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The Realities of Recycling: ‘Closing the Loop’ is Critical

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The following is a guest post from Tom Kemper, CEO and Founder of Dolphin Blue

Fifteen years ago, the market for environmentally responsible office supplies was virtually non-existent. Today, CEOs, marketing executives, and ad agencies are ever-so- eager to position their respective companies as “environmentally friendly.”

Many customers and businesses are jumping on the green bandwagon with recycling programs. The majority don’t realize that recycling won’t work unless we create economic pull-through for the recovered materials by purchasing products made from post-consumer recycled content.

Recycled vs. “post-consumer recycled”

United Stationers releases a quarterly catalog of 40,000-45,000 products. While 9,000 products in that offering are made of “recycled material,” in reality, about half of those products can be weeded out because they are not actually made from post-consumer recycled material, having little to no value in reducing the ecological footprint.

“Recycled” has little meaning in terms of the footprint the product leaves on the environment. Post-consumer recycled does. Products made from post consumer recycled material had a previous life. The products have been recovered and successfully re-processed to become something once again. Some “recycled products” are more the result of standard, prudent business practice than an effort to help the environment. For example, if a roll of paper breaks in the production process, it is recovered, re-enters the pulping vat, and becomes the pulp to make more paper. Or with the production of plastic— if some of the plastic seeps from the side of the mold during the injection process, the manufacturer merely reheats that plastic and uses it before it ever leaves the building. That’s not recycling. Rather, it’s efficient, prudent business practice.

officesupplies.jpgRecycling from excess or faulty material in the production process is just normal business—you would be unwise to discard it. You use it again because it’s good material. It’s not recovered from the waste stream, and there is little ecological value in using these products, as opposed to utilizing post consumer recycled alternatives. Products should meet minimum EPA standards, usually 30 percent for paper goods and less for other office supplies. However, many products today contain as much as 100 percent post consumer recycled material (meaning they’re made from discarded, recovered waste material) and are indistinguishable from virgin-material products. With the recent advent of “green washing,” (offering a “green” product or service because it is a trendy thing to do), it is important to know where the offeror’s interest lies. If the retailer or service provider is truly intent on creating a sustainable planet, are they ONLY offering a product or service that contributes to sustainability of our planet? Or, are they offering their green alternative as an adjunct to their “not so green” conventional product or service?

The realities of recycling

In spite of wide-spread adoption of recycling programs in corporations, cities and schools, filling bins with paper and plastic disposables does little good because the demand created through the purchase of post-consumer recycled content office supplies is still relatively low. Your local elementary school implementing a recycling program provides journalists with that wonderful “feel good” story. What journalists seldom show is that a significant percentage of recycled material is either burned for its BTU (heat, as measured in British Thermal Units) value or taken to a landfill, simply because it has no hope of becoming resurrected as something new – unless of course, we buy products made from those recovered materials.

According to the American Forest & Paper Association Web site, in 2007, 56 percent of the paper consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recycling. The figure equals nearly 360 pounds for every person in the United States. However, we have a long way to go. For example, 90 percent of paper used in offices contains no recycled content. And just over 36 percent of the fiber used to make new paper products in the United States comes from recycled sources.

Though recycling numbers are up significantly from the 1990s, we clearly have a long way to go. Products made from recycled content have improved dramatically in the last ten years. Again, paper made from 100 percent post consumer recycled content performs every bit as well as paper made from virgin material. In addition to saving our natural resources, we can reduce the amount of energy required to produce new paper and subsequently reduce the amount of emissions without sacrificing quality. The relatively low usage of office products made from post-consumer recycled content is even more disappointing when you consider that much of the paper that employees use in an office travels a distance of less than 25 feet in its lifetime.

