Plush Toilet Paper: Soft on Your Butt, Hard on the Environment

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Might this be the most dangerous bear on the planet? Photobucket

A recent Washington Post article tackles the tender issue of toilet paper softness. The article reported the market is glutted with super-plush toilet paper; they cited Quilted Northern Ultra Plush as emblematic of the trend toward super-softening toilet paper. But there is one big problem: the softer the toilet paper, the more likely it is made from old growth and virgin trees. But as Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the NRDC said, "We don't need old-growth forests . . . to wipe our behinds." Old growth and virgin wood fibers are longer than recycled ones, and the longer fibers, when processed, make for an overall smoother, suppler surface.

While TreeHugger has reported on blind tests that find recycled and virgin toilet paper indistinguishable, I don't find it hard to believe that the latter is softer (the Post and Consumer Reports seems to bear this out). The more important point is the use of old growth forests for something as ephemeral (and possibly inessential) as toilet paper. Toilet paper comprises 5% of US forest products, but there's little reason why it shouldn't be less. And there's little reason why the toilet paper that is used shouldn't be primarily made of post-consumer materials. In fact, according to the market analysis firm RISI Inc. about 75% of "away from home"/no-choice toilet paper is recycled. So people can and will used recycled TP when the choice is removed. Yet a mere 5% of "at home" TP sales are 100% recycled.

Toilet paper, despite its ubiquity in the developed world, is not a necessity, nor is it the only way to roll for one's undercarriage. And yet, because of the touchiness people have with the affected region and its byproducts, toilet paper use is often not subjected to the scrutiny it warrants. Or worse yet, the debate as to its long-term environmental viability is held up to ridicule as if people are going to walk around with dirty butts if they use a coarser, recycled variety, or minimize or stop using toilet paper (this ridicule is evidenced by the NY Times article "A Year Without Toilet Paper" about Colin Beavin, AKA "No Impact Man"). So props to the Post for treating this topic with appropriate seriousness. Perhaps we can start bringing light this dark topic.