Stacks of white and colored plain paper

Photograph by Anthia Cumming/Shutterstock

By Eliza Barclay

for National Geographic

Shopping Tips

The United States uses an astonishing 100 million tons of paper product a year. Though we recycled about 71 percent of the office paper we used in 2008, much of that is still not making it back into the new paper we’re buying, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Paper made in the US is split evenly between three sources: recycled fiber, whole trees and other plants, and wood chips and scraps from sawmills— each contribute about 33 percent to our paper mix.

The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), a well-respected certification body for sustainable forest management, says that though environmentalists have long been focused on increasing the recycled content in paper, good management for tree farms and forests for wood production used in paper manufacturing is more important for the long-term sustainability of forest resources.

Consumer demand for recycled products has also helped drive a shift in the paper-making industry towards raw materials with varying quantities of recycled content. But there is a limit on the number of times paper can be recycled, which helps to explain why we will never be count on 100 percent recycled paper. Every time paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter. After being recycled five to seven times, the fibers become too short to bond into new paper, according to EPA.

When shopping for responsible paper, look for the following labels, some of which may appear together on paper products:

  • Post-consumer waste or PCW: This label means that the product contains pulp from paper once used by consumers. A single sheet of paper may contain new fibers as well as fibers that have already been recycled several times.
  • Pre-consumer recycled: And this refers to pulp made from scraps left over from the papermaking process as well as post-consumer content. The “% Recycled” label represents the amount of both post- and pre-consumer recycled content.
  • FSC-certified: FSC guarantees that the pulp used to make paper originates from well-managed forests with intact, healthy ecosystems. All FSC-certified products have passed through the FSC "chain-of-custody" from the FSC-certified forest, to a paper manufacturer, merchant, and finally printer who have FSC certification.
  • The Green Seal Certified: label is awarded by a nonprofit that rigorously evaluates paper production with standards set for PCW content as well as inking, bleaching and other processes.
  • Processed chlorine-free or PCF: PCF is a label developed by the Chlorine Free Products Association, is for paper made with some part recycled feedstock. PCF indicates that chlorine or chlorinated compounds were used to rebleach the product and the product came from a mill in good environmental standing. Additionally, PCF-labeled products must be 30 percent PCW.
  • Totally chlorine-free (TCF):. The TCF label is also from CFPA, for paper made with virgin (non-recycled) pulp, is unbleached or processed without the use of chlorine or chlorine derivatives. Least desirable of these is ECF, or elemental chlorine free, which is applied to paper bleached with chlorine derivatives that reduce, but don't eliminate, dioxin emissions.
  • Tree-free:This means that the paper was made from kenaf, hemp, bamboo, agricultural refuse, old money, old clothing and ground junk mail, among other non-tree sources. Though generally more expensive than tree-pulp paper, these alternative renewable fibers are increasingly in demand and costs may help come down over time.

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