A Delicate Undertaking

You can save virgin forests by using recycled toilet paper. But how hard is it to make the switch?

  • No matter how green you think you are, there's probably one hallowed place where concern for the environment doesn't even enter your mind: the bathroom. It's almost certain that the roll of toilet paper you're using is made not of recycled fiber but from felled trees — often from North America's virgin forests, which are as rare as they are rich in wildlife. "The paper industry is the No. 1 industrial pressure on forests," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Using toilet paper made from virgin trees is the paper-industry equivalent of driving a Hummer."

    Americans don't need to use an SUV every time they go to the bathroom. Which helps explain why this spring a mainstream brand, Scott, started offering toilet paper made with 40% recycled fiber. Switching to such material could make a big difference: the NRDC estimates that if every household in the U.S. replaced just one 500-sheet roll of virgin-fiber TP a year with a roll made from 100% recycled paper, nearly 425,000 trees would be saved annually. ( See pictures of the world's most polluted places. )

    Hence Greenpeace's four-year-long campaign to pressure paper companies like Kimberly-Clark — which makes Kleenex, Scott and Cottonelle, among other brands — to stop cutting down virgin forests. Says Lindsey Allen, Greenpeace's forest campaigner: "We know it's possible to act differently."

    It's possible — but few Americans are doing it. Toilet paper containing 100% recycled fiber makes up less than 2% of the U.S. market, while sales of three-ply luxury brands like Cottonelle Ultra and Charmin Ultra Soft shot up 40% in 2008. Compare the U.S. desire for an ever plusher flush with the more austere bathroom habits of Europe and Latin America, where recycled TP makes up about 20% of the at-home market. Recycled material simply can't match the level of comfort that virgin fiber provides — and that U.S. consumers have come to expect. "They won't go for a green product unless you can make it equal to or better than the conventional alternative," says Kimberly-Clark spokesman Dave Dickson.

    So is there a decent hybrid? Not from an environmental perspective. Greenpeace isn't a fan of Scott's new Naturals line because less than half the toilet paper is recycled material — and because its manufacturer has yet to adopt a less toxic bleaching process. And the group is only lukewarm about Marcal's Small Steps, which is 100% recycled but contains less than 50% postconsumer material, i.e., the paper you recycle at the office as opposed to scraps from manufacturing and other sources that have never been processed into consumer goods.

    It's hard to argue against Greenpeace for taking such a hard line. Yes, recycled TP is not the world's softest, but next time you're on the can, ask yourself whether it's really worth tapping an ancient forest to create the ultimate disposable product.

    See pictures of the effects of global warming.

    See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.