GreenSpace: On a roll: Dead trees go down the toilet

Here's a way to help save forests, one TP square at a time. And it's painless.

Posted: April 07, 2008

Of all the things to obsess about, toilet paper has never been at the top of my list.

Or the bottom.

Then I met Jeff Wells, a pleasant, earnest ornithologist who lives in Maine and was visiting Philly. Wells and a few environmental groups say I should buy paper products made from recycled paper - not trees.

Now, Wells obsesses about birds, billions of which breed in Canada's boreal forest, which he also obsesses about because he's a scientist with the International Boreal Conservation Campaign.

The boreal stretches nearly from Alaska to the Atlantic; it absorbs tons of carbon dioxide and it's a major summer nesting ground for birds that winter in backyards like mine.

But the boreal forest is being logged at the rate of 2.5 million acres a year, Wells says. Some is for lumber, sure. But also for paper. Toilet paper.

Paper giant Kimberly-Clark says all the leading consumer tissue brands in North America contain primarily virgin fiber.

In a longstanding dispute, the company says it mainly uses leftover tree pulp, but environmentalists insist that entire trees are being given over to toilet tissue.

The company said about 11 percent of its virgin pulp comes from the boreal - which is then reforested.

Still, environmentalists wonder why we are, in effect, flushing virgin wood pulp of any sort down the toilet when at the same time we're sending nearly half of all the perfectly good paper left over from home and office use to landfills.

"It's one of those things that just doesn't make sense in today's world," Wells said.

At least half a dozen companies now make TP from recycled paper. I took a field trip to area grocery stores to investigate.

OK, then, talk about obsessed. In one paper goods aisle, there were 18 kinds of toilet paper - including one aimed specifically at children.

Every store also had at least one eco brand. I bought seven. Back home, I piled my loot onto the dining room table and took stock.

The eco-packages had pictures of trees and cute slogans: "Soft on Nature, Soft on You."

And in case anyone should miss the "100 percent recycled" label, they had names such as Nature's Balance, Earth First, Sunrise, Earth Friendly and Seventh Generation.

All were white, so I guess that matters to most people. (The eco brands touted a chlorine-free bleaching process.)

Many were embossed with flowers or butterflies, which seemed silly until I learned the designs hold the paper together after it has been air-fluffed to make it softer.

Traditional toilet tissue ranges from half a cent to 4.5 cents per square foot. The eco-brands were actually less: half a cent to 2.3 cents per square foot.

Seventh Generation contends on its packaging that if every household in the United States replaced just one four-pack of virgin fiber TP with recycled, it would save the equivalent of nearly a million trees.

The toilet paper awaited me. I tried them all.

I'm happy to report I have not had to seek medical attention for abrasions from scratchy paper - because it was fine.

Allen Hershkowitz is a proponent of recycled toilet tissue and a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Now, he is obsessed. He has timed himself in the bathroom and says it takes less than five seconds to use up a piece of tissue.

And for that, he asks, we're using trees?

Recently, he went to a swank French spa to give a speech. The TP was brownish, stiff. But, "the president of France goes there," he said, "and everybody survives."

Still, I recently had a bad cold, my nose raw from all the tissues, and I wasn't even using recycled.

I told the spokeswoman at Seventh Generation, and she laughed. In cold and flu season, even they "concede to softer brands," she wryly noted.

So maybe I'll just go with the virgin pulp for my delicate nose. And I'll take eco-paper for, uh, the other end.

No more trees for me.


For more about recycled paper and trees, go to:

GreenSpace: Pointers for Paper Products

What's in recycled: Environmental groups advocate paper products made from 100 percent recycled materials. Look for a high percentage of "post-consumer" material, made of paper recycled from homes and offices. Regular "recycled" can contain leftover paper from industrial processes.

Paper recycling update: Last week, the American Forest and Paper Association announced that in 2007, an all-time high of 56 percent of the paper used in the country was recovered for recycling. It totaled 54.3 million tons - more than 360 pounds for every person in the country. The group set a goal of 60 percent by 2012, which still leaves 40 percent more to go.

Historical note: Yo! Philadelphia is a cradle of paper progress. In 1690, William Rittenhouse and William Bradford founded the first North American paper mill along the Monoshone Creek, making paper from old cloth rags. (Wood wasn't used in the United States until the early 1900s.) Scott Paper Co., founded by two brothers in 1879 in Philadelphia, marketed the first rolls of toilet paper, and today Kimberly-Clark employees still make Scott products at the plant in Chester.

What's ahead: Major manufacturers are making changes. Kimberly-Clark is test-marketing Scott Naturals. The line includes facial tissues from 20 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, TP from 40 percent, and paper towels from 80 percent.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or To post a comment or learn more, check out her blog at

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