Recycled Paper: Worth the Cost?

Increasingly, graphic designers are being asked by their clients to “green” their print marketing programs, but what does this really mean?

December 9, 2009

Increasingly, graphic designers are being asked by their clients to “green” their print marketing programs, but what does this really mean? Does it have any meaning at all? One wonders. That’s because the vast majority (80-85 percent by some estimates) of papers specified for print marketing are virgin fiber.

When I heard this, I was shocked. With all the publicity about recycled stock and the volume of high-quality introductions in the market, why isn’t this number higher? For the simple reason that virgin paper is cheaper. While it’s true that many recycled grades are cost-competitive with virgin papers (copier and offset papers still tend to cost somewhat more ), and whatever price differentials still exist are smaller than they used to be, especially for high-volume marketers, that difference can seem significant.

Calculating the Real Cost

That’s why it’s important to remember that the cost comes in more than dollars. It’s why marketers like Ben and Jerry’s, The Gap, Bank of America, and Starbucks use premium recycled paper for everything from their letterheads and newsletters to their annual reports and product catalogs.

Let’s look at the real cost of virgin stock:

  • Not only does virgin paper require deforestation (in the United States, paper mills may plant renewable forests, but around the world, this isn’t always the case; the effect on old growth forests can be devastating);
  • Harvesting virgin fiber erodes topsoil (releasing carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas);
  • Harvesting virgin fiber requires a lot of heavy machinery (much of which is diesel) to cut and transport;
  • As the trees are ground up for paper, this releases additional carbon dioxide;
  • The energy requirements for producing virgin paper are 40 percent greater;
  • Not only this, but 40 percent of the volume in landfills is paper, the vast majority of which is virgin fiber. This not only clogs up the landfills, but as it biodegrades, it releases methane, the second-most abundant greenhouse gas.

When one considers the environmental cost to virgin paper, it’s important to ask, “What’s the benefit really?” Virgin fiber is not required for the vast majority of publishing and marketing applications. In fact, using recycled paper—especially PCW (post-consumer waste) paper—allows marketers to promote their environmental responsibility, which is a good face to market these days.

While dwarfed by the giant paper mills, specialty paper companies like New Leaf Paper, Mohawk and Neenah Paper offer a wide selection of recycled stocks, many of them containing large percentages of postconsumer fiber. Nearly every grade of paper is available for text and cover, book printing, opaques, coated papers, Bristols, index and translucent. New Leaf even introduced the first 100 percent PCW stock (EcoBook) specifically for book publishing.


Recycled stock may cost slightly more, but these companies offer environmental calculators that help you justify that cost by calculating just how much the purchase of recycled paper helps the environment.

New Leaf’s Eco Audit Calculator, for example, calculates the number of trees, the amount of water, the BTUs of energy, the volume of solid waste and the volume of greenhouse gases saved by switching from virgin to PCW paper. Not only this, but the results are based on research by the Environmental Defense Fund and other members of the Paper Task Force so it’s an audit, not just a calculation.

In fact, creatives can use the New Leaf Eco Audit Calculator to download a print-ready PDF of the audit that can then be printed in the publications or market materials. By including it right in the printed materials, this lets readers know about the strong environmental savings their clients are making.

Did you see one in the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, Order of the Phoenix? You might have if you live in Canada. In the Canadian release, the Eco Audit was printed on the back pages of the book. It indicated to readers that by switching from virgin to 100 percent PCW stock for the print run of 950,000 copies, this resulted in the savings of 29,600 trees, 12.4 million gallons of water, 20,300 BTUs of energy, 1.4 million pounds of solid waste, and 2.7 million pounds of greenhouse gases.

Heidi Tolliver-Nigro is an industry writer, an analyst specializing in digital workflow and technologies. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

How Can Creatives Justify Higher Recycled Paper Costs?

Even though many clients may want to use recycled paper, the realities associated with paying for it can get in the way. Here are some ideas from Conservatree for how you can offset the cost increases for recycled paper, if any, and justify its use.

  • Recognize that recycled paper’s benefits are far greater than simply dollars and allow a price preference. The most common is 10 percent. Several studies have confirmed that price preferences do not increase paper budgets to the preference limit. Even 10 percent price preference policies generally yield paper price increases of no more than 2-3 percent overall. However, some recycled papers need the entire preference while others are less expensive than virgin. Price preferences allow buyers the purchasing room to choose recycled papers, even when some grades may be slightly higher-priced than their virgin paper alternatives.
  • Aggressively reduce paper waste, using the resulting paper budget savings to buy recycled paper, even when it is more expensive.
  • Apply recycling income and savings, such as payments for collected paper or avoided disposal costs, to fund the difference in costs for recycled paper.
  • Put price differentials into perspective. How much is the actual price difference compared to the total project cost, or total budget, or other expenses? Can you off set higher-priced recycled paper purchases with savings from other types of recycled papers that are less expensive?
  • Take the long view. Paper markets are cyclical and highly dynamic. Sometimes all paper prices are high, other times low. Sometimes market factors affect recycled and virgin papers differently and cause temporary price differences. Experienced paper buyers realize that prices continue to vacillate.