What Goes Around Comes Around: The Other Half of the Recycling Equation

October 14, 2010


[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

Shredded paper.

Recycled paper: Where does it go? If you don't buy it back, you'll never know! (cc image courtesy tonx via flickr)

Psst. Here’s a secret: Recycling paper is worthless if we don’t use recycled paper.

That’s right: Our best efforts at recycling paper are only half the battle. Recycling is more than just an act of stewardship done out of the good of waste service workers’ hearts. It’s also a money-maker. And for the process of recycling to remain economically viable and an option for waste-producers like us, the material being recycled has to prove its

value. We have to want to buy it back. In some form. For paper products, for instance, that means supporting a market for the material that comes out on the other side of the recycling process: purchasing printer paper, paper towels, and tissue, among other products, that are made of recycled content.

Recycling and using recycled materials as individuals and families is great, but when we join in these efforts as church communities, our impact deepens at the same time that our witness—as believers who respect and cultivate our Creator’s

world—broadens. Your church may already be recycling materials it would have otherwise thrown out. Now, here is some information to help your church participate in the other, equally important, part of the recycling process (and tips for avoiding some of the pitfalls of buying recycled content):

Is Recycled Toilet Paper Really…Recycled Toilet Paper?
So what exactly does the “Made from 70% recycled content” note we see on many paper products mean? Is recycled toilet paper r

eally made from old toilet paper? Thankfully, no. Don’t let that fear keep you from buying recycled toilet paper! Here’s what you’re really getting when you buy any kind of paper made with recycled content:

  • How it works: In the recycling process, the paper you discard is combined with water so that it breaks down into pulp, which is then cleaned, de-inked, and—depending on its final destination—pressed and re-bonded into a final product or bleached and then processed into its final state. The new products made through this process will be labeled as containinga certain percentage of “postconsumer content.”
  • Why it matters: Just a few of recycling’s benefits to the environment and human health: recycling one ton of printer paper into new products saves about two tons of wood that would have otherwise been gathered from felled trees; about 35% of municipal solid waste is paper that could be recycled; recycling paper instead of producing paper from unrecycled pulp accounts for a 40-60% reduction in energy use.

Is It Legit?
This is an important question to ask. Recycled materials can be more expensive than their equivalents made with virgin resources. No church wants to spend extra money on fraudulent products. More importantly, no church wants to support industries that not only continue to plunder precious resources, but that lie about it, too. Fortunately, there’s help out there to assist you in getting the real deal:

  • Preconsumer vs. Postconsumer content: When purchasing products made from recycled paper, you are often given two choices: preconsumer or postconsumer content. Preconsumer content constitutes the scraps that result from ordinary paper-making processes (such as the refuse created when paper rolls are cut into envelopes) and is typically included in paper products whether it is indicated or not. Postconsumer content comes from material that had another life as a different product and has been fully recycled into its new incarnation.
  • FSC vs. SFI: When considering what the non-postconsumer content portion of a paper product is made of, or when
    Tree in an old growth forest.

    Old growth trees, like this one, can't be replaced once they're cut down for paper products. (cc image courtesy gmt903 via flickr)

    purchasing non-recycled paper products, ensure that the trees used to produce this virgin material have been sustainably harvested. The Forest Stewardship Council, an independent certification body supported by conservation groups and trusted by a growing number of corporations, lends its certification label to paper products that have been harvested from forests that, among other standards, are cared for according to strict conservation, forestry management, and social health standards. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, on the other hand, is a timber industry-managed standard that condones clear-cutting and chemical use, logging of old growth and endangered forests, and the replacement of forests by ecologically degraded tree plantations.

When You’re Ready to Buy It

  • Look for: Labels. We’ve already established that FSC- and postconsumer content-labeled products are the responsible choice for buying recycled paper products. The higher the percentage of postconsumer content, the better!
  • Use it: In your church’s office, school, bulletins, and flyers or announcements, establish a policy of using recycled printer or copier paper. For special events or regular coffee hours, invest in paper plates, cups, and napkins that include postconsumer content. And in those bathrooms, replace bleached paper products (dioxins have been found inbleached paper products) with paper towels, toilet paper, and facial tissue that include recycled paper.

P.S.: Reduce First!
Even though paper recycling is an innovative and resourceful process, our first step as cultivators and conservers of God’s earth should always be to reduce unwieldy consumption of his resources where we can:

  • Printing needs – Where possible (in a church or school office, for example), print on both sides of a sheet of paper or print less important, or private, documents on the back of an already-printed page. Encourage others to refrain from printing emails or other information that can be easily read online. Establish a scrap paper bin where folks can put non-sensitive, one-sided printed documents instead of tossing them in the recycling bin, so that others can use them for scrap paper instead.
  • Food service – Where appropriate and in a manner that won’t over-burden volunteers in the church’s hospitality ministry, use re-usable plates and cups, especially in smaller church congregations. Also, encourage members to bring their own re-usable mugs or thermoses to the church coffee hour!

Related Posts at Flourish
How to Start Recycling at Church

Further Reading
Environmentally Preferable Paper Purchasing Guidance – A helpful document for minimizing paper use and buying responsibly harvested and recycled paper as an organization.
Q & A on the Environmental Benefits of Recycled Paper – All you need to know about why buying recycled is a very important part of the recycling equation.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

SFI Program October 20, 2010 at 1:50 pm

I would like to correct a bit of misinformation in the article above. At SFI, we care very much about the forests. SFI is fully independent and has a rigorous standard grounded in science, research and regional expertise that guarantees responsible forest management. Multiple forestry experts, conservation groups, and government officials support the SFI standard. To get the facts, please visit http://www.sfiprogram.org.

admin October 28, 2010 at 2:12 pm

[Editor's note: We stand by our recommendation that responsible buyers should look out for the stronger and more credible FSC certification when buying paper, although we should add that SFI certification is better than nothing (which indeed seems to be SFI's own main marketing claim). The Sustainable Forestry Initiative has made steps to create more independence from the industries which invented it, but we've seen nothing to indicate it is a stronger standard than FSC. --Rusty Pritchard]

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