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Sunday, July 18, 2010

On Toilet Paper! by Jennifer Gannett

We don't know each other very well, but I think its time we began talking about something you aren't hearing very much about, even from the greenest of corners. Toilet paper. Yep!  Ohhhh, there are so many people who love to ask enviros, "do you use toilet paper?" as if use of toilet paper and advocacy for our planet's resources need to be mutually exclusive.  Even No Impact Man's Project got the GOTCHA! treatment around the tissuey substance in a New York Times headline.
But did you know that most toilet paper (considered a consumer "low involvement catagory" by the industry) is made from virgin trees? Last year, the New York Times reported that millions of North American trees are harvested for toilet paper, including trees from old growth forests.  Old growth to wipe our butts!?  How can that be?  Well, while a years-long campaign by Greenpeace against leading toilet tissue manufacturer Kimberly-Clark was called off in 2009 after the corporation announced a revised fiber-procurement policy, that doesn't change the fact that a lot of trees are still being cut down for our bums and spills!  This is so silly.  We can do better for our collective greener future, especially in light of the fact that the trees are carbon sinks and harvesting them has an impact on global climate change.

According to the Times article, less than 2% of U.S. homes use recycled toilet paper, so there is a great deal of room for improvement. So the most obvious place to begin is to switch out your virgin pulp-sourced toilet paper (and paper towel and facial tissue) for recycled brands.  You may need to experiment to find the level of, ahem, comfort, that suits your family.  If you are very picky about toilet tissue, as we in the U.S. have become thanks to very clever marketing, you may be interested in reading this article from Grist on which recycled brands fared best (the overall winner was Seventh Generation double rolls).

Other options for those willing to further increase their green cred include the use of pee rags or bidets.  Ask Umbra over at Grist has some thoughtful words on the use of these toilet paper alternatives.
Much of the same goes for paper towels (though I have found that any of the recycled brands are perfectly efficient for cleaning up, say, cat puke).  Try laying in a supply of towels, washcloths, or ready made rags – for real green bonus points, cut up some old stained t-shirts-- and have them readily available to wipe up the inevitable spills of juice, water etc.  Another benefit to this method of cleaning is that you can let the activity be child-led if you have wee ones and have no worries about wasting paper towel!  There are also a variety of re-useable cloth and microfiber products available.  My absolute favorite paper toweling replacements are Skoy cloths. These little gems are durable and absorbent.  But we use plenty of old washcloths and even old cloth diapers leftover from my child's infancy to clean up our daily spills of water, soup, juice etc.
Note that this post isn't just overly-earnest enviro handwringing. Market shares of premium and ultra-premium (such as new three-ply toilet tissue) continue to grow, despite economic tumult and lean times. In fact, Kimberly-Clark is paying out dividends and industry analysts are watching the market carefully as an indicator of the economy! In the meantime, as usual, consumers create the demand and the market.  Knowledge is power, friends, so take this information and please use your new-found TP power accordingly!

Jennifer Gannett lives outside of New York City with her family.  A long-time environmentalist, in her free time she enjoys cooking and eating mouthwatering vegan fare, daydreaming about crafty projects and advocating for animals and the environment.  She is a frequent contributor to


  1. I'm having a problem with this. Mainly because paper recycling is a very bad idea. When considering a greener planet people don't seem to consider the big picture: all in all, it's nice to be able to reuse paper, but it entitles that we use a lot of energy and mainly bleach all the paper, which involves pretty nasty chemicals, and mainly more energy than creating new paper. In the end, when you consider the energy used to recycle paper, you're better off letting it take care of itself.

    In addition to this, no one uses random trees, or the rain-forest trees to create paper, they use tree farms with trees that grow fast. In the end, the whole recycling paper seems like a terrible idea, until we perfect a technique where recycling actually creates less pollution than making new paper.

    Paper creation has been pictured as evil and recycling has been praised without proper appraisal.

  2. I appreciate your comment very much.
    This is what I like about the blog: interaction, opinions, eye-openings and constant learning.

    You mention a real problem here and I promise I'll research it!
    While I agree that the recycling process for paper goods can be very energy-consuming, I also know that there are companies who do it in a gentle way, for instance without bleaching.

    I'm an educated person and look carefully at the labels of the products I buy.
    Thank you for bringing this up - not everybody does look for the small print or researches the way I do.

    I'll write about the issue hopefully soon!