A Shopper’s Guide to Home Tissue Products
By Patrick Rogers
In the U.S., we consume more than 15 billion pounds of tissue each year—more than 50 pounds per person. It's taking a major toll on forests like the Canadian boreal.
Few people give much thought to how their toilet paper is made. And to be fair, there's nothing particularly engaging in the backstory of this industrially produced, single-use paper product. But it's important to remember that many toilet paper products equal trees—and we flush them down the drain at an alarming rate. Each year, vast swaths of forest are logged to produce the wood pulp that gets turned into toilet paper, with the final product chemically bleached to whiten and soften.
In fact, tissue products—facial tissues, paper towels, napkins, and toilet paper—are the fastest-growing sector of the international paper industry, with production forecast to rise by 6 percent annually through 2022. In the U.S., we consume more than 15 billion pounds of tissue each year. That means we currently buy, use, and flush about 20 percent of the world's supply of tissue products, even though we account for just over 4 percent of the world's population.
To see the devastating impact of this market, U.S. consumers need only look north of the Canadian border to the great boreal forest that rings the continent in green, which is being felled at an alarming rate, in part to satisfy the global appetite for tissue. Logging crews mostly clear-cut 28 million acres of woodland between 1996 and 2015, an area roughly the size of Ohio, according to NRDC's report The Issue With Tissue: How Americans Are Flushing Our Forests Down the Toilet.
This logging destroys and degrades wildlife habitat, threatens the lands and way of life of indigenous peoples, and robs the planet of one of its most important defenses against climate change. "The boreal is a massive storehouse of carbon that has accumulated in its soils and vegetation over millennia," said the report's author, Jennifer Skene, an environmental law fellow in NRDC's International Program. "When it is released because of logging, it has devastating ramifications for global efforts to mitigate climate change."
Only by using alternatives to tissue products made with virgin wood pulp can we begin to reverse the destruction of the Canadian boreal and other forests, Skene said, who points out that "Many people are not aware of the toll tissue takes on our forests." Here's how you can be part of the solution.
Shop for Sustainability
Fortunately, there are plenty of competitively priced varieties of tissue with minimal impact on forests. The Issue With Tissue report's scorecard assigns grades to all the major brands of toilet paper, paper towels and facial tissues, as well as popular house brands at leading supermarkets and brands that have adopted more sustainable practices.
Leading the scoreboard are six products — Green Forest, 365 Everyday Value 100% Recycled, Earth First, Natural Value, Seventh Generation and Trader Joe's Bath Tissue — that are made entirely of recycled material and use a chlorine-free bleaching process that does less harm to the environment than other methods. Grades of A go to toilet papers that contain the most postconsumer recycled content; this means that most of their materials have already been processed once and therefore reduce waste. (The alternative, preconsumer recycled content, is largely scrap and excess raw material collected during the manufacturing process. While it is far preferable to virgin forest fiber, it does less to offset waste than postconsumer recycled content.) The brands that get an A "have looked into the impact of their products and are embracing alternative materials that will allow us to continue using tissue products with a fraction of the environmental cost," Skene said.
Think Twice Before Buying These Products
Brands that get an F in the scorecard — including Charmin Ultra, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern and Up & Up Soft & Strong — rely entirely on virgin forest fiber for their products. These tissue products have three times the carbon footprint of those made from recycled paper; many also use dangerous bleaching processes. You may notice that the label "FSC certified" appears on some of these brands. While the Forest Stewardship Council is the world's most creditable independent certifier of responsibly managed forests and provides an important set of standards for products that require the use of wood (like lumber), there is no reason tissue products should be made from trees in the first place, Skene said.
Give Your Household Tissue Use More Consideration
Next time you reach for a package of facial tissue at the supermarket, visualize a majestic evergreen spruce or fir in the forest. "Something that we use once and throw away should not be destroying a vital part of our earth," said Shelley Vinyard, who oversees NRDC's work encouraging corporations to establish stronger protections for Canada's boreal forest. In the bathroom, use paper tissue products with reusable materials that get the job done. Keep rags beside your sink and use them as much as possible instead of paper towels. Replace paper napkins with cloth versions, and instead of one-and-done facial tissues, rely on handkerchiefs and washcloths that can be laundered and reused indefinitely.
Despite the steady degradation of the boreal forest, the leading tissue brands stubbornly maintain a business-as-usual approach to the manufacture and marketing of paper tissue products. Charmin, Bounty, Kleenex and other brands continue to manufacture tissue using methods that have changed little since the 19th century, still relying entirely on virgin wood pulp. Meanwhile, they have vast research and development budgets that they could leverage to create soft, strong recycled tissue products. "The companies themselves have said people aren't calling for this," said Vinyard. You can help change the manufacturers' minds by letting them know your concerns about wood pulp from Canada's boreal forest—nearly 60 percent of which is shipped to the United States annually.
"It's all about where responsibility lies," said Vinyard. "Consumers can create the demand for recycled content, but really it's up to major companies with large R&D budgets to innovate and figure out how to make a product that is appealing to shoppers and doesn't destroy our forests."
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.