Recycled paper: a print designer’s guide

Recycled paper: a print designer’s guide

Recycled paper is an exciting world of creative possibilities, but many people are surprised to discover that recycled paper isn’t necessarily needed for a sustainable production.

Recycled materials certainly bring environmental benefits. They typically require less water to produce, and have a smaller carbon footprint than virgin fibre (although this depends on the individual paper. Read our piece on carbon neutral printing to learn more).

Virgin fibre stocks, however, can still be used sustainably. 67% of industrially-sourced paper in the UK (and all the paper used by Park) is FSC-certified or PEFC-certified, indicating that it’s been sourced from sustainably managed forests. These certifications are a must-have for any material with virgin fibre content.

And clients are also often surprised to discover that recycled materials come at higher cost – in some cases, many times the cost of an equivalent virgin fibre stock. This chart shows the difference in cost – and how much it’s possible to spend on recycled papers with sufficient budget.

recycled paper cost

The clients who choose recycled materials, therefore, tend to do so for specific reasons beyond the climate impact.

Those reasons might include their business positioning and marketing goals, and they might also be achieving a specific creative effect which can’t be achieved with virgin fibre materials.

This articles explains the different types of recycled paper available:

  1.  ‘conventional’ recycled papers made from paper pulp
  2. papers made from alternative fibres, such as industrial waste or food by-products
  3.  special recycled stocks, with unusual properties and characteristics

…and throughout, offers commentary on the implications of these choices. This includes the reprographic properties of the materials – which vary significantly on rougher, uncoated recycled stocks.

In the final section, we delve into the practicalities of choosing recycled paper: including the physical properties of the material, and how to use recycled paper on a tight budget.

Armed with the information in this guide, along with our Recycled Paper-Finder Tool, you should be able to make a well-informed choice of paper for your next sustainable print production.


There’s a wide range of choice with recycled materials – but in general, they are more likely to have the following characteristics:

  • texture: a rougher surface than virgin fibre stocks
  • colour: recycled materials are more likely to be off-white
  • a flecked appearance – from impurities in the pulp used to make the paper; these are known as ‘inclusions’.

The appeal of these properties is that they are easily noticed by the reader. This makes recycled materials a popular choice with publishers wishing to take a stance on sustainability.

However, they can present certain challenges on press. As a result, many recycled materials combine a certain ratio of virgin fibre content in order to offset certain effects, and one of the 100% recycled materials listed here is also available in part-virgin fibre options.

Aesthetics of recycled paper.

A good example of such a ‘classic’ recycled material would be 100% recycled Neenah Environment Rough, made by GF Smith. The naturally rougher, mottled surface of this paper is visible in this image of the 2019 Annual Report for Kingfisher plc, owner of B&Q hardware stores.

sustainable annual report
This cover has a rough surface with a mottled appearance – two typical characteristics of a recycled paper.

Some recycled materials, however, have been formulated to be as close as possible to virgin fibre papers in smoothness and whiteness, for optimal image reproduction – as explained in our blog on printing for fine art productions. This is achieved through the use of coatings.

Revive Silk, a 100% recycled material from Denmaur Paper Media, is available in a triple-coated silk option – one of only two coated recycled materials on the market. The coating produces a smoother surface, allowing colours and lines to be printed in finer detail. Symbol Freelife Satin is the other coated recycled paper available in the UK, with a minimum recycled content of 40%.

These coated recycled papers still retain flecks of waste from the recycling process. This makes recycled paper a relatively rare choice for fine art productions, whose publishers would normally opt for the smoothest, whitest virgin fibre.

The industries more likely to opt for recycled paper are corporates, brands and independent magazines. These publishers may wish to use recycled paper in order to reflect their environmental positioning – yet still pride themselves on high-quality reprographics, for accurate brand colours and high-quality photography. In these cases, they may opt for a 100% recycled material formulated for greater whiteness, higher ink density and therefore sharper detail.

Dropped, a cycling magazine, is a good case in point. It’s printed on Antalis’s Nautilus Superwhite. An experienced eye would recognise a recycled stock, but for most readers, the paper’s matt effect would simply make the beautiful colour photography easier on the eye.

sustainable magazine
A high-quality, recycled text stock lends a matt effect to the beautiful colour photography in Dropped magazine.

