A Guide to Buying Post-Consumer Recycled Products

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If you’ve been following our series on post-consumer recycled products, then you have a pretty good idea about what PCR is and why it matters so much to me. What you may still be wondering is, “How do I make sure I find and buy PCR products?” And unfortunately, that question is more complex than it seems.

There is no all-encompassing database of PCR products — it just takes good, old-fashioned research to find what you’re looking for.

The Wording on Packages

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Eco-Friendly Dump Truck Toy

Reading product packaging carefully is important. If a product says it’s made from recycled content, look for details. Does it specify whether that’s pre-consumer recycled or post-consumer recycled? (Any kind of recycled is better than nothing, but post-consumer recycling means that when someone dropped an item in the blue bin for recycling, it was actually used to make this new item you’re now contemplating purchasing. Pre-consumer recycling involves taking things like leftover scraps that weren’t initially used and finding a purpose for them.)

Do the claims apply to just the packaging, just the product, or both? How high is the percentage of recycled content, and of that, what’s the ratio of post-consumer recycled content? A product can claim to be made of “recycled content” even if only a tiny percentage contains anything recycled, but the FTC requires that the label tell you exactly how much is recycled (unless the product or package contains 100 percent recycled materials — in which case, that’s probably a pretty good item to consider purchasing!).

The Products Where PCR Thrives

It can be discouraging to find a product that touts its recycled content, only to find that it’s really not so PCR-laden at all. And it can take a while to find an item that fits the bill in all the areas that matter, like functionality, design, and sustainability. There is some good news, though: Lots of different kinds of retailers offer post-consumer recycled goods, from hardware stores and automotive centers to furniture shops and clothing boutiques.

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Boise Aspen 100% Recycled Multipurpose Paper

One category I’m proud to say often leads the field in PCR is office supplies (it is what I built my business on, after all). Recycled paper has come a long way; you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a high-quality, recycled-content version and its virgin-tree counterpart.

Consider Boise Aspen 100: perfectly new, safe, nontoxic, environmentally responsible, 100 percent post-consumer recycled copy and printer paper. In addition to the recycled element, the paper is whitened without the use of chlorinated compounds or chlorine bleach, eliminating some rather caustic and harmful chemical processes. Those kind of additional environmental and human health benefits that aren’t always obvious are often an added bonus when you make a PCR purchase.

Certifications Worth Seeking

When looking to buy products, it can be helpful to see if they’ve been certified by a third party in environmental responsibility. Not all of these necessarily concern PCR, but they can be a good place to start:

Green Seal: Green Seal, a certification that’s been around since 1989, considers the total environmental impact of a product and works to reduce that impact while maintaining the same performance and quality you would expect.

Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) or Processed Chlorine Free (PCF): The Chlorine Free Products Association is an independent, not-for-profit accreditation and standard-setting organization for evaluating chlorine-free products. Only papers made with 100 percent post-consumer recycled fiber can be PCF.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): FSC certification ensures that products come from well-managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

Green-e: An independent certification and verification program for renewable energy and greenhouse gas emission reductions.

CarbonNeutral: For this certification, a company, brand, or product must accurately measure its carbon footprint, then commit to a reduction strategy and carbon offset program to prove their activities will not result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change.

Doing Our Part

We know it isn’t always easy to find PCR products, and that’s why we do the work for you — asking companies tough questions, verifying certifications, and making sure that everything we offer on DolphinBlue.com is environmentally responsible. On each product, we’ll tell you the percentage of PCR content and clearly explain what that means.

We don’t know any other companies that go to the lengths we do to both verify facts and educate consumers on this issue, but we know it’s worth it. Every time you buy something containing PCR materials, you’re helping to close the loop — reducing our reliance on virgin resources and bolstering the market for recyclables so that more products in the future can make use of PCR content.

We all win when we recycle, and we win more completely when we purchase PCR products, preserving our planet for future generations.

Tom Kemper is the founder of Dolphin Blue, a company founded in 1993 on the belief that we can all be responsible in what we use. Dolphin Blue sells the most environmentally responsible home, family, pet, office, and business products available.

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Can Post-Consumer Recycled Products Save the Songbirds?

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Many terms get thrown around in the field of sustainability, with some carrying more weight than others. Amid all the terminology floating about, “post-consumer recycled” is truly one worth knowing — and understanding.

In simple terms, post-consumer recycled (PCR) refers to the portion of reused material that might be part of a product’s total material composition. It’s the recycled portion of a product that’s derived from material collected by the consumer after the product from which the recovered material came was used for its intended purpose.

That’s a rather dry explanation, though — what it can even more succinctly be defined as is the key to saving life on earth as we know it. From the songbirds above our heads that croon a tune to the snails below our feet that inch along, the world’s creatures are relying on us to conserve resources.

Creating a Future

The percentage of PCR material used in the manufacturing of a new product generally determines the level of environmental responsibility awarded a product (or the manufacturer of the product) by consumers, a third-party certification organization, the manufacturing industry, or any of the numerous environmental groups that grant awards for the level of environmental responsibility of a product or process. The higher the percentage, the more eco-friendly the product.

