Mr. Whipple Left It Out: Soft Is Rough on Forests
By Leslie Kaufman, NYT
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Thanks to my friends Eric N. and Marc C. for this article!
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.
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.
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.
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.”