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Jeff Gunther

Pre- vs. Post-consumer recycling

Jeff Gunther wrote this May 5, 2010.
CNN had a great Q and A today about the difference and value of pre- vs. post- consume recycling. I highly recommend reading their article if you are unclear about the difference. The short version is, though, that post-consumer content is supposed to come from yours and my recycling bins, whereas pre-consumer comes mostly from wastes in industrial processes. This is supposed to be separate from the reuse that occurs as a part of the normal industrial process. For example, trimmi ngs at the printing plant as opposed to scrap from the mill that is always recycled.

Many assume that post-consumer is better because it has already been used and has been through as many people's hands as possible. This is a misconception, in my opinion. The real key here is percent recycled content versus percent likelihood of ending up in the landfill. Waste is waste, regardless of how many hands it has been through. Post-consumer tends to be seen as the better choice because it (almost) 100% of the time ends up in the landfill, whereas anyone outside of a particular industry may not know how likely a particular waste is to end up in the landfill. We assume industry will be efficient, but there will always be some waste in the end and some of those wastes will be headed for the landfill. For example, in the US, a magazine that makes it to the newsstand but is never sold is considered pre-consumer. This seems like it should count just as much as the magazine in my recycling bin right now.

It's true that there may be small inefficiencies that make one system more efficient than the other (transport/collection, state of material, etc.). Often it is pointed out that post-consumer is more energy intense than pre-consumer, with collection and sorting. But that may not always be the case; and even so, collection and sorting energies are very small compared to the overall savings from recycling. So we can avoid the debate between buying a post-consumer product from Germany versus a pre-consumer from the US. One can to assume that these smaller impacts average out and that, especially from a material usage standpoint, not land-filled is the key metric.

So the one place where post-consumer recycling does shine is that you know for sure where it was going. You don't want to be buying some pre-consumer material that would've been repurposed anyway in place of something that will now be headed to the landfill. It is certainly much more difficult to be green-washing when you label something post-consumer recycled.

In the end, though, both pre- and post-consumer recycling are important. There needs to be enough of a market for each that it makes financial sense to recycle as opposed to just land-filling the waste. It's just that pre-consumer recycling is a little trickier for the average person to value. In the end, the breakeven point on pre- vs. post-consumer content comes down to your gut feeling about how likely a pre-consumer material was to have been recycled. So should you choose a product with 80% post-consumer recycled content over a product with 100% pre-consumer recycled product? Only if you think less than 80% of the pre-consumer recycled material was actually headed for a landfill before this product was made.

Finally, it is important to remember, as all others who speak on the subject have said, that any recycled content is better than no recycled content.
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