All PCR content has a past — and, fortunately, a better future than what it could have been destined for. Instead of being hauled to a landfill in a socioeconomically depressed area (that’s where landfills are always located, after all) where it would burden the ground with yet more trash, it skips the waste stream. Instead of being burned in a waste-to-energy facility, where it would likely produce adverse effects on human health, such as noxious emissions, it escapes being released into the air in the form of something toxic.

Instead, it finds new life as everything from children’s toys to facial tissues — which is much more productive than being buried or burned, I’d say.

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How Does It Work?

Let’s say you buy a gallon of milk and drink it. You place the empty plastic jug (#2 HDPE, otherwise known as high-density polyethylene) into the blue bin. The jug gets picked up and returned to a recycling center. It goes from there, with thousands of other jugs, to a plastics processor that supplies post-consumer recycled plastic stock to manufacturers. The bales of #2 HDPE plastic, including your empty jug — along with all your neighbors’ empty jugs — re-enters the economic marketplace as feedstock to make a perfectly new, safe, nontoxic, and environmentally responsible children’s toy. How’s that for teamwork with the family down the street? And you didn’t even have to call a neighborhood meeting to do it.

Here’s another example: This time, you buy a ream of paper and use it to make copies of garage sale flyers, while your partner prints a presentation for work and your kids create artwork masterpieces destined for the gallery of your kitchen fridge. Once the papers are no longer needed, you place them into a recycling bin. The paper gets picked up and returned to a recycling center. It goes from there, with millions of other sheets of previously printed paper, to a paper processor that supplies post-consumer recycled paper stock to paper products manufacturers. The bales of paper, including your paper — again, along with all your neighbors’ contributions — re-enters the economic marketplace as feedstock to make perfectly new, safe, nontoxic, and environmentally responsible copy and printer paper (and yes, it’s just as nice-looking as the non-recycled stuff — I bet you can’t even tell the difference).

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PCR sounds pretty great, right? And it is. Keep in mind, though, that the process only works when consumers both recycle everything they can, and then buy the products with PCR content. If you reward manufacturers who institute earth-friendly practices, your loyalty — and your dollars — say a lot.

However, it can be confusing at times when you’re staring at products on the shelf and trying to decide which one is best. Pre-consumer recycled products are also labeled recycled, although it’s not quite the same thing. These products incorporate manufacturer waste, like the leftover scraps and by-products that never made it to market for whatever reason, as opposed to items that did find their way into the hands of consumers and went through the recycling process. Anything recycled is better than anything not recycled, mind you, but post-consumer recycled beats out pre-consumer recycled in positive earth impact — so look a little closer at labels to be sure that’s what you’re getting whenever possible.

There’s Much at Stake

Recycling saves massive amounts of energy, conserves huge volumes of water, eliminates the use of chemicals, and saves precious natural resources, like trees, air, and water. As I mentioned before, though, recycling isn’t enough — you have to go that extra step and purchase the recycled products to really make a difference.

We’re a very interconnected population of creatures who, without each other, cannot continue to exist. As we destroy our forests, we destroy the homes of beautiful songbirds. When the songbirds die off, we see an increase in the number of insects. Songbirds eat insects, and without songbirds, we’ll only use man’s way of dealing with insects — bringing out chemicals that are toxic to us and many other creatures. We then see a rise in the occurrence of disease, cancers, and numerous other health disorders.

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As we preserve our natural world by reducing, reusing, and buying products made from recycled materials, we allow the planet to regenerate itself. With 7 billion of us now inhabiting the earth, and that number projected to expand to 9-plus billion in the next 50 years, we’re over-burdening this world’s capacity to renew itself. We’re endangering the opportunity to live a bountiful and thriving existence — for us, for the songbirds, for everything else.

Buying PCR content products is only one small action we can all take, yet it is one big step in the right direction.

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Communicating the Right Message

Dolphin Blue was founded on the principle that we can all do something to assist in creating a sustainable planet for future generations.

We’ve always provided only office products that, at minimum, are certified for post consumer recycled material content, assuring the buyer that you are getting product that meets your requirements, and, that truly contributes to a sustainable planet for future generations.

It’s not often that, in my almost eighteen years of building the Dolphin Blue business, I receive such striking examples of what an entity is doing to not only contribute to sustainability, but also to articulate their actions in a very effective manner, such as the State of Pennsylvania’s online video. One of the key points discussed in this exemplary video is concerning the issue of greenwashing (a practice whereby a provider makes unsubstantiated claims regarding the environmental attributes of their product or service, such as “Third-party certified”, without naming the certifying organization, or, stating “recycled content”, without mentioning whether the recycled content is pre-consumer or post consumer, or, stating the percentage of recycled material). Without proper education, greenwashing is easily perpetrated on unknowing, unsuspecting consumers.

That is bad for the unknowing consumer and detrimental to the sustainability of our planet. It’s also ripping off our children’s future.

This exceptional presentation came to me through H2E (Hospitals for a Healthy Environment), of which Dolphin Blue is a long-time member. Please share this far and wide, so others may be able to benefit from this great presentation on Environmentally Preferable Purchasing.

Tom Kemper is the founder and president of Dolphin Blue Inc.

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