If accurate colour reproduction is important, and you are not sure how this will be impacted by your recycled sheet,  it would be best proof a selection of images on press. This is known as a ‘wet scatter proof’.


You can make paper from a wide range of materials other than wood pulp. Cotton, for instance, has been used for centuries for archival-quality documents, and cotton-based papers remain a popular luxury option.

Recent years, however, have seen a trend in non-paper waste being used in paper-making – everything from orange peel to used coffee cups.

These materials are chosen as much for sustainability as they are for their physical properties, since many of them differ notably from conventional paper in colour and texture. Often, the appeal is the novelty of the unusual content.

The key environmental benefit of these papers is they include a by-product which may otherwise go to waste, which may reduce the paper’s carbon footprint.

These papers go through a lot of testing in order to achieve an effective printing substrate, and their specialist nature means they are often bought in small quantities. Both these factors tend to mean these papers come with a higher price tag – although the “Crush” range (see below) supplied to Park by Fenner Paper, is in the mid-range price bracket.

1. Cotton-based fibres

Textile-base papers often contain no recycled content; rather, they are made from a blend of virgin fibre paper pulp and textile fibres sourced for the purpose.

Cotton is probably the second-most common ingredient in paper pulp after wood-based fibres. At first glance, these materials may not look much different from everyday paper, but the cotton lends a noticeably softer texture, and it’s stronger.

Its softness, however, presents challenges for printing purposes, since it typically absorbs a lot of the ink, producing less-vivid colours and lower definition.

As result, most cotton-based papers suitable for printing contain a relatively low percentage of cotton. Those with higher cotton content, such as Cranes Crest, are often better suited for embossing and die-cutting than as a substrate for photography and type.

recycled paper
The unique texture of a 35% cotton paper is clearly visible in this close-up image of G.F. Smith’s ‘Wild’ paper.

Unsurprisingly, the distinctively textile-based texture of these materials makes them a popular creative choice in the fashion industry.

This image shows a piece marketing material printed on the Tweed variant of Savile Row, with a herringbone pattern visible on the surface of the page.

recycled paper printing

2. Paper made from food by-products

G.F Smith, Fenner, Fedrigoni and Arjowiggins offer several different papers made from various different sources of waste from food production. Options include:

  • citrus fruits
  • cocoa
  • grapes
  • cherries
  • lavender
  • corn
  • olives
  • coffee
  • kiwi fruits
  • hazelnuts
  • almonds
  • …and spent grain from beer production.

These natural raw materials are saved from the compost heap and used to make highly distinctive and interesting papers.

There’s a wide range of choices since cellulose – the primary constituent of wood pulp – comprises all plant fibres. This makes it relatively easy to incorporate these products into paper, and by reducing the number of trees needed, they lower the carbon impact of paper production.

This video shows the Favini paper factory, which supplies Fenner Papers in the UK, incorporating orange peel into its paper.

Sustainability aside, perhaps the greatest appeal of these papers is the novelty value: a beer manufacturer, for instance, might choose G.F Smith’s Gmund Bier, containing 30-50% spent brewer’s grain, for its marketing materials, its packaging, or the cover of its annual report.

These materials are less likely to be used for detailed photographic reproduction. The whitest versions are off-white, uncoated, and they often contain visible inclusions – so they are more popular for use as front covers, where the paper itself becomes the focal point.

This was the approach taken by Wild Alchemy Journal, pictured here. The corn maize version of Favini’s Crush paper – containing 15% food by-product and 40% recycled paper pulp – was used to produce the striking belly-band on the front cover.

recycled belly band

3. Other novelty recycled printing materials

In earlier editions of Kinfolk, an independent magazine, a section was printed on Remake, supplied to Park by Fedrigoni. This paper is 65% recycled, of which 25% is by-product from leather production.

