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What are “post-consumer” recycled products?

Dear Cecil:

I always thought that paper (among other things) could be either "new" or "recycled." Apparently, however, there are at least three categories of recycled-ness: new, recycled, and "post- consumer" recycled paper, which is what certain fast food and greeting card companies say they use in modest quantities. What is post-consumer recycled paper? How can recycled paper be anything but post-consumer? If recycled paper is not post-consumer, what is it, and where does it come from?

Suzan Charlton, Bethesda, Maryland

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

If I were to take a wild stab, Suzan, I’d have hazarded the guess that post-consumer recycled materials were to be distinguished from pre-consumer materials. When we look into the matter we discover it is even so.

Any industrial process generates waste, much of which is routinely (and profitably) recycled. The paper and printing industries, for example, recycle ends of paper rolls, “makeready” (test copies), misprints, scraps from trimming, and so on. This pre-consumer waste has several advantages over the post-consumer kind: it’s produced in large quantities at a relatively small number of sites, making collection easy, and it’s clean, i.e., not mixed with the orange rinds and other junk found in the average consumer’s garbage can.

Using pre-consumer recycled materials presents no great challenge in many industries. Using post-consumer recycled materials often does. Many local recycling programs run into trouble for just that reason: there is no market for what they collect. Since post-consumer waste is what’s filling up municipal landfills, environmental advocates have been pressing big companies to use more recycled post-consumer stuff in their products. To show its compliance, an outfit like McDonald’s may say its Big Mac cartons are “40% recycled paper (15% post-consumer),” the 15 percent referring to the old newspapers and the like that you contributed to your local recycling program. By insisting on packaging with high post-consumer recycled content, you’ll be helping to increase the market for old newsprint and other tough-to-recycle stuff, possibly saving a few trees and certainly making the manager of your town’s recycling program a lot happier.

Cecil Adams

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