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Recycled or Regular Paper, What's the Difference?

written by: Beth Janicek•edited by: BStone•updated: 5/20/2011

Curious about the difference between recycled and regular paper? Learn about the differences in basic processing methods, cost, and the environmental impact of both paper types, so you'll never again be overwhelmed in the office supplies aisle.

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    If you’ve stood in the office supply aisle of any store wondering about recycled papers, you’re not alone. With labels like “100% recycled," “post-consumer," and “100% recyclable," (and equally diverse prices for various papers), it can be hard to tell whether your purchase is environmentally responsible enough to warrant the extra expense.

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    Why Is “Recycled Paper" So Confusing?

    Part of the confusion comes from the fact that, unlike “Certified Organic" and other mandated monikers, there’s no agency ensuring that paper marketed as recycled is actually such. In fact, that green arrow triangle logo that we’re all so familiar with is part of the public domain; anyone can slap it on any package and let the consumer think the product has earned it.

    What’s more, there are different types of recycling and re-use that can lead toward the manufacturing of paper. Together, this opens the door to the many different recycling-related labels you see used in so many different ways. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, you may be paying more for paper that isn’t any more environmentally-friendly than the virgin paper which is made from fresh trees.

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    Different Types Of Paper Production

    The only type of paper you hopefully won’t see labeled as recycled paper is what we consider to be 'regular paper,' paper made from wood pulp, made from trees, and not used for anything else before becoming paper.

    So what is the difference between recycled paper and regular paper? That depends on what type of recycling or repurposing the paper went through before you bought it. Here are the different types you may encounter:

    • 'Regular' or standard virgin paper is called "virgin" because it's made of fresh-cut trees that haven't been used for anything else before paper. The timber is cut, milled into pulp, and formed into brand new paper.
    • Post-consumer recycled paper is what most of us think of when we imagine recycled paper. Newspaper, junk mail, office papers, and similar materials are diverted from a landfill and processed to remove ink. The pulp is formed into paper, possibly bleached or dyed, and then sold to be used again.
    • Pre-consumer fiber is paper that hasn’t been used and collected by consumers directly, but it was made into a paper product (such as boxes, packaging materials, printed newspapers that aren’t sold, etc.) that didn’t reach a final consumer destination. Instead of being diverted after the point of consumer use, pre-consumer fiber is sent to be recycled directly from factories and warehouses.
    • Mill scraps or mill broke is a tricky category. This refers to scrap paper left over inside the paper mill, such as cuttings, edges, and crooked pieces that never leave the mill. For as long as paper mills have been running, they’ve re-used their mill scraps to make new paper. (It’s kind of like re-rolling your dough scraps when you make cookie cutter cookies.) However, only recently have these companies started labeling it as 'recycled paper.' In reality, it’s never had a first 'cycle,' so the 're-“'is a bit misleading.
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    Environmental Differences Between Recycled vs. Regular Paper

    Aside from the origin of their pulp, the environmental ramifications are what you want to know when comparing recycled and regular paper.

    Recycled paper is popular with environmentalists for two reasons:

    1. Using recycled paper diverts massive amounts of paper waste from being sent to landfills. This saves space in the landfills which means less trash and less land cordoned off for waste disposal.
    2. Using recycled paper saves trees from being cut down. Re-using the paper pulp already in circulation means there’s less need to cut down living trees to create fresh pulp. This is good for the air quality, ecosystems, and biodiversity of those trees’ habitats (and the earth as a whole).

    Therefore, the downside to 'regular' paper is that it depletes natural resources and harms eco-systems rather than utilizing resources already in circulation. The bottom line: if you’re concerned with eco-friendly paper, post-consumer recycled is the best choice for you.

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    Cost Differences

    Making paper always involves considerable processing. Recyled paper needs to be collected and de-inked. Virgin paper requires the felling and milling of trees. Currently, recycled paper costs more than regular paper; the price difference varies from company to company. Advocates of recycled paper point out that the small cost of re-using paper now corresponds to a large savings in resources (not cutting down new trees) and land (not fillng up a landfill) over time.

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    A Note on Paper Bleaching

    Paper that is white has been bleached, whether it’s recycled or regular, which does involve harmful chemicals in both cases. Recycled paper that is white may be made of paper that was bleached the first time it was processed, or it may be bleached during the recycling process.

    What is the difference between recycled paper and regular paper? Ultimately, recycled paper is slightly more expensive, but better for the environment. Checking labels for specific information, such as if the recycled paper is made with post-consumer or pre-consumer fiber, will ensure that you are getting the most green benefits out of your dollar. If interested in even more environmentally-conscious paper, understanding paper bleaching processes will be your next logical step.

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    Resources:

    Fitzpatrick, Tim: “How Well Do You Know Recycled Paper," Environmental Chemistry.com - http://environmentalchemistry.com/yogi/environmental/200604recycledpaper.html

    “Paper-Related Definitions," Environmental Paper Network - http://www.environmentalpaper.org/PAPER-DEFINITIONS.html