The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 4, Number 4
Nov 1991

The Dilemma of Office Paper Recycling

Reprinted with permission from Recycled Paper News Jan. 25 1991, p. 1-3.

Office paper collection programs are proliferating across America. Where is all that paper going? Public perception may be that it is being recycled back into copier paper, forms, and other commodity office products. In reality, most office paper now being collected is consumed by tissue mills, boxboard mills, and overseas paper m-manufacturers. According to Andover International Associates, currently only about 16% of postconsumer printing and writing paper is recovered, while 73% ends up in municipal solid waste. The remaining 11% of office paper is either in use or in permanent storage.

There are two major reasons why very little office waste is recycled back into printing and writing paper in North America: collection and deinking.

Office waste is comprised of a variety of paper grades and types which must be carefully source separated in order to be technically and economically usable to make fine paper.

However, the infrastructure to source separate, collect, and grade usable office waste is currently inadequate to supply a commodity paper mill. Similarly, the technology and capacity to deink xerographic toner and laser printed materials is not in place.

What is "Office Waste"?

The office waste paper stream is as complex as it is voluminous. A typical white paper collection program will yield paper stock of variable mechanical (groundwood) and chemical (free sheet) pulp content, acidity, shade, and brightness. It will also contain an ever-changing variety of inks and other contaminants.

There is considerable disagreement and confusion among paper stock dealers about how office paper should be graded. According to Dan Sandoval, editor of Fibre Market News, a publication which follows the paper stock trade, "office waste: is a hybrid of the traditional grades established by the Paper Stock Institute (PSI) and is often sold as "Super Mixed," "File Stock," or "Sorted White Ledger." "Computer Printout" (CPO) and "Groundwood Computer Printout" are other distinct grades of postconsumer office waste. The PSI standard grades serve as general guidelines, but the actual specifications for paper stock are determined by the buyer (the consuming mill) and the seller (the waste paper grader/packer).

Deinking Office Waste

Even the most vigilant source-separation program will yield a variety of contaminants in the paper stock, including adhesives from envelopes and pressure sensitive labels, the hot melts used in some document bindings, paper clips and staples, groundwood content from old newspapers, plastics, and obvious trash.

Another significant contaminant in office paper is the growing quantity of "inks" from laser and xerographic printed matter.

The tem "laser" is widely used within the paper industry to refer to all non-impact printing methods, including copier machines and laser printers. Both these processes use "dry inks," plastic toners which are transferred to the paper via electrostatic charges triggered by light. Visible or ultraviolet light is used in conventional photocopiers, and some laser beams are used in laser printers. The plastic toners are permanently fixed or "fused" by heat from a separate fuser unit.

State-of-the-art commercial deinking systems do not efficiently remove these inks. Deinking efficiency relates to the chemical and energy costs required to produce an acceptable pulp. Combined flotation/washing deinking system can remove laser printing, but multiple cleaning and screening stages are required, which makes the process prohibitively expensive. Residual laser particles cause holes and high dirt count in paper, resulting in unacceptable quality in the end product.

Low yields are another deterrent to the use of laser printed waste paper. According to Tom Woodward of Betz PaperChem, a specialty chemical supplier, as much as 50% of laser-containing paper stock put into a deinking system becomes unusable and is rejected due to weakening of fibers during multiple deinking sequences. The resulting sludge then presents another solid waste disposal problem.

Postconsumer content

As a result of these collection and deinking problems, it may be premature to expect high levels of postconsumer content in office paper and paper products. Steve Vento, of Durbin Paper Stock in Miami, Florida, one of the largest waste paper brokers, confirm that there is essentially no domestic consumption of laser-containing office waste by printing and writing mills in North America. Instead, office waste is going to tissue, boxboard, and offshore paper mills.

Vento suggests that increased office collections may result in a glut similar to that experienced in newsprint, but he also predicts that research and development activities, primarily by tissue mills, will probably avert a serious oversupply. For now, however, laser printed material continues to cause brightness and dirt problems, as well as sludge disposal problem, even for tissue producers.

One of the leading producers of recycled printing and writing paper, Miami Mill of Cross Pointe Paper Corporation, uses only 1 to 2% laser-printed material. The balance of Miami's postconsumer fibers is from cancelled checks and impact-printed computer printout. According to Jobe Morrison, president of the Miami Mill, the company pays a premium for this non-laser postconsumer fiber.

Georgia Pacific, another large recycled printing and writing paper producer, is not using any office waste in its recycled forms bond and offset, according to Earl Mushroe, commercial development manager, because it cannot use laser-printed material and still meet dirt count standards. Mushroe also cites problems in sourcing usable postconsumer material.

The largest producer of deinked market pulp, Ponderosa Fibers of America, now sells 70% of its output to fine paper producers. Despite strong demand for postconsumer fiber content, Ponderosa cannot put more than 10% laser-containing office paper in pulp to be used to make printing and writing paper because of dirt problems.

Paper companies, chemical suppliers, engineering firms, research institutions, and industry consultants are engaged in a high-stakes race to introduce a commercially viable process to economically and efficiently deink laser. Chemical suppliers in particular are aggressively pursuing a chemically based approach which could be used with existing Pulping and deinking equipment. This would enable a paper mill to use office waste without the heavy capital investment, protracted construction and permitting tine, and high costs associated with a conventional deinking facility.

Some industry analysts predict that one or more breakthrough laser deinking solutions could occur within the year.

In the meantime, on the collection side, office recycling coordinators can emphasize to the program participants the importance of careful and informed waste paper sorting.

But until the day when the laser deinking dilemma is finally resolved, the amount of laser printed office waste which can be recycled into copier paper, offset, and form bond will continue to be limited.

Just The Facts

End Uses of High Grade Deinked Paper


High grade deinked paper includes sorted white office paper, computer printout, and printer and convertor scrap.

Source: American Paper Institute 1988

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