Post vs Pre-consumer Recycled Fiber

Post vs Pre-consumer Recycled Fiber

It takes all kinds: Post-consumer waste, pre-consumer waste, and virgin fiber play complementary roles in recycled paper

Paper is one of the most recycled materials in the US. In 2022, the paper recycling rate was nearly 68%, which is steady from 2021 – it is an enormous industry. Yet, in the world of paper recycling, two terms that frequently cause confusion are post-consumer waste and pre-consumer waste. Both consumers and large-scale paper buyers need to understand these important concepts and the role they play alongside virgin fiber in recycled paper products.

Post-Consumer Waste vs. Pre-Consumer Waste

Post-consumer and pre-consumer waste represent two distinct streams in the recycling process, each with unique characteristics and significance. Understanding these terms in-depth is vital for stakeholders in the paper industry as it shapes their choices toward more sustainable practices.

Post-consumer waste encompasses materials that have fulfilled their intended purpose, reaching the end-users or consumers and subsequently being discarded – items such as newspapers, magazines, cardboard boxes, and office paper. Once these materials are discarded, they enter the waste stream, where they are collected and diverted from traditional disposal methods like landfills or incineration. Instead, post-consumer waste is directed toward recycling facilities, where it undergoes processes to reclaim valuable fibers and other materials.

Pre-consumer paper waste, also known as post-industrial waste, includes materials that never reach the end-consumer but are generated within the manufacturing or production process. Pre-consumer waste involves scraps, trimmings, and by-products produced during various stages of the production line. These could be excess paper generated during cutting processes, unused print-run materials, or other manufacturing discards. While these materials have not yet served a consumer's purpose, they are integral to the manufacturing process. The reuse of paper waste during the manufacturing process has always been part of paper-making.

Post-consumer waste reflects the choices and actions of end-users, highlighting the importance of recycling and responsible disposal, and pre-consumer waste is tied to efficiency and waste management practices within the manufacturing sector. Both streams are critical for a comprehensive approach to sustainable paper production.

Choosing products with a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content supports the concept of a circular economy, where materials are continuously reused, reducing the need for virgin resources and minimizing environmental impact. Conversely, pre-consumer waste underscores the responsibility of manufacturers to optimize production processes, minimize waste generation, and implement efficient recycling practices within their facilities. By repurposing manufacturing by-products, companies contribute to the overall reduction of waste and the conservation of resources.

Recycled paper (printer paper, packaging, etc.) may contain a percentage of post-consumer, a percentage of pre-consumer, and/or virgin materials. Typically, only post-consumer content provides the total recycled content.

Limitations on Recycling Cycles

While recycling is undeniably beneficial for reducing the environmental impact of paper production, it's essential to recognize the limitations on the number of recycling cycles a paper product can undergo. Each time paper is recycled, its fibers become shorter, ultimately affecting the strength and quality of the material. Typically, paper fibers can be recycled five to seven times before they become too short for further use. This is where the importance of fresh fiber in the recycling process becomes evident.

The Need for Fresh Fiber

Fresh fiber, also known as virgin fiber, plays a pivotal role in maintaining the quality and strength of recycled paper. Incorporating a certain percentage of new fiber into the paper manufacturing process ensures that the end product meets the requirements for various applications. Fresh fiber acts as a reinforcing agent, compensating for the shortening of fibers that occurs during multiple recycling cycles. Moreover, fresh fiber is indispensable for the production of specialty papers and some consumer packaging that demands high levels of characteristics such as strength, brightness, smoothness, and printability.

A fair life cycle comparison of the two processes – virgin and recycled – shows that both have advantages and limitations and should be combined for the best outcomes for the buyer and the environment.

Willamette Falls Paper offers papers up to 30% post-consumer waste in our NATUREweb and NATUREplus. These products offer the same quality as our virgin products but with the added benefit of utilizing post-consumer waste recycled content.