Fiber: Recycled vs. Virgin

There is an ongoing debate about the usage of recycled fibers as opposed to virgin fibers. More than one-third of the fibers used by the paper industry come from recycled fiber. Compared to other industries, the amount of Post Consumer Waste used in the paper production process is significant.

The content of recycled material is even greater when you take into account pre-consumer waste (paper waste that never reached consumers) and the usage of mill broke. Broke is the waste generated in the process of making paper. It is re-introduced in the process of making pulp, decreasing the need for virgin fibers. Even though recycled paper requires water and energy, the level of pollution created in the process uses one-third less water and two-thirds less air when compared to virgin fiber (EPA).

Pre-Consumer Waste, recycled broke, and Post Consumer Waste (PCW) are all used in the process of making recycled paper.

The opposite line of thought is that using virgin fibers from responsibly managed forests promotes reforestation which is a critical factor in fighting greenhouse gas effects. Major forest certification programs like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiatives) are leading forces behind responsible and environmentally managed forests.

So what does all of this mean? Using paper is good and using recycled (or paper from managed forests) is better. When printing anything, try to use paper that has some content of PCW (look for at least 10% and the higher the better!) or is FSC or SFI certified.

And whichever paper you choose to use, always remember to recycle it at the end of the lifecycle. Recycling paper uses less energy and produces much less waste than just tossing it in your trash can. In fact, each ton (2000 pounds) of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water.

This represents a 64% energy savings, a 58% water savings, and 60 pounds less of air pollution1.

The impacts are clear and the first step begins with you!


Paper vs. Electronic

It seems that every other email now includes a “Please consider the environment before printing” footnote. This is good and promotes responsible and sustainable business behavior.

So if you need the information for business purposes, to either edit or add content, seek approval or give instruction, how does one proceed? This matter reaches an even greater level of complexity as the information is shared outside of the organization with business partners, vendors, customers, etc.

Let’s assume this information is an order for a product. The order information may be used by the sales team and/or customer service reps. That order will then be used by the credit department or financial group to authorize the transaction. Once approved, an internal order will be sent to manufacturing. Fulfillment may include relying on other vendors and their respective order management processes. Once the order is produced, it will generate a pick ticket and packing and shipping instructions. The order will then be invoiced, a bill will be issued and mailed, a payment will occur, and the transaction will be recorded.

So what’s the point? The globalization of our economies has driven tremendous processes to manage just about everything we do or consume. The options are organic (paper) or electronic. We all know that paper requires trees and we would like to minimize paper usage to limit deforestation.

So what do the “paperless” solutions offer? Computers, monitors, servers, applications, and enterprise servers (LAN, WAN) all contribute to the communication and sharing of information. A tremendous amount of raw material and energy is required to produce and deliver all of this hardware and software.

Energy consumption does not stop here. The amount of energy used to power, operate, exchange, and protect the information is compelling. The information is eventually archived and backed up in secured areas where server farms manage and process giga, tera and exabytes of information. The energy consumed is mostly produced by power plants and, as we all know, almost none of our energy comes from clean or renewable energy.

In the bottom line, the electronic option is, contrary to popular belief, not very green. It is also true when it comes to disposing of the electronic waste generated by computers that constantly need to be upgraded to keep up with file size and operating system requirements.

The reality is that we probably need to use both, and using paper is actually far better than one would think. Printing paper actually promotes the growth of forests. More and more fibers used in making pulp come from responsibly managed forests. Trees are a crop and are planted and harvested to provide renewable and reusable resources (i.e. paper). Planting and harvesting trees is a never ending cycle that enhances the earth, absorbs carbon dioxide and creates a strong green economic engine.

So go ahead, print that email if you need it, it helps grow trees!

(Read more about sustainability and business at