A tale of two fibers: How to spot sustainable paper

This article is sponsored by Rolland.

As people gain awareness of the environmental impacts of paper production, many are making a concerted effort to use recycled paper. While this is an important first step toward sustainable paper use, many people don’t realize that not all recycled fibers are the same. We sat down with Renée Yardley, vice president of sales and marketing for fine paper manufacturer Rolland, to learn more.

Sara Murphy: What are the different types of recycled paper, and why does it matter?

Renée Yardley: Two types of recycled fiber can be used to make recycled paper: post-consumer reclaimed material or pre-consumer reclaimed material. The two are fundamentally different, as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) specifies in its definitions. Post-consumer reclaimed material is reclaimed from a consumer or commercial product that has been used for its intended purpose by individuals, households or commercial, industrial and institutional facilities in their role as end-users of the product.

Pre-consumer reclaimed material is reclaimed from a process of secondary manufacture or further downstream industry, in which the material has not been intentionally produced, is unfit for end use and isn’t reusable on-site in the same manufacturing process that generated it.

Post-consumer recycled paper embodies the circular economy. It’s manufactured from recycled products that have served a purpose for end-users, then sold on the market where it again serves a useful purpose, and then can be recycled again. It goes to market and back in a sustainable manner.

Pre-consumer fiber, also known as post-industrial fiber, is recovered from paper used in industrial applications like printer overruns or newsstand returns. It doesn’t reach end-users. As such, it’s not a full-fledged member of the circular economy, because it never serves a useful purpose in the consumer marketplace before it’s recycled.

Only recycled paper made using post-consumer reclaimed material, like Rolland paper, is sourced from recycling programs fed by the recycling bins people fill with waste paper, such as magazines, newspapers, promotional materials, packaging, boxes and office documents.

Murphy: So are you saying that pre-consumer recycled paper is bad?

Yardley: Not at all. Pre-consumer reclaimed material is something that manufacturers wouldn’t really have reused in the past, so repurposing it to keep it out of the waste stream is good. It’s just that it doesn’t go far enough. Once those resources have gone out into the value chain, it’s really important to focus on reclaiming and reusing them, and that’s not as easy to achieve as it is to pick up material from the factory floor.

Post-consumer fibers constitute a much larger portion of the paper value chain. We have to collect the material, treat it and design quality materials with it. This involves partnering with external organizations, local municipal governments or landfill operators to make systematic changes for diverting paper waste from landfills and closing the loop. The process maximizes value chains, not only by feeding recycled materials back into production, but also by recovering by-products and side streams of manufacturing for reuse.

Murphy: That sounds expensive.

Yardley: It costs more, for sure. But there’s a critical difference between price and cost. If procurement is to be truly sustainable, the decision-making process has to consider overall societal costs. With that factored into the equation, post-consumer recycled paper is the clear bargain.

Murphy: Does that mean we need to stop using virgin fiber?

Yardley: It doesn’t. Paper can’t be recycled forever — it’s estimated that a paper fiber can be recycled up to seven times — so virgin fiber sourced from responsibly managed, FSC-certified forests remains an essential input for sustainable paper manufacturers like Rolland. This also encourages forestland owners to continue managing their lands sustainably, rather than selling them for development or other non-forest purposes.

Murphy: It sounds like you really believe in Rolland’s work.

Yardley: I really do. I’ve been in the paper business for a long time. One of the reasons I chose to join Rolland was its sustainability story. It’s personally very important to me to do my part in the paper industry. Rolland’s approach is very different from that of other paper manufacturers, which often add recycled fiber to the feedstock of paper mills set up to use virgin fiber, and then end up reporting increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Rolland’s long-term commitment to post-consumer recycled paper, and to playing an active role in the circular economy, stands apart from short-term shifts to recycled paper and single-issue reporting of environmental impact. We believe well-informed paper users seeking sustainable solutions recognize the difference.

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