Toilet paper and facial tissue make up 5% of the U.S. forest-products industry
The next battle zone in the eco wars: the toilet paper aisle

The latest “front” in the green wars is actually the rear – or, more accurately, a fight over the future of toilet paper. In one camp are environmental groups who say that plush toilet tissue is the paper products aisle’s moral equivalent of the Hummer: an unnecessary excess that is having a negative impact on more than just your downstairs bathroom’s plumbing. These Earth-friendly advocates say the kinds of paper that are blanket-soft and fluffy are manufactured through the cutting down and grinding up of old-growth trees that are decades or more old. These opponents of anything Ultra-Plush, Ultra-Soft, or Ultra-Quilted want U.S. consumers – like their counterparts in Europe – to, ahem, take care of business with toilet paper made from recycled paper products. Toilet paper manufacturers argue they’ve taken steps to become more environmentally-friendly, but the market is driving sales of fluffy paper because consumers want it. In August, a surprising truce was declared between two of the debate’s biggest antagonists: the eco-group Greenpeace and Kimberly-Clark, makers of the Kleenex and Cottonelle brands. Greenpeace spent years campaigning against the company for its use of wood from Canadian old-growth forests. The group announced that it would end its “Kleercut” campaign with Kimberly-Clark agreeing to establish greener business and manufacturing practices. Company officials said that by 2011, 40% of fiber used in its tissue will come from sustainable forests or recycled products.

In spite of the rhetoric, toilet paper isn’t the biggest culprit as far as threats to the world’s forests go: it, along with sales of facial tissue, makes up 5% of the U.S. forest-products industry. Cardboard and paper packaging account for 26% of the industry, even though more than half comes from recycled products. Newspaper printing makes up 3%. Environmental activists argue that 5% is too much. They say that cutting down trees eliminates an invaluable filter of carbon dioxide. And then there’s the indignity of felling the old trees for only the most fleeting – and unbecoming – of, ahem, ends. The fight stems from the process by which toilet-paper is engineered. Every sheet of tissue is actually a web comprised of wood fibers. Old trees produce longer fibers, which in turn produce a smoother and more pliant web. Recycled paper – such as newspapers, computer printouts, or magazines – produce shorter fibers, and possess a generally-rougher web. That’s why, when toilet tissue is manufactured for “away from home” markets (bathrooms located in schools, offices, and restaurants), makers usually (around 75% of the time) employ recycled fibers. For the “at home” market (paper consumers purchase for themselves), a bare 5% is fully recycled; the remainder is either mainly or completely “virgin” fiber, which comes from newly-chopped trees. Tissue companies say that efforts to become greener, such as purchasing more pulp from sustainable forest operations, are hampered by consumers’ uncompromising desire for the softer paper.

My grandfather, Asa Campbell, used to call the recycled stuff the “John Wayne toilet paper,” because you needed the grit and stoicism of “the Duke” to use it. – Boomer