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The City of Portland, Oregon

Sustainability at Work

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Benefits of recycled content paper

recycled content paper towels vs. virgin paper towels

There are many options on the market for recycled content paper. The higher the percentage of recycled content the better, and 100% post-consumer recycled content is best. Across the life cycle, recycled paper products typically have a lower environmental impact than virgin paper products [1]. 

Comparing recycled content with conventional (virgin) paper

Ecosystem quality

  • 100% recycled content paper is made without contributing to deforestation [1].
  • Virgin paper requires the logging of trees. Logging impacts ecosystem health and biodiversity and can lead to soil erosion and runoff that pollutes nearby waterways. Clear-cutting, the most intensive form of logging, reduces habitat for animals, especially birds, and in some cases can drive extinction [2]. 


  • Recycled content paper typically requires less energy to produce than virgin paper [1]. In some cases, recycled content uses 30% less energy that virgin paper [3].
  • Virgin paper production has higher carbon emissions than recycled content paper for the typical manufacturing process [4]. 


  • Recycled paper products can cut wastewater by more than half [3].
  • Virgin pulp and paper mills are the largest industrial users of water per ton of product in the US [3]. Globally, the paper industry is the biggest industrial water user, consuming 11% of all freshwater in industrial nations [2].

Making the switch makes a big difference

Over the course of one year, switching from virgin paper to 100% recycled content can have big environmental savings.

When purchasing recycled content, aim to buy 100% recycled paper with as much post-consumer content as possible. If available, buy 50% post-consumer recycled content. Making paper from recycled content saves energy, water and trees; and reduces greenhouse gases, chemical use, solid waste, pollution and toxics [4]. Read more suggestions for sustainable paper purchasing. 

Did you know?

The average office worker in the U.S. uses 10,000 sheets of paper each year, and 4 million tons of copy paper are used annually in the U.S. [5].

Tip: Offset any added costs of buying recycled content paper by reducing the amount of paper your workplace uses. 

Check out our post on preventing paper waste for a list of paper reduction tips. Empower your coworkers with goals and challenges. Read about REACH Community Development’s successful paper reduction campaign for more ideas. 

Environmental savings add up

The impact as an individual can feel small, but when we get our coworkers and other businesses to join in, environmental savings add up. Environmental savings below are for one year of switching virgin paper to 100% post-consumer recycled content (based on US averages). 

wood, carbon and water savings infographic
* Environmental impact estimates were made using the Environmental Paper Network Paper Calculator Version 3.2. For more information visit

Have questions or want to get in touch with a sustainability advisor? E-mail us. 

Quick links


  1. Montalbo, Trisha, Jeremy Gregory, and Randolph Kirchain. Life Cycle Assessment of Hand Drying Systems. Tech. Materials System Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 19 Sept. 2011. Web.
  2. Social Impacts of the Paper Industry. Issue brief. N.p.: Environmental Paper Network, 2007. Web.
  3. Paper to Protect the Planet - Understanding How Recycled Content in Printing & Writing Paper - and All Grades- Reduces Energy, Water, Chemical Use, Pollution and Solid Waste, While Protecting Forests. Issue brief. Environmental Paper Network, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
  4. Kinsella, Susan. Paperwork: Comparing Recycled to Virgin Paper. Rep. Environmental Paper Network, Apr. 2012. Web.
  5. "Average U.S. Office Worker Uses 10,000 Sheets of Paper Per Year." Mashable. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
  6. “Paper Recycling: Schools and Offces.” US EPA, n.d. Web 2015. 

Research conducted in 2014-2015.