Good as New: Recycled Paper

American Printer

March 21, 2011

Some printers still harbor concerns about recycled paper. They might think it doesn’t run well on high-speed presses or that it looks inferior to virgin paper. Perhaps they assume it costs more and is hard to get. These perceptions may have been true 20 years ago, but not anymore.

Recycled paper has experienced a technological renaissance in the past decade. By “recycled,” we mean paper that’s made predominantly from previously used paper, up to 100 percent in some paper grades, not the mostly virgin sheets with only a modest amount of recycled fiber. Today’s recycled grades are practically indistinguishable from their non-recycled counterparts.

Parity in quality and performance

Today’s recycled papers meet the same stringent performance specifications as virgin paper, with high-quality recycled options available in categories from newsprint and packaging to coated publication and sheetfed printing papers. Recycled papers consistently perform well in every important quality metric, including printed image quality, runnability and brightness. For instance, productivity tests conducted by independent research firm Buyers Laboratory have repeatedly found “no statistical difference in runnability between recycled and virgin paper.” The EPA’s 2007 “Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines” for government agencies states its research found that recycled paper products “are of high quality, widely available and cost-competitive with virgin products.” National retailers such as OfficeMax and Staples stand behind their recycled paper products, asserting they offer “the same quality” as conventional paper. Anecdotally, FutureMark regularly sees runnability reports from its printer partners showing recycled papers consistently performing in the middle of the pack in web breaks per 100 rolls. In other words, web offset sheets made from 90+ percent recycled fiber typically run just as well as most virgin sheets

Green benefits without the green price tag

Print customers are turning to environmental paper increasingly to express their corporate social responsibility. Many consumers understand recycled = green. This is particularly true for recycled paper, which takes only a fraction of the energy, water and chemicals of virgin paper to manufacture.

Environmental concerns have inspired many printers and end users to take a new look at recycled paper. People are often surprised to learn that recycled papers in several grades are priced similarly to non-environmental alternatives. This is because a few specialized mills have achieved the technical and operational efficiencies to make recycled paper on a cost-competitive basis with virgin paper. For these recycled specialists, profitability doesn’t require higher pricing. This means customers can finally gain the green benefits of recycled paper without extra cost.

As recycled paper has achieved parity in quality, performance and price, it has become the go-to option for many large corporate customers, including Dell, DIRECTV, Reader’s Digest Assn., Scholastic, Staples and Walgreens. Recycled paper has gone mainstream.

Recycling’s technology renaissance

Over the past 20 years, recycled paper has become “good as new,” thanks to the billions of dollars invested by the paper industry. Just about every aspect of recycled paper production has been reengineered, from paper formulas and sourcing strategies to deinking equipment and mill design. Companies have optimized the mix of “ingredients” in their recycled papers, infusing binders, coatings and kraft to improve runnability on high-speed presses and to enhance opacity and overall appearance.

Major advancements also have been made in the way contaminants are removed from waste paper. Modern pulping equipment mechanically ejects impurities such as glue strips and plastic wrappers rather than chemically dissolving them in the fiber mix. State of the art deinking processes extract inks, coatings and other surface additives through multiples stages of flotation and screening. The resulting paper fibers are so pure and clean that they require no bleaching and only minimal brightening.

Finally, printers deserve a lot of credit for advancements in recycled paper. By transitioning to aqueous coatings, plant-based inks and low-solvent solutions, printers have made printed materials safer and simpler to clean. Some printers and corporate end-users have gone even further to facilitate recycling, returning their press room scraps and undistributed publications for reuse at their suppliers’ mills. Such “closed-loop” recycling programs are growing quickly and will become prevalent in the coming years, providing new economic and environmental benefits to printers and their customers.

Recycled paper producers foresee another cycle of rapid product innovation ahead, with nanotechnologies and alternative fibers holding particular promise. These continued advancements leave little doubt that, within the next decade, recycled papers will rival the best-performing virgin papers in quality and customer loyalty.

March 21, 2011