Copy Paper

We all use copy paper, so how can you help protect the environment and your own health too? The first step is to purchase paper that is made from recycled content. However, it also important to take that next step by becoming familiar with how a product is made and what it's made with. Learn how to choose a product that is not only made from recycled content, but is also considered environmentally friendly.

The following references should answer specific questions related to purchasing recycled copy paper:


Copy paper may be called reprographic paper, copier paper, dual-purpose or xerographic paper. Governments use it in large quantities and is the largest category in the uncoated commodity printing paper grade according to production data. At least eight Alameda County jurisdictions currently use recycled copy paper, including the County, the City of Alameda, Berkeley, Fremont, Hayward, Livermore, Newark and San Leandro.

As more forms are generated by computer software and laser printers, cut-size copy paper replaces continuous forms bond. Some companies with an eye to the future recently eliminated or reduced forms bond production.


Copy paper is one of the first recycled products governments seek. It helps to understand the product characteristics and market conditions. The general attributes in this section apply to virgin and recycled alternatives.


At one time, governments ordered Grade 1 bond for their copying needs. It was the most expensive grade except for paper with cotton fiber content. Grades are determined by brightness levels. Brightness measures how light is reflected from the paper. Brighter paper looks whiter whether it is or not. Fluorescent agents or other additives fool the eye. Minimum brightness levels are:

  • Grade 1       85
  • Grade 4       79
  • Grade 5       74
  • Grade N       55

Brightness is being dropped from specifications because it is an aesthetic, not a functional, characteristic. Since all grades have the same functional performance characteristics, nearly all governments now select Grade 4. Some order "natural" or Grade N.


Copy paper is sold in cut sizes rather than in rolls. At one time there were many specialty grades like mimeo, duplicator, xerographic and laser papers because the paper had to work with very different reproduction equipment. Today, as impact, laser and xerographic copying replaces older methods, buyers order a single type, or dual-purpose, paper. The standard sizes are:

  • 8 1/2" x 11"
  • 8 1/2" x 14"
  • 11" x 17"

Weight and Thickness

Basis Weight: Users specify copy paper by basis weight expressed in pounds (# or lb.) or in sub weights which mean the same thing. Standard copy paper weights are 16 lb., 20 lb. and 24 lb., with 20 lb. the most frequently used by governments. Usually, the heavier the weight, the thicker and more expensive the paper.

Thickness or Caliper: Paper thickness is measured in ten thousandths of inches or thousands of millimeters with an instrument called a caliper. In the paper industry, caliper and thickness are synonymous. Caliper matters because copy and printing equipment is set delicately to handle paper of a certain thickness. The machines may jam if the settings are not changed when necessary.

Paper Constituents

Additives and Fillers: There is more to paper than cellulose fiber. Both virgin and recycled commodity grade papers have 10% to over 40% additives and fillers such as: chemicals, calcium carbonate, clay, dyes, titanium dioxide and other whitening agents. All paper has some moisture content.

Fillers, like clay, improve opacity, brightness, smoothness and finish. Calcium carbonate reduces the acidity, or pH, in paper and thus improves paper lifetime. Alkaline papers, with low pH, are preferred for archival uses. Too much filler, however, can reduce paper strength and bulk and may dust easily in printing and converting equipment.

Additives and dyes improve color or brightness. All white papers have small amounts of red, yellow and blue dye to adjust the color of the raw pulp.

Groundwood and Freesheet: Freesheet or "woodfree" papers are made with a chemical pulp (or kraft) process that removes lignin and other components of wood from the cellulose fiber. In contrast, groundwood papers, originally made with mechanically ground pulp, are more like newsprint and retain the lignin which makes paper turn yellow and brittle. Groundwood now includes pulp from hybrid systems, such as semi-mechanical, thermo-mechanical and chemi-thermomechanical, that remove some but not all of the lignin. Freesheet papers may contain up to 10% groundwood pulp and still meet specifications.

Groundwood is a contaminant in recycling systems for freesheet papers because it has shorter fibers and introduces lignin. Generally, recovered paper with groundwood is downgraded for lower end-use products like corrugating medium and tissue. Such downgrading at one federal Department of Energy recycling program meant losing $270 per ton for its recovered paper in 1995.

The new groundwood papers used in copiers and printers cannot be recycled routinely into newsprint. The plastic-based inks are much harder to remove than the water-based inks used to print newspapers. Some systems can accept up to 10% groundwood with laser ink but many cannot.

Moisture Content: Moisture is always present in paper but too much can interfere with copy paper performance. Reasonable care can reduce problems. Avoid storing paper in damp warehouses and keep paper in its sealed cartons and ream wrappers until it is used. Paper and copiers in air conditioned spaces have fewer problems.

Recycled Content: Most paper companies offer recycled copy paper. A few world-class integrated mills have deinking systems on-line now and a few more are on the planning boards or in start-up phases. As these integrated mills produce recycled paper efficiently in huge quantities, costs will begin to drop. Many stand-alone deinked pulp mills serve paper mills without their own deinking capacity.

