Mr. Whipple Left It Out: Soft Is Rough on Forests
Americans like their toilet tissue soft: exotic confections that are silken, thick and hot-air-fluffed.
The national obsession with soft paper has driven the growth of brands like Cottonelle Ultra, Quilted Northern Ultra and Charmin Ultra - which in 2008 alone increased its sales by 40 percent in some markets, according to Information Resources, Inc., a marketing research firm.
But fluffiness comes at a price: millions of trees harvested in North America and in Latin American countries, including some percentage of trees from rare old-growth forests in Canada. Although toilet tissue can be made at similar cost from recycled material, it is the fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel, and most large manufacturers rely on them.
Customers "demand soft and comfortable," said James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia Pacific, the maker of Quilted Northern. "Recycled fiber cannot do it."
The country's soft-tissue habit - call it the Charmin effect - has not escaped the notice of environmentalists, who are increasingly making toilet tissue manufacturers the targets of campaigns. Greenpeace on Monday for the first time issued a national guide for American consumers that rates toilet tissue brands on their environmental soundness. With the recession pushing the price for recycled paper down and Americans showing more willingness to repurpose everything from clothing to tires, environmental groups want more people to switch to recycled toilet tissue.
"No forest of any kind should be used to make toilet paper," said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and waste expert with the Natural Resource Defense Council.
In the United States, which is the largest market worldwide for toilet paper, tissue from 100 percent recycled fibers makes up less than 2 percent of sales for at-home use among conventional and premium brands. Most manufacturers use a combination of trees to make their products. According to RISI, an independent market analysis firm in Bedford, Mass., the pulp from one eucalyptus tree, a commonly used tree, produces as many as 1,000 rolls of toilet tissue. Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per capita a year.
Other countries are far less picky about toilet tissue. In many European nations, a rough sheet of paper is deemed sufficient. Other countries are also more willing to use toilet tissue made in part or exclusively from recycled paper.
In Europe and Latin America, products with recycled content make up about on average 20 percent of the at-home market, according to experts at the Kimberly Clark Corporation.
Environmental groups say that the percentage is even higher and that they want to nurture similar acceptance here. Through public events and guides to the recycled content of tissue brands, they are hoping that Americans will become as conscious of the environmental effects of their toilet tissue use as they are about light bulbs or other products.
Dr. Hershkowitz is pushing the high-profile groups he consults with, including Major League Baseball, to use only recycled toilet tissue. At the Academy Awards ceremony last Sunday, the gowns were designer originals but the toilet tissue at the Kodak Theater's restrooms was 100 percent recycled.
Environmentalists are focusing on tissue products for reasons besides the loss of trees. Turning a tree to paper requires more water than turning paper back into fiber, and many brands that use tree pulp use polluting chlorine-based bleach for greater whiteness. In addition, tissue made from recycled paper produces less waste tonnage - almost equaling its weight - that would otherwise go to a landfill.
Still, trees and tree quality remain a contentious issue. Although brands differ, 25 percent to 50 percent of the pulp used to make toilet paper in this country comes from tree farms in South America and the United States. The rest, environmental groups say, comes mostly from old, second-growth forests that serve as important absorbers of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas linked to global warming. In addition, some of the pulp comes from the last virgin North American forests, which are an irreplaceable habitat for a variety of endangered species, environmental groups say.
Greenpeace, the international conservation organization, contends that Kimberly Clark, the maker of two popular brands, Cottonelle and Scott, has gotten as much as 22 percent of its pulp from producers who cut trees in Canadian boreal forests where some trees are 200 years old.
But Dave Dickson, a spokesman for Kimberly Clark, said that only 14 percent of the wood pulp used by the company came from the boreal forest and that the company contracted only with suppliers who used "certified sustainable forestry practices."
Lisa Jester, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, the maker of Charmin, points out that the Forest Products Association of Canada says that no more than 0.5 percent of its forest is harvested annually. Still, even the manufacturers concede that the main reason they have not switched to recycled material is that those fibers tend to be shorter than fibers from standing trees. Long fibers can be laid out and fluffed to make softer tissue.
Jerry Baker, vice president of product and technology research for Kimberly Clark, said the company was not philosophically opposed to recycled products and used them for the "away from home" market, which includes restaurants, offices and schools.
But people who buy toilet tissue for their homes - even those who identify themselves as concerned about the environment - are resistant to toilet tissue made from recycled paper.
With a global recession, however, that may be changing. In the past few months, sales of premium toilet paper have plunged 7 percent nationally, said Ali Dibadj, a senior stock analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, a financial management firm, providing an opening for makers of recycled products.
Marcal, the oldest recycled-paper maker in the country, emerged from bankruptcy under new management last year with a plan to spend $30 million on what is says will be the first national campaign to advertise a toilet tissue's environmental friendliness. Marcal's new chief executive, Tim Spring, said the company had seen intense interest in the new product from chains like Walgreens. The company will introduce the new toilet tissue in April, around Earth Day
Mr. Spring said Marcal would be able to price the new tissue below most conventional brands, in part because of the lower cost of recycled material.
"Our idea is that you don't have to spend extra money to save the Earth," he said. "And people want to know what happens to the paper they recycle. This will give them closure."