Q. What does “post-consumer waste” mean, and why do labels on certain recycled products make claims like “80% post-consumer waste”?

A. Post-consumer waste is the trash produced when someone has used – that’s past tense – and disposed of piece of paper, soda can, or any other product. The term describes the process most people imagine when they think of recycling: you bind last week’s newspapers, set them on the sidewalk and they’re trucked away to a plant that breaks them down, cleans them up, and sells the stuff as non-virgin paper pulp. Pre-consumer waste, on the other hand, is byproduct from the paper manufacturing process, such as the trimmings left over after the paper is cut to size. It’s silly and misleading when companies advertise pre-consumer paper waste as having been “recycled,” because in fact, it hasn’t ever left the manufacturing plant. That’s like saying you're “recycling” sugar cookie dough when you take the scraps left outside the cookie cutter, ball them up, and roll out another sheet.

So when you buy recycled paper products, look for the ones that specify how much post-consumer waste, or PCW, went into them. If you don’t see “PCW” written anywhere on a product, there’s a good chance you’re being duped. Go for items that boast the highest PCW percentages – the ideal, of course, is 100% PCW, but 80% and 90% are great, too.

And if your recycled paper towels, toilet paper, or printing paper look a bit grayish, that’s a good thing: you’ll know someone once read the news on it, drank coffee from it, or maybe (if you’re lucky) even blew their nose on it, before it got to you. That’s paper pulp that was lovingly tossed in the green bin by its former owner, and which would otherwise be clogging a landfill somewhere. For more info and product suggestions, check out World Centric’s PCW Recycled Paper Products store.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008