I realize that this will be my second post on toilet paper in the span of a week, but when nature calls ...

The other day, when reporting on Greenpeace’s new Recycled Tissue and Toilet Paper Guide I made an eco-confession: When shopping, I generally reach for paper products containing recycled content but often, but not always, I treat myself to soft, quilted, adorable baby animal-endorsed toilet paper in lieu of recycled varieties. 

It seems that I’m not alone.

In the last two days not one but two articles have been published — one in The New York Times and the other in the always excellent UK paper, The Guardian — that address America’s lust for soft, quilted, multi-ply toilet paper made from virgin timber.

This environmentally unsound purchasing habit that’s dictated by, as eloquently phrased by The Guardian, “the tenderness of the American buttock,” is obviously a cultural phenomenon. More than 98 percent of toilet paper sold in the US — the largest worldwide market for TP — comes from virgin timber, while up to 40 percent of bath tissue in Europe and Latin America comes from recycled content. In fact, The NYT reports that sales of “luxury” TP brands like Cottonelle Ultra and Charmin Ultra increased 40 percent in some markets in 2008.

The eco-impact of the “Charmin effect” according to The NYT:

Environmentalists are focusing on tissue products for reasons besides the loss of trees. Turning a tree to paper requires more water than turning paper back into fiber, and many brands that use tree pulp use polluting chlorine-based bleach for greater whiteness. In addition, tissue made from recycled paper produces less waste tonnage — almost equaling its weight — that would otherwise go to a landfill.

Still, trees and tree quality remain a contentious issue. Although brands differ, 25 percent to 50 percent of the pulp used to make toilet paper in this country comes from tree farms in South America and the United States. The rest, environmental groups say, comes mostly from old, second-growth forests that serve as important absorbers of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas linked to global warming. In addition, some of the pulp comes from the last virgin North American forests, which are an irreplaceable habitat for a variety of endangered species, environmental groups say.

In The Guardian article, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has stern words for tender-bummed Americans: 
"Future generations are going to look at the way we make toilet paper as one of the greatest excesses of our age. Making toilet paper from virgin wood is a lot worse than driving Hummers in terms of global warming pollution." Hershkowitz adds: "I really do think it is overwhelmingly an American phenomenon. People just don't understand that softness equals ecological destruction."
With the recession looming, Americans may be forced to put their obsession with super-soft toilet paper on hiatus since they're pricier than lower-ply and recycled varieties. But in rough times it's the little things like a squishy roll of Charmin that may bring pleasure and feelings of normalcy. And for those who observe Lent, you may want to look towards the bathroom (wink, wink). 

Americans are a malleable bunch, receptive to change and innovation. Green spending is on the rise, and each week more and more eyes are being opened to the simple ways we can treat Mother Nature with a little more TLC. However, our collective love of virgin fiber toilet paper hawked by cute cartoon bears is an eco-carbuncle that needs curing. What sense does it make flushing old-growth forests down a low-flush toilet? About as much sense as cute cartoon bears selling toilet paper. 

Via [The New York Times] and [The Guardian]

Photo: Caro's Lines

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Soft on the bum, hard on the earth
In terms of eco-impact, America's preference for soft toilet paper is "worse than driving Hummers," states NRDC scientist.