What's the Difference Between Pre- And Post-Consumer Recycled Content?

A man holding a roll of toilet paper
Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman / Getty Images

A reader had a good question, and they're probably not alone in their confusion. They write: "I’m relatively new to the green product scene and have a question that might seem eco-elementary but has never really been explained to me. What’s the difference between pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled content? Is something — a roll of toilet paper, for instance — made from post-consumer recycled content better for the environment than the other, or vice versa? I kind of get the gist of it — pre-consumer waste is waste that never made it to a consumer — right? — but was hoping for a bit of clarification."

So what's the deal? The basic difference between products made entirely or partially from pre- and post-consumer recycled content is somewhat “eco-elementary." But the thing is, a lot of us with good, green intentions just grab for anything with the “R” word on the label without really stopping to think about what “kind” of recycled that roll of toilet paper, is.

With pre- and post-consumer, it’s as simple as one would think. When a product is made from pre-consumer recycled content, it’s made from manufacturer waste that never actually made it to the consumer for one reason or another: scraps, rejects, trimmings—the stuff that ends up on the factory floor and is repurposed into something new rather than trashed.

A product made from post-consumer content is made from waste that’s been used by a consumer, disposed of, and diverted from landfills—stuff like the aluminum cans and newspapers that you place in your recycling bin for pick-up.

Then there are “recycled content” products without either “PC” affix. This is just a catchall phrase. Something labeled as being made from recycled content could contain either pre- or post-consumer waste or a combination of the two. Generally, I’ve found that when a product contains high levels of post-consumer waste, it’s specified as so instead of generalized as being plan ol’ recycled.

Why’s that? Because post-consumer recycled content is considered to have greater eco-benefits than pre-consumer recycled content. Both are great, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re standing at the grocery store mulling over two rolls of recycled content TP, one containing 80 percent pre-consumer content and another containing 80 percent post-consumer content, we would go for the latter. Better yet, opt for a brand that’s 100 percent recycled with a significant amount of it being post-consumer.

The reason? Post-consumer waste is preferable because it’s less likely to end up in a landfill than pre-consumer waste given that manufacturers have long been keen on reusing and repurposing scrap materials in various ways. Some would say that pre-consumer recycled content isn’t even truly recycled at all because the waste involved isn’t even truly waste. The environmental stakes are higher with post-consumer waste because if not properly recycled, the chances that it would end up clogging a landfill are greater.

There's a good argument that both pre- and post-consumer recycled content products are a heck of a lot better than the zero-recycled content products, but if you’re looking to make a greener choice, post-consumer recycled it is.