Much of Kinfolk is highly detailed colour photography; the Remake section, ‘Directory’, takes a philosophical turn, with essays on black and white pages.

indie mag recycled paper

With remarkably few visible inclusions, Remake is a highly readable paper, yet the change to off-white, uncoated pages is immediately noticeable, enhancing the reader journey by signalling a change in mood.


It is also worth mentioning here G.F. Smith’s ‘Extract, ’ which is made partly from the paper content of used coffee cups.

Separating the paper and plastic content in used coffee cups is notoriously difficult. This is likely why Extract is one of the pricier recycled papers, but also why it’s been so successful – often selected by publishers who want to add extra intrigue to their productions.

It is only available in two weights: 130gsm, on the heavy side for a text stock, or a chunky 380gsm. Both are available uncoated only.

The heavier version lends itself well to embossing, as in the front cover of photography anthology On the Line, to contribute to an effect resembling burnt tree bark.

recycled photography book

This effect could have been achieved with many different heavy stocks, but a statement recycled paper captured the spirit of the production. The book is an anthology of the photography of Alan McFetridge, documenting the destruction of forests by wildfire.


Beyond standard printing papers, there is a wide range of rarely-used materials with special properties. Some of these are not suitable for printing on litho presses – but may be an interesting feature for packaging, or an embossed front cover.

1. Pearlescent recycled paper

This premium stock is suitable for litho presses.

The Pearl variant on Fedrigoni’s Symbol Freelife – described as having a recycled content ‘of at least 40%’ – is the only recycled pearlescent paper currently on the market..

It’s available in a white ‘Pearl Ice’ shade only, and with a smooth, triple coated surface and no visible inclusions, it’s likely to reproduce detailed imagery better than most recycled materials.

It’s pictured here used in Immortal, a fine art photography box set printed for photographers Warren de Preez and Nick Thornton Jones.

recycled paper

2. Paper based on wool

This is another version of Favini’s Refit (see section on cotton-based papers above), comprising 15% wool fibres and 40% paper waste, with the rest made up by virgin fibre material.

It’s described as being…

“so hairy that it feels like no other paper!”

Hairiness isn’t a property you’d normally choose for a printing substrate; indeed, the paper is not suitable for litho presses. But if you were looking for a paper to package or promote your knitwear brand, it might be just the ticket.

This close-up from Favini’s image gallery gives an idea of the texture of Refit Wool. It lends a rustic effect to printed text, but the majority of customers appear to have used it for solid colours and packaging.

wool paper

3. Paper with pronounced inclusions

When using unusual materials, the challenge is usually to mill them fine enough that they blend into the paper.

But it’s possible to leave large pieces of plant material in the fibre for creative effect. This image shows Notpla, a paper comprising 30% seaweed by-product. This paper is suitable for litho presses but it’s also popular packaging – for obvious reasons.

seaweed recycled paper

There’s even a paper made by the Frogmore Mill – Britain’s oldest paper mill – which contains live seeds, so that the paper can be ‘planted’ once no longer needed. This is marketed as a graphic-quality paper, but experimentation on press will be needed to ensure your printer is able to produce the desired results.

seed paper


This is just a sample of the creative stocks available on the market. All of them are likely to be relatively tricky to handle on press, but used effectively, they could make for a truly original and eye-catching production.

Allow time and budget for experimentation on press, and for a proper press pass, to achieve your desired effect with novelty stocks.

Practicalities of printing with recycled paper

There are two key practical considerations when it comes to printing with recycled paper:

  • cost – which may not necessarily exclude recycled papers from your production, if used sparingly
  • …and the physical properties of the materials, including weight, size, and grain direction

The cost of recycled paper

Whichever recycled material you choose, you’re likely to incur a price premium over virgin fibre materials.

There are a few more affordable options: the recycled variants of Revive Silk, Revive Offset, Nautilus, and Cyclus cost between 29% and 56% more than the virgin-fibre equivalent, depending on the ratio of recycled content.

Many publishers, however, are not content to be restrained to only a couple of different paper options. And since virgin fibre can be used sustainably, those who choose recycled materials usually want to make a statement about sustainability with their choice of materials, and have budgeted accordingly.

