A Delicate Undertaking: Virgin Forests Going Down the Toilet

Publisher Name: 
Time in partnership with CNN

No matter how green you think you are, there's probably one
hallowed place where concern for the environment doesn't even enter
your mind: the bathroom. It's almost certain that the roll of toilet
paper
you're using is made not of recycled fiber but from felled trees
- often from North America's virgin forests, which are as rare as they
are rich in wildlife. "The paper industry is the No. 1 industrial
pressure on forests," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with
the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Using toilet paper made
from virgin trees is the paper-industry equivalent of driving a
Hummer."

Americans don't need to use an SUV every time they go to the
bathroom. Which helps explain why this spring a mainstream brand,
Scott, started offering toilet paper made with 40% recycled fiber.
Switching to such material could make a big difference: the NRDC
estimates that if every household in the U.S. replaced just one
500-sheet roll of virgin-fiber TP a year with a roll made from 100%
recycled paper, nearly 425,000 trees would be saved annually. (See pictures of the world's most polluted places.)

Hence Greenpeace's four-year-long campaign to pressure paper
companies like Kimberly-Clark - which makes Kleenex, Scott and
Cottonelle, among other brands - to stop cutting down virgin forests.
Says Lindsey Allen, Greenpeace's forest campaigner: "We know it's
possible to act differently."

It's possible - but few Americans are doing it. Toilet paper
containing 100% recycled fiber makes up less than 2% of the U.S.
market, while sales of three-ply luxury brands like Cottonelle Ultra
and Charmin Ultra Soft shot up 40% in 2008. Compare the U.S. desire for
an ever plusher flush with the more austere bathroom habits of Europe
and Latin America, where recycled TP makes up about 20% of the at-home
market. Recycled material simply can't match the level of comfort that
virgin fiber provides - and that U.S. consumers have come to expect.
"They won't go for a green product unless you can make it equal to or
better than the conventional alternative," says Kimberly-Clark
spokesman Dave Dickson.

So is there a decent hybrid? Not from an environmental
perspective. Greenpeace isn't a fan of Scott's new Naturals line
because less than half the toilet paper is recycled material - and
because its manufacturer has yet to adopt a less toxic bleaching
process. And the group is only lukewarm about Marcal's Small Steps,
which is 100% recycled but contains less than 50% postconsumer
material, i.e., the paper you recycle at the office as opposed to
scraps from manufacturing and other sources that have never been
processed into consumer goods.

It's hard to argue against Greenpeace for taking such a hard
line. Yes, recycled TP is not the world's softest, but next time you're
on the can, ask yourself whether it's really worth tapping an ancient
forest to create the ultimate disposable product.

AMP Section Name:Environment
  • 190 Natural Resources