Fluffy toilet paper comes at a price to trees

Published 2:00 pm Thursday, June 4, 2009

People are doing a great job of recycling, but is just recycling enough? An article I read recently talked about our “needs,” what we do, and making good shopping choices. Specifically it talked about paper and how Mr. Whipple may be rolling over in his grave. If you’re a good recycler, this information is another example of why we need to be reading labels.

A national demand for soft paper has increased the sales for companies like Cottonelle Ultra, Quilted Northern Ultra and Charmin Ultra. All this fluffiness comes at a price. Millions and millions of trees are harvested in North America and Latin America, including old growth forests in Canada, and cut to provide us with that “soft” touch.

Toilet tissue can be made from recycled materials, but it is the fiber taken from standing trees that give paper its soft plush feel. The longer fibers from standing trees is preferable to recycled because long fibers can be laid out and fluffed to make softer tissue.

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The recycled fibers market for tissue in the U.S. is less than 2 percent of sales and most manufacturers are using a combination of trees to make their products. The pulp from one eucalyptus tree produces up to 1,000 rolls of toilet tissue. The average American uses about 23.6 rolls per capita a year. Read the label for recycled content when purchasing.

Paper napkins are nice, they are convenient and cheap. However, all that absorbing ability, pretty white color and softness comes at a cost to the environment. The bright white color is accomplished by adding bleach. If burned, chlorine is put into the atmosphere. When thrown into the garbage they increase our garbage volume unnecessarily. When a wash cloth or towel will do the same thing, why increase our garbage. The argument to this philosophy is that we waste water by washing. Not true.

To place those pretty white napkins, tissue paper and toilet paper in our homes it is not just cutting trees somewhere. To consider the true value of that soft fluffy tissue we need to consider what it took to get it into our homes.

Those paper products have to be manufactured, emitting odors and chemicals into the air, they are packaged in a plastic wrap that is not recyclable (and the manufacturing of plastics is a toxic mixture of pollutants), they are transported across the country to the store in a truck that adds more pollution to our air and your trip to the store to purchase those items comes at a cost of unnecessary gasoline consumption.

These examples should be considered average or generalities because you may purchase them when shopping for other items in the store or the truck transporting them may have had been delivering other products. You get the idea though. Many people will not purchase a brown colored tissue or paper towel (the natural color of paper pulp) so bleach chemicals have to be added. The whiter the product, the more chemicals that are added.

Recycled content may not be obvious to many because it is something we don’t talk enough about. When waste reduction and recycling was first promoted in Minnesota in the late 1980s we were taught to always purchase items with a label that told us about the recycled content.

We need to return to those habits when we purchase paper products. The two things we should consider when making a purchase are: What is the recycled content of the product and if possible, can it be recycled when we are finished using it?

In the case of tissue paper products, we probably cannot recycle them after being used but we can reduce the plastic packaging by purchasing in bulk and looking for the highest recycled content.

In a fast food shop the other day I noticed that the napkins had a recycling symbol and said “100 percent recycled fiber with a minimum of 60 percent post-consumer material processed chlorine free and printed with water based inks.”

This is what we should be looking for when shopping. The recycled content of soft paper products in this country is often one to two percent, if any, while many countries throughout the world are fifty percent or more. Recycled content is available if you read the label.

Randy Tuchtenhagen is the Freeborn County solid waste officer.