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The Straight Dope


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I always thought that paper (among other things) could be either "new" or "recycled." Apparently, however, there are at least three categories of recycledness: new, recycled, and "postconsumer" recycled paper, which is what certain fast-food and greeting-card companies say they use in modest quantities. What is postconsumer recycled paper? How can recycled paper be anything but postconsumer? If recycled paper is not postconsumer, what is it and where does it come from? --Suzan Charlton, Bethesda, Maryland

If we had applied our minds here, Suzan, we might have hazarded the conclusion that postconsumer recycled materials were to be distinguished from preconsumer materials. When we look into the matter we discover it is even so.

Any industrial process generates waste, much of which is routinely (and profitably) recycled. The paper and printing industries, for example, recycle ends of paper rolls, "makeready" (test copies), misprints, scraps from trimming, and so on. This preconsumer waste has several advantages over the postconsumer kind: it's produced in large quantities at a relatively small number of sites, making collection easy, and it's clean, i.e., not mixed with the orange rinds and other junk found in the average consumer's garbage can.

Using preconsumer recycled materials presents no great challenge in many industries; using postconsumer recycled materials often does. Many local recycling programs run into trouble for just that reason: there's no market for what they collect. Since postconsumer waste is what's filling up municipal landfills, environmental advocates have been pressing big companies to use more recycled postconsumer stuff in their products. To show its compliance, an outfit like McDonald's may say its Big Mac cartons are "40% recycled paper (15% postconsumer)," the 15 percent referring to the old newspapers and the like that you contributed to your local recycling program. By insisting on packaging with high postconsumer recycled content, you'll be helping to increase the market for old newsprint and other tough-to-recycle stuff, possibly saving a few trees and certainly making the manager of your town's recycling program a lot happier.

While we're on the subject, several readers have asked for an explanation of the recycling codes used on plastic packaging: a number from one to seven inside the arrows-chasing-arrows recycling symbol. Years ago we said the problem with recycling plastics was that there were so many different kinds. To aid in sorting, many plastics manufacturers now use a code designed by the Society of the Plastics Industry. Here's an explanation of the numbers, courtesy of Consumer Reports:

(1) Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Pop bottles; often recycled.

(2) High-density polyethylene (HDPE). Milk and detergent bottles; often recycled.

(3) Polyvinyl chloride. Some shampoos, etc; rarely recycled. Burning produces toxic gases.

(4) Low-density polyethylene (LDPE). Plastic film and wrap; rarely recycled.

(5) Polypropylene. Food lids, containers; rarely recycled.

(6) Polystyrene, commonly but erroneously known as Styrofoam; sometimes recycled if obtainable in bulk.

(7) All other plastics; rarely recycled.


Gawdalmighty, where's Dr. Kevorkian when we really need him? Eric Palmquist needs to be put out of his misery. His schoolmarmish insistence that "aught" should never be used to mean anything but "all" or "anything," and that its corruption to mean zero was "promulgated" due to confusion arising from the turn of the last century [December 17], is purest malarkey. Using "aught" or "ought" for zero goes back well before 19- double-ought. In 1880 a reader of Lewis Carroll's puzzle column in the magazine The Monthly Packet took him to task for using "ought" instead of "nought" to mean zero. Carroll's logical response: "'Oughts and crosses' [ticktacktoe] is a very old game. I don't think I have ever heard it called 'noughts and crosses.'"

--Harry Doakes, Portland, Oregon

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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