If you’re keen to use recycled materials on a tight budget, you might consider the following cost-saving tips:

  • Choose a less expensive recycled stock: Revive, Oxygen, Nautilus or Cyclus
  • Use the recycled material for the front cover only
  • Use it as a bound-in divider between sections printed on virgin fibre materials. That divider could range from 2pp up to a 16pp section based on your budget
  • Use it as a belly band, as per TikTok, who used Corn Crush Maize in their print magazine Real Joy
  • Use it as an insert, i.e. a postcard or a leaflet

It’s worth considering switching from material to another may make your recycled paper even more noticeable than if it had been used for the entire production.

Physical properties of recycled paper

Recycled paper is available in a smaller range of paper weights, grain directions and sizes than virgin fibre materials, so for certain projects – especially where there are specific technical requirements – publishers may find that the only suitable material is made from virgin fibre.

Urban Good, a community interest company (CIC), originally requested a recycled stock for its walking maps of London, but Park advised against this. The problem was that a short grain material was required to achieve the client’s desired folding pattern (this is where the grain runs parallel to the short edge of the sheet, rather than the long edge – see diagram).

recycled paper grain direction

There are no recycled short-grain virgin-fibre materials on the market (and only a few virgin fibre ones; short grain fibres are fairly unusual) so an FSC-certified virgin fibre paper was selected instead.

Clients may run into the same obstacle when trying to source specific paper sizes. For example, Nautilus is not available in the ‘B1’, 720 x 102mm size, used to produce 210mm square pages.

Larger sheets can theoretically be cut down to any size, but this creates waste – both in terms of paper and cost. Specific sizes are chosen to make the production more efficient: for instance, choosing a sheet which is an exact multiple of your production dimensions. That would allow you to print 4 or 8 pages to view with little or no waste from offcuts.

In absence of recycled paper in a suitable size, therefore, you might choose from the wider range of FSC-certified materials to get the paper size you want – or, change the size of your production to suit your chosen recycled stock.

Recycled paper is also available in a smaller range of weights. The most widely-used recycled papers, such as Oxygen by Elliot & Baxter Company Ltd., come in a full range of weights from 80gsm to 350gsm, but the more specialist materials are likely to be available only above 100gsm.


Such technical features of recycled paper, along with the higher price, mean that recycled papers are often chosen as cover stocks – where they are most easily noticed by the reader – with virgin fibre for the text pages. This piece of investor marketing, printed for Schroders, features a 100% recycled cover, protected by a biodegradable matt laminate film.

investor marketing print

Balancing priorities in your print production

With the wide range of choice on the market, recycled paper extends the creative gamut and opens up possibilities that aren’t possible with virgin fibre stocks.

As we have seen, however, it also comes with complexities that need to be managed. This applies not only during printing, but also when preparing files for print.

As our article on fine art printing explains, the same print screen, applied to different paper surfaces, will produce slightly different colours – as this image shows.

fine art printing
This image demonstrates how different papers reproduce colours differently. The uncoated page (right) – which more closely resembles many recycled materials – was printed using the same profile as the one on the left, a coated stock. Using the correct profile can offset this effect, but experience of working with recycled materials is key.

This is challenging enough with virgin fibre stocks, requiring communication with the client’s retouching and reprographics team in order to achieve the best possible reproduction.

But when it comes to recycled materials – with their greater range of colours, surface textures, and levels of absorbency – these challenges are likely to be amplified. These stocks are also more prone to carry paper dust, which can create blemishes in the image.

These effects need to be managed, and the best printers should advise you whether a recycled material is advisable for your design content.

If you and your printer together can manage these issues successfully, you’re likely to be rewarded with an interesting and original sustainable production.

Learn more about sustainable printing

Park publishes a book called Sustainable Print Design, an 80pp thread-sewn volume, printed on recycled paper, with a 4pp throw-out detailing 50 of the most popular recycled papers available in the UK.

As well as covering paper, the book also delves into bindings, finishes and processes, to make up a complete guide to the choices that make up a sustainable print production.

You can purchase the book from magCulture for £10, or click here to download a free PDF.

print design guide

To see more productions made from recycled paper, visit Park’s sustainable printing hub here, or click here to get in touch and learn more.



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