US: Mr. Whipple Left It Out: Soft Is Rough on Forests

Publisher Name: 
New York Times
Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Rolls of toilet paper being processed at the Marcal plant in Elmwood Park, N.J.

Americans like their toilet tissue soft: exotic confections that are silken, thick and hot-air-fluffed.

Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Marcal, the oldest recycled-paper maker in the country, plans a
marketing campaign to promote toilet tissue made from recycled paper.

Mike Mergen for The New York Times

Various brands at a supermarket near Philadelphia.

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."

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 104 Globalization
  • 183 Environment
  • 188 Consumerism & Commercialism
  • 204 Manufacturing