Life-Cycle Studies: Post-it Notes

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For the past five years, Worldwatch has explored the history, production method, and environmental and social impacts of everyday products - from chopsticks to pencils - in the Life-Cycle Studies section of its bi-monthly magazine, World Watch. This print-exclusive content is now available for free to Eye on Earth readers. Look for a new study every Friday! 

Overview

The modern office seems incomplete without guidance from three-inch squares of yellow paper. Placed on telephones, refrigerators, and wherever the eye may wander, the ubiquitous self-stick note has aided millions of forgetful minds. While also minimizing much face-to-face dialogue, for better or worse, the notes have left an indelible mark on the history of communication.

They began in 1980, when a St. Paul, Minnesota, choir member's hymnal bookmarks kept falling to the floor. Chorist Arthur Fry, an engineer at chemical company 3M, joined forces with 3M scientist Spencer Silver, inventor of a peculiar adhesive that stuck poorly to surfaces. The glue provided perfect temporary fixes for paper scraps such as hymnal bookmarks.

One year after 3M officially launched the Post-it Note, the packs of sticky paper raked in more than US$2 million in sales. Post-it Notes - available in 27 sizes, 57 colors, and 20 fragrances - now generate some $1 billion annually and dominate the self-stick note market. 3M is among some 20 U.S. companies that produce the notes, which office supply stores were selling in growing numbers before the 2008 recession; research firm NPD Group estimated a 13.5 percent increase between 2006 and 2007. Organized individuals find themselves sticking to the notes across Europe and Japan as well.

Production

In the 1940s, a Belgian chemist mixed carbolic acid and formaldehyde to create the first synthetic adhesive. Post-it Notes use a more recent innovation: Unlike the typical, featureless adhesive surface, the Post-it Note glue coats the notes with bumpy microspheres that limit the sticky area. The adhesive mostly consists of alkyl acrylate, a volatile liquid that dissolves slightly in water and completely in alcohol. More detailed ingredients remain private.

The paper used to make Post-it Notes is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a system founded by the U.S. paper industry. Although SFI certification ensures that a company has an environmental management system in place, most environmental groups prefer the international non-profit Forest Stewardship Council's more stringent performance-based environmental and social indicators.

Closing the Loop

With self-stick notes' various sizes, dyes, and complex adhesive, their recyclability depends on whether a given processing mill washes its paper and handles small pieces. To facilitate recycling, 3M developed its adhesive to be water-soluble. The chemical adhesive is typically flushed into the wastewater stream, along with dyes, brighteners, and bleaches. Water treatment providers have reported that sticky note contaminants are more difficult to remove than sediments or dissolved solids.

The note may not always reach its intended recycling plant. In the United States and Europe, although consumers send more of their paper to recycling centers, declining newspaper sales and cheap paper imports have lessened the demand for post-consumer paper. As a result, recovered paper is often taken from curbside bins, baled, and shipped overseas. The trade supports global exchange of recycled products, but fossil fuel-intensive transportation is used along the way. The Confederation of European Paper Industries expects the economics of recycled paper may change as global paper demand increases 25 percent by 2020.

For consumers who seek to minimize paper use, 3M offers 100-percent recycled Post-it Notes - 30 percent is derived from consumer items and 70 percent from manufacturing or industrial waste. The company says that a 100-percent post-consumer waste option is possible, but it does not want to "hog" the limited supply of high-quality recycled paper. Redi-Tag, a California-based supply company, offers their notes with 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper. Another choice: Fold the note and use the back.

Ben Block is the staff writer for World Watch. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to republish this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.