When the federal Executive Order described below was published in 1993, many paper mills switched their recycled copy paper production to postconsumer content alone. Many copy papers on the market today have no preconsumer content or it is not revealed in advertising and certifications. Standards all over the country are being changed to reflect the new market realities.

EPA Designation

EPA designated copy paper with all other bleached high grade printing papers, except high-speed copy paper, in the 1988 Paper Procurement Guideline. The recycled content requirement was 50% "waste paper." The May, 1995, Recovered Material Advisory Notice (RMAN) used the same recycled content requirement and included high-speed copy paper.

Minimum Recycled Content Standards

The Federal Acquisition, Recycling and Waste Prevention Executive Order 12873 of October 20, 1993 established 20% postconsumer requirements for commodity printing papers and 50% recovered material with 20% postconsumer material requirements for non-commodity papers. The postconsumer fraction rises to 30% on December 31, 1998.

The March, 1995, EPA Paper RMAN proposed changing recycled content requirements according to fiber weight for uncoated papers to match the Executive Order. With 1994 legislation, the State of California adjusted its recycled printing paper standards to those of the Executive Order and to measure percentages by fiber weight. See Chapter 5: Definitions for a discussion of fiber weight and total weight and Table 6-II in Chapter 6: Recycled Content Standards for all the paper recycled content standards.

The recommended recycled content standards for copy paper match the State, the Executive Order, the proposed direction of EPA and refer to total fiber, not total weight.

Recommended Postconsumer Recycled Content: 1999 = 30%


Most jurisdictions in Alameda County order copy paper by basis weight, size and color as well as brightness and opacity for white paper. Some wisely list the types of equipment on which the paper will be used.

Brightness is no longer really necessary for copy paper. Many specifications have eliminated brightness requirements.

The presence or absence of groundwood content in copy paper will depend on your recycling program. Groundwood paper with high levels of recycled content may be inexpensive to buy, but it can cause havoc with your office paper recycling program. It is a good idea to check with your recycling coordinator before making a change. A little research into your local scrap paper markets will help you decide if the change will be cost effective when recycling revenues are considered.

Standard Specifications

There still is no standard specification for copy paper. The ASTM D6 Paper Committee has labored for years to develop a standard specification for copy paper that includes paper with recycled content. As of March, 1996, it was not completed.

You should exercise caution when referencing ASTM paper standards. While they may appear to allow recycled paper, the key recycled terms may mean very different materials than you expect. As on March, 1996, there was no postconsumer feedstock category included in proposed ASTM terms and definitions for recycled paper.

Test Procedures

All manufacturers test their paper to exacting specifications on a regular basis. They do so for quality control reasons. Unpublished results from several companies show little difference between their recycled and virgin grades.

During the past ten years, numerous jurisdictions and organizations conducted blind tests of recycled copy papers on their equipment. It did not jam or cause problems any more frequently than virgin counterparts. Today, even most equipment manufacturers agree that recycled paper works as well as non-recycled.

If you have user complaints, you can conduct informal blind tests yourselves. Immediately after the equipment has been serviced, supply an unmarked case of recycled paper to the source of the complaint followed by an unmarked case of virgin paper with the same caliper and basis weight. Only you should know which paper is which. Have the users carefully track jams and other problems for each case. A check off list at the copier works well. Ask the users to set aside unacceptable copies or jammed sheets for each batch, then compare results between the two types of paper.

Adjusting Specifications

You may not have to adjust your existing specifications at all, except to include the recycled content standard. If you must specify brightness, a minimum of 80 should satisfy your needs. Opacity is more important than brightness today because double-sided copies must be legible. The following specifications are a good model to follow:

4 (possibly N for natural)
Recycled content:
30% postconsumer
Basis weight:
20 lb. (or sub 20)
white or list colors (no goldenrod or neon)
minimum 85
Equipment Used:
list what you use


Every agency uses copy paper. Most jurisdictions have long-term contracts in place. Paper is delivered on request by the supplier or from jurisdiction warehouses.


Paper that works smoothly in equipment is most important to users. No one has time to waste un-jamming printers and copiers. Paper should also feed smoothly through printers and fax machines without crooked margins, overlapping or dusting.

The Fremont recycling coordinator surveyed Fremont agencies in November, 1995 regarding their use of, and attitudes about, recycled copy and printer paper. Nine of the responding twenty-two agencies use recycled paper in copiers and printers and reported no problems. Non-users cited price and quality as their reasons. Commentators mentioned copier jamming most frequently as the problem.

As reported in the December, 1995, Paper Task Force Recommendations for Purchasing and Using Environmentally Preferable Paper, the Environmental Defense Fund Task Force interviewed paper and equipment manufacturers extensively. It found the frequency of copy machine jams is not correlated with use of recycled paper. Most jams are a function of two-sided copying, the speed and condition of the equipment, operator errors and the quality of the virgin or recycled paper used.

If you still have problems with recycled copy paper after the equipment has been adjusted properly, try another brand. Two neighboring communities in Alameda County have the same brand of copier. One reported problems with recycled paper while the other used recycled paper exclusively without mishap. Matching paper quality and equipment compatibility is important for both virgin and recycled paper.

More information on choosing paper