Recycled Paper: Old News or New Deal?

It’s been more than a decade since concerns about the environment prompted some catalogers to try recycled paper. Back then, many mailers wanted to help save the earth, but recycled paper was often more expensive than virgin paper, the quality was not always up to snuff for printing, and some contended that recycling processes such as deinking could be just as or more harmful to the environment than making new paper.

While the ecological debate continues as to recycled paper’s true impact on the environment, mailers interested in reused stock today will find that prices have come down in recent years and that the print quality has improved significantly. But do catalogers today care about using recycled paper?

Norm Thompson Outfitters does. The $208 million apparel and gifts mailer this summer began printing all four of its catalog titles on recycled paper with at least 10% post-consumer content. For its Early Winters book, the Hillsboro, OR-based company is testing 20% post-consumer recycled content for the text, with a cover stock that’s 60% recycled. (The order forms in all of Norm Thompson’s catalogs are 30% post-consumer.)

Before making the switch to recycled paper, Norm Thompson conducted research with the Boston-based nonprofit group Alliance for Environmental Innovation, which evaluated catalog response with reused stock, as well as paper availability and pricing. The research indicated that printing on recycled paper is efficient, doesn’t hurt response, and saves paper, energy, water, and solid waste.

It also doesn’t have to cost more than new paper. Norm Thompson’s print and production manager, John Snyder, says the cataloger negotiated with its primary paper supplier for the price of the 10% post-consumer recycled stock to be equal to comparable 40-lb. and 45-lb. nonrecycled paper. The mailer’s other paper suppliers agreed to match the price parity to “stay part of the pool,” he says. But the 20% post-consumer recycled stock used for Early Winters does cost about 3% more than virgin paper, Snyder says.

By some industry estimates, recycled paper today costs about 3%-10% more than virgin stock, whereas it used to cost about 20% more about 10 years ago. “The price for recycled paper across the board is higher, but you can get prices comparable to virgin if you seek a mill with a deinking facility onsite,” says environmental paper consultant Peggy Bernard, who works with outdoor gear and apparel manufacturer/marketer Patagonia. Mills with a deinking facility do not incur the additional cost of sourcing that aspect of the recycling process.

The quality issue

Ventura, CA-based Patagonia has used recycled content in its catalogs for the past 11 years. “While we started with only 10% post-consumer waste in the paper, we have set a goal to increase that percentage every year, and we have hit as much as 30% post-consumer waste in recent catalogs,” says consultant Bernard.

But in its early days with reused stock, Patagonia suffered from color variations, Bernard says. The company had used coated paper and switched to uncoated recycled paper — one of the only early options that was affordable for the company — which absorbs more of the ink, thereby resulting in inconsistent color. But greater availability now both in coated and uncoated sheets and among basis weights has improved the quality of recycled paper to the point where there is no longer any discernable difference in terms of print quality and brightness, she insists.

But some catalogers, such as Irving, TX-based Neiman Marcus Direct, remain unconvinced about the quality of recycled paper. Spokesperson Ginger Reader says the upscale fashion mailer’s primary concern is how its clothes will look on the stock. “The last time we looked at recycled paper for a test mailing was in early 1999, and the quality of reproduction of fashion pieces wasn’t as high as we would have liked.” The overall production quality — especially ink holdout and poor printability — were factors, along with economic concerns.

Regarding printability, why is used stock so tricky to print on? Recycling paper uses a screening process to extract and reuse the pulp. But each time the pulp is broken down through this process the pulp fiber becomes weaker. Recycled paper is more susceptible to web breaks — the tearing of paper as it is fed from the spool onto press — than virgin paper. Or as Marshall Spenser, book group director of purchasing for printer Banta Corp., says, “Recycled paper tends to provide a smaller window for error on press if it is not managed properly.” Fewer than 10% of Menasha, WI-based printer’s catalog clients print on recycled paper.

Spenser says that a defect the size of a pencil eraser on a 4-million-sq.-ft. roll of 40-lb. lightweight coated paper can cause a web break. So mills need to be especially vigilant for things such as rubber bands and other contaminants that can be mixed in with the recovered paper and increase opportunities for these defects.

The ecological debate

About 5% of the catalog clients of printer Arandell Corp. in Menomonee Falls, WI, use recycled paper, but executive vice president of sales and marketing Jim Treis is not a fan of reused stock because of the chemicals released in deinking. While the same chemicals used to bleach virgin pulp are used to deink recovered paper in the recycling process, the deinking process yields a byproduct called sludge, which ends up in landfills or incinerators just like paper, he says.

But others say that the chemicals are safe and that some landfills are now able to put sludge back into soil. Ed Glass, senior consulting engineer for pulp and paper with Birmingham, AL-based consulting firm The Washington Group, points out that tests on groundwater have shown that such soil is safe and nontoxic. “Almost everyone is using nonchlorine bleaching products, so the toxicity issue for both creating virgin pulp and recycled pulp is now moot,” he says.

Arandell’s Treis counters that the printing process requires catalogers who print on recycled paper to build in more spoilage paper because it takes longer to get the catalogs up to the “make ready” point when the printer begins to print the catalog after approvals. This defeats the argument for saving trees, he says.

Lackluster demand

Regardless of the debate on recycled paper’s affect on the environment, and despite the fact that the price of recycled paper has come down during the past decade while the quality has come up, a number of mills, merchants, and printers contend that there’s simply not much demand for the paper.

Indeed, the most recent Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Production (October 2000 issue) shows that the percentage of respondents using recycled paper in their primary catalogs was just 10% in 2000, down from 15% in 1999.

Victoria Mills, project manager for Alliance for Environmental Innovation, says that right now recycled paper can be cost-neutral for mailers in some cases. But she adds that unless catalogers demand more recycled paper options from the mills, the mills have no incentive to offer better prices.

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