Keep in mind that ten years ago, paper made from just 50 percent post-consumer material was considered environmentally responsible. Now, we have products made completely from post-consumer material (100 percent PCR) that are indistinguishable from virgin material papers.
When it comes to products made from recycled content, most of us think of copy paper. You may not be aware of the array of environmentally responsible office items available. Environmentally friendly office products encompass far more than copy paper. You can buy day planners, toner cartridges, file folders, presentation folders, printed letterhead and business cards, envelopes, color laser copy paper, CD/DVD sleeves, printer labels, storage boxes, note pads and post-it notes, all environmentally-friendly, leaving a dramatically smaller ecological footprint.
Further, you can personalize and customize many of the available items:

  • Folders for your marketing material and presentations
  • Day planners and calendars for your clients and employees
  • Business cards and letterhead can be printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled material that is processed chlorine free & FSC-certified

File cabinets made from post-consumer recycled steel, refurbished office furniture and furniture made from environmentally friendly materials are easily attainable.

In part, we have products that are more eco-friendly because consumers and businesses have expressed an interest in these items. Yet, we should consider our population is expected to reach 9 billion in less than 50 years, and our natural resources will continue to diminish; therefore, simply doing the minimum in regards to our environment is far from an adequate or sufficient measure in the 21st century. We will eventually reach the point where certain consumables are too expensive to produce, or we will even run out of the natural resources required to produce them. Therefore, a consciousness of how our consumption in the offices and buildings we occupy impacts the environment—is essential. If we don’t manage our resources wisely, now, the day will come when we have no choice.

Demand is low for environmentally responsible office products because consumers and corporations are always looking for the lowest price. What many don’t realize, buying office supplies made from virgin material has unseen costs. For example, taxpayers subsidize the forest industry to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year to build access roads and cut down trees in our national forests. Additionally, if chlorine used to bleach paper contaminates our water supply, taxpayers, pick up the tab to clean up the mess, or we pay the price for chlorine’s effects on health through our degraded health, associated health-care costs and increased insurance premiums.

Why recycling works: A success story

As an example of “stewardship mentality,” the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) understands the correlation between recycling and the use of products made of recycled materials. The USPS is challenged with disposing of thousands of tons of “undeliverable bulk business mail” (UBBM). Disposing of that much waste paper has a high cost, especially when waste-hauling fees are calculated on those many thousands of tons. Recycling this relatively clean source of fiber for paper production makes sense economically and ecologically. To gain maximum value for the recyclable UBBM, it makes economic sense as well for the USPS to purchase paper made from recovered/recycled fibers so that the recoverable UBBM fibers have greater value. This is ‘closing the loop,” where waste becomes feedstock, just like in nature.

Our economy is geared to drive costs down, use more “stuff” and make this “stuff” cheaper. When we embrace this mindset, we devalue our raw materials to the point of commoditizing them—viewing them more as a means to a profit, rather than a natural resource to be valued. We leave an ecological footprint regardless of our activity. The key to creating a sustainable planet is to reduce or minimize that footprint however we can, be it through reuse of materials, recycling, or recapturing our waste. When our society as a whole takes sustainability seriously, we will enjoy the benefits of lower energy costs, less pollution, the preservation of our forests and a healthier lifestyle. And, know that we’re leaving our kids, and their kids, a world worth having.

dolphinbluelogo.giftomkemper.jpgTom Kemper is CEO and founder of Dolphin Blue, an online retailer of environmentally responsible office supplies. The Green Office Guide is available for free download at www.dolphinblue.com. Since 1993, Dolphin Blue has promoted the responsible stewardship of Earth’s resources by encouraging the conscientious purchase of everyday business supplies. All products sold through Dolphin Blue contain, at minimum, 20 percent post-consumer recycled material, most being made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials. Packages and labels are made using only post-consumer recycled materials and are printed using only soy and vegetable-based inks. Supporting initiatives such as Sustainable Dallas and other sustainability-focused projects and organizations, Dolphin Blue’s efforts educate consumers and businesses with environmentally responsible practices, assisting in creating a sustainable planet for future generations. Tom is available for speaking opportunities. To contact Dolphin Blue visit www.dolphinblue.com or call 800.932.7715.
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