Thursday, February 26, 2009

Trees of soft toilet paper - what do you choose?

How green is your toilet paper? not sure? here's the guide that will give you the answers: Greenpeace has just released on Monday its latest Recycled Tissue and Toilet Paper Guide.

The report is providing customers with important information about tissue products and toilet paper using 3 criteria: usage of 100% recycled paper, at least 50% post consumer recycled paper and bleached without toxic chlorine compounds.

Each category includes ranking of brands, where products that meet 3 criteria are recommended, products that meet 2 criteria are defined as "can do better" and products that meet only one or no criteria at all are "to be avoided".

Let's focus for a minute on toilet paper, the most popular product among the ones reviewed in this report. The brand in the first place is Green Forest, which uses 100 percent recycled and 90 percent post-consumer content, as well as chlorine-free manufacturing processes. Other brands that are also recommended are: 365, Natural Value and Seventh Generation.

And who's to be avoided? well, when it comes to toilet paper you will find there few familiar names: Scott, Target, Wal-Mart, Kleenex Cottonelle, Chramin, Quilted Northern and Angel Soft. According to the report they all use zero recycled paper (and of course zero post consumer content) and are bleached with chlorine compounds [just take into consideration the follwoing comment from Greenpeace: In the few cases where companies did not respond to our request for verification of recycled content percentages and whitening processes used, we assumed 0% overall recycled, 0% post-consumer recycled and ECF bleaching.]

The report is followed by a very interesting article in the New York Times ("Mr. Whipple Left It Out: Soft Is Rough on Forests" by Leslie Kaufman), where I learned the astonishing fact that "tissue from 100 percent recycled fibers makes up less than 2 percent of sales for at-home use among conventional and premium brands."

Why? well, according the article the main reason that toilet paper made of recycled paper is not as soft as toilet paper that is made of trees. Actually the article explains "it is the fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel, and most large manufacturers rely on them."

In other places around the globe the situation is in some way better and in Europe and Latin America, products with recycled content make up about on average 20 percent of the at-home market.

The price for the American's love for softness is very high - the article brings another devastating fact: "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...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."

And it doesn't end with trees - there are the water and energy required in the process of turning a tree into rolls of toilet paper, and there's also the polluting chlorine-based bleach process used to achieve greater whiteness.

Who's to blame? well, Kimberly-Clark, which says it's the American consumer who "like the softness and strength that virgin fibres provides". I wounder if these consumers would make the same choice if they knew that for example 14 percent of the wood pulp used by Kimberly-Clark came from the Boreal forest in Canada.

The answer unfortunately is that in this case we cannot count on the consumer nor on the companies who make huge profits out of these soft papers (An article in the Guardian states that "paper manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark have identified luxury brands such as three-ply tissues or tissues infused with hand lotion as the fastest-growing market share in a highly competitive industry.").

Even if consumers in the U.S. will become more aware of their toilet paper's footprint and choose to buy more recycled paper, my guestimation is that recycled paper usage will be no higher than in Europe (20%). And that's the optimistic scenario.

So what's the solution? in one word: regulation. We need global and local regulation that will ban first and foremost the use of ancient forests for manufacturing tissue products. We also need regulation that will put a price tag on the environmental damages made here, so when you buy toilet paper, you will pay their real price and not a price that ignores the environmental costs. Only this way a real change can be achieved. It's the same with plastic bags and with many other bad habits we have. Voluntary steps just don't do enough or do too little and we can't afford too many years of this softness obsession to keep going on. We just can't.

I'll be happy to hear more ideas and thoughts how to end American's obsession to soft toilet paper. Please add your comment!

Link to Greenpeace's guide:

Raz @ Eco-Libris


Willo said...

I'm glad my Seventh Generation is up there but it looks like I could still do better. This was fascinating to learn. I guess you always know you should use recycled paper, now we know why. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi There,

Lindsey from Greenpeace here with a few thoughts. First off thanks very much for the article. I want to touch a bit more on our strategy around moving the tissue sector away from using fiber from ancient forests.

I think often times a consumer guide is taken at its face value, that it is entirely up to the consumer to avoid the bad companies and support the good--but this is not where the campaign ends. Kimberly-Clark, the largest tissue company in the world and the makers of Kleenex, has been the focus of much of our work on this issue for the past few years (visit for more information). We are using a number of tactics to pressure these companies to use more recycled content and pass policies that prevent them from sourcing from Endangered Forests and consumer pressure is just one piece of that puzzle. The idea is to 1) generate enough pressure on the largest player in the game to create a public policy with benchmarks for recycled 2) that policy will in turn drive recycled pulp suppliers to hustle to get more recycled fiber online and for sale 3) this sends a ripple effect through the market and forces the other major players to rush to catch up with the industry leader.

This approach is often a longer term solution to some issues, is effective when regulations would take a long time to pass and implement, and is used for problems that are global in scale to prevent the problem from getting pushed out of one country (or forest) but into another.

A few successful examples:
The ForestEthics Victoria's Dirty Secret campaign, which now has catalog companies rushing to be as green as Limited Brands.
The Greenpeace campaign to stop deforestation of the Amazon for soy where we targeted and then worked with McDonald's to drive the ag. industry in Brazil to the table.

Thanks again for your work. For another recent article looking at this campaign from a slightly different angle take a look at Fast Company's piece at

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