Understanding Labels on Recycled Content: Post-Industrial, Pre-Consumer, and Post-Consumer

Photography Courtesy of Shutterstock

It should come as no surprise that one of the most popular sustainability strategies adopted by companies and individuals is recycling. Everywhere we look there are recycled plastic bags, recycled cell phone cases, recycled lawn furniture, recycled yoga mats and sneakers and rugs. The popularity of recycling means that it’s ever more important to understand what it means for a material to be recycled and to be able to interpret the claims and labels that we see on recycled content itself.

Read through LEED requirements for recycled content, or those of many green building standards, and you’ll find that there is in fact more than one kind of recycled content: in order to earn LEED points, recycled content should be “the sum of post-consumer recycled content plus one-half of the pre-consumer recycled content.” If you didn’t get that, don’t worry—you’re not alone. A product containing recycled materials may be labeled “pre-consumer content,” “post-industrial content,” or “post-consumer content.” It’s also common for product labels to claim a combination of these different kinds of recycled content. Keep reading and we’ll help clear up any confusion about these terminologies.

Pre-Consumer Versus Post-Consumer

Let’s start with pre-consumer and post-consumer, which are a bit simpler to compare. Pre-consumer content refers to materials that are sent through the recycling stream before they are commercialized or used by consumers, and post-consumer content is any material that’s recycled after its commercialization or use. So household recycling, for example, becomes post-consumer content, whereas trim scraps from manufacturing processes that are sent directly into the recycling stream become pre-consumer content. A magazine sent to a doctor’s office and read, then disposed of? Post-consumer. A magazine with faulty printing that’s recycled before it’s sent out to readers? Pre-consumer. Wood beams recovered from a deconstructed building? Post-consumer. Sawdust and wood trimmings cut from beams during manufacturing processes and remanufactured? Pre-consumer.

Pre-Consumer Versus Post-Industrial

And what about post-industrial content? This is the easy part – it’s interchangeable with pre-consumer content. Post-industrial content, just like pre-consumer content, is any material that’s recycled after the manufacturing process, but before reaching consumers. Pre-consumer or post-industrial recycled content may come from material trimmings, byproducts, or defective items produced in the manufacturing process. This means that in the product’s life cycle, it is recycled at the “gate” phase, after production but before use. The material recycled at this phase is either sent back to be remanufactured into something new or sold to third parties who use them for consumer products.

Post-consumer content, on the other hand, is recycled at a later point in the life cycle, the “end of life” phase, when it is diverted or recovered from the waste stream. It typically goes through a collection process and is sorted in recycling facilities before being processed and reconstituted into an aftermarket material that can be used to produce final products. Post-consumer recycling is the more common understanding of the recycling process, since these kinds of recycling systems are more visible and integrated into everyday household life.

More to Learn