wastepaper, and shipping packaging from delivered products. Preconsumer materials are trim and scrap created after the original manufacturing process but before the materials reach the intended end-use, such as in converting or printing processes. Examples of preconsumer materials include scraps created by converting rolls of paper into envelopes or cutting them down into sheets such as 8.5x11, hole-punching reams of paper, running pre-print tests for ink and printing presses, and recycling over-issue publications.

Buying paper with recycled content (whether preconsumer or postconsumer) achieves direct reductions in wood, water, and total energy use, as well as reduces manufacturing pollutants, solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions. It also reduces demand on forests, allowing them to continue sequestering carbon, which reduces the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Most preconsumer material is already channeled into industrial recycling collection systems. Requiring postconsumer fiber supports the recycling system by strengthening and maintaining business and community recycling collection programs, and creates an incentive for paper manufacturers to use more paper diverted from disposal.

Ideally, recycled paper should meet at least the EPA minimum recycled content standards for postconsumer fibers. Even better is if it has higher recycled content, with the additional fiber (beyond the EPA minimum postconsumer content) being either preconsumer or postconsumer. There are many papers available in North America that exceed the EPA content standards. See a full list at the Canopy/EPN EcoPaper Database. Any virgin fiber in the paper should be certified as being sourced from well-managed forests by a credible third party such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). But substituting preconsumer fiber for the virgin fiber gains all the environmental advantages of using postconsumer fiber.

The primary difference between preconsumer and postconsumer materials is in the part of the recycling system that each supports. Preconsumer is produced by value-added industrial production and usually has a more consistent quality. Postconsumer materials come from a wider variety of community and business sources and represent a greater number of challenges to papermakers. There is also a far greater quantity of postconsumer material than preconsumer fiber that needs to be recycled. That is why there is a greater focus on requiring postconsumer content, although both provide important environmental benefits.

How much recycled content should I look for in coated catalogue and magazine paper?

Most paper called "recycled" is made from a blend of virgin and postconsumer fiber. Right now, in North America many mills are making coated paper with at least 10% post consumer waste and some mills can make it with 100% pre and post consumer waste. Catalog Choice estimates that each year 19 billion catalogs are mailed to American consumers, using around 3.6 million tons of paper, so even a switch to 10% yields big benefits, and is a critical first step to achieving higher levels in the future. In fact, if that entire 3.6 million tons of catalog paper were switched to just 10% postconsumer recycled paper, the savings in wood use alone would be enough to stretch a six-foot fence across the U.S. seven times. Obviously, the higher the postconsumer recycled content, the bigger the environmental benefits. Some catalog papers include far higher percentages of recycled content, from 30% to 100%.

Doesn't it make more sense to recycle all paper by putting it into lower grades of paper instead of printing and writing papers?

Certainly not from an environmental standpoint. The benefits of substituting recycled for virgin fiber are generally greater in higher end grades like thick white book paper or thick glossy magazine paper (both manufactured with a chemical pulp process) than lower grades such as newsprint, corrugated boxes, and packaging. In fact, most copy and office papers are made in the most environmentally demanding paper manufacturing process of all. Therefore, replacing that virgin fiber with recycled fiber will yield larger environmental benefits.

For example, a ton of pulp to make copy and office papers from virgin wood fibers requires up to 4.4 tons of trees to be cut. That same ton of pulp could have been made instead from 1.4 tons of paper recovered from offices and homes. Including recycled content in printing and writing papers, therefore, is an essential part of the strategy for reducing the environmental footprint of the paper industry. Remember that papermaking involves not only demand for trees, but also large amounts of energy, water, and chemicals, and it produces pollutants, greenhouse gases, and solid waste. All of these can be reduced when using less paper, and using recycled fiber. See Environmental Paper Network’s fact sheet, Paper to Protect the Planet, for more information.

But aren't we already sending all our recovered fiber overseas to China? Isn't all of it already being collected?

While a significant amount of collected paper is being sent to China, more than half is still used in North America. In 2011, about 42% of recovered paper was exported. But much more could be made available to domestic paper mills, even while continuing sizable exports. Some North American regions still have little recycling infrastructure and could collect far more. Many cities could collect much more paper from office buildings and college campuses. And even the paper currently being collected could be sorted much better, which would allow considerably more of the office paper grades to be used by printing and writing or tissue mills. When paper is mixed, such as office papers with newspapers, boxes and packaging, then only certain mills such as those making paper for shoeboxes or stiffening boards for notepad backings or binders can use it. But when it is properly sorted, a much wider variety of types of paper mills can use it, including those making printing and writing papers, newsprint, and tissue.

So why are there still criticisms suggesting that recycled paper is not a good environmental choice?

Some come from lack of understanding the paper industry, especially how manufacturing different types of paper (e.g., printing paper compared to packaging compared to newsprint) results in wide variations in recycling and production realities. Some assume that all paper mills are the same, when there are significant differences even between mills that make the same types of products. Some blame recycling for problems created by other production systems, such as the current fossil fuel-based national energy grid. Some come from companies promoting their own products, which are manufactured utilizing previous capital investments in virgin fiber paper infrastructure and resource supply.

Paper is so universal that, at first, people tend to assume it's simple. But it can quickly appear complicated when critical arguments are made in technical language, leaving confusion and uncertainty about what to believe. It is our hope the Paper Calculator, as well as the following resources, can provide you with important information to consider in choosing the most environmental paper for your use. Please contact us if you have questions.


7 - Other resources

Recycled Paper Factsheets and Reports

Tools for Paper Buyers

More Information about the Paper Calculator

General Resources about Paper and the Environment

  • Global Paper Vision for Transforming the Pulp and Paper Industry: Our Network’s collective goals for transforming the way in which paper is produced and consumed, which have been endorsed by more than 100 non-profit organizations around the world.
  • The State of the Paper Industry: Monitoring the Indicators of Environmental Performance (2007): A report by the Steering Committee of the Environmental Paper Network that establishes the indicators and baselines for long-term monitoring of the environmental performance of the paper industry. The report is a comprehensive resource for environmental advocates, charitable foundations, paper purchasers, academics/students, media, and professionals in the forest, paper and waste industries advancing a more responsible industry. Two PDF versions of this report are available for download: a 6-page Executive Summary and the 77-page Full Report.
  • The State of the Paper Industry 2011: Steps Toward an Environmental Vision: An update to the EPN’s 2007 State of the Industry Report: Monitoring the Indicators of Sustainability. This report tracks the progress of the paper industry on key sustainability indicators.