Recycled Paper: A Printer’s Story

A saga of the "hippie printers"
and their commitment to recycled paper

One of the articles in Global Climate Change (IC#22)
Originally published in Summer 1989 on page 7
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

It’s tough being environmentalists and commercial printers at the same time. Every piece of work we print uses up trees, involves toxic chemicals, and adds to the solid waste problem. It’s enough to keep a person awake at night, thinking about entering another line of work – like, say, growing spirulina.

Or at least this was the situation until a year ago, when Arena Press decided to start printing on recycled paper. "What a great idea!" we thought. "We’ll be able to make a living and sleep at night, too!"

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. We ran up massive phone bills calling paper manufacturers and distributors all over the country, looking for recycled paper. None of our usual suppliers carried it – and they weren’t even sure that high-quality recycled paper existed.

Finally we found a distributor, and we started marketing our services. We learned early on that while people liked the idea of printing on recycled paper, they were initially wary of actually doing it. There was always the issue of the bottom line – "Does it cost more?"

Fortunately, recycled paper can be very economical. One reason is that recycled paper is generally more opaque than virgin paper. That means you can use lighter weight paper, and as paper is largely priced by weight, it is sometimes cheaper to print on recycled paper.

Another marketing difficulty was the impression that recycled paper is a "weird." I even had one potential customer tell me that she was filing my name on her Rolodex under "Hippie Printers"!

100% recycled paper is one of our most popular items, but it is important to note that the vast majority of recycled paper is "50/50" – half virgin pulp, half recycled. When recycled paper is made, the long, strong fibers from the original wood pulp are chopped up and processed, resulting in shorter fibers and less stiffness. 100% recycled paper is very pliable, and thus more difficult to print on.

This brings us back to our original problem of sleeping well at night with all those trees looking on. Our position is a mixture of idealism and realism. We specialize in recycled paper and encourage the use of 100% recycled whenever possible. But we print on 50/50 paper quite a bit. And we sometimes print on virgin paper – usually because the client insists on the cheapest paper available.

We’re still surprised that printing on recycled paper hasn’t come further. The concept of printing letterhead or direct mail fliers on recycled paper still seems foreign to many people.

This is true not only true of customers, but of printers as well. The industry doesn’t have the slightest inkling that recycled paper is available, or how to use it, or that there is a market for it. A major trade journal recently devoted their cover story to paper, and even used a graphic of a weeping tree to indicate how fast the demand for paper was growing – and it never even mentioned recycled paper! Most printshops are completely ignorant of the existence of recycled paper – or actively discourage their customers who ask for it.

This needs to change. People need to start demanding recycled paper from their printers. Until the customers demand it, or the government mandates it, the market for recycled paper will remain limited, and the paper manufacturers will continue to build virgin paper plants instead of plants to utilize waste paper.

Arena Press can be contacted at PO Box 468, Point Arena, CA 95468.

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