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Environmentalists Seek to Wipe Out Plush Toilet Paper

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. -- There is a battle for America's behinds.

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It is a fight over toilet paper: the kind that is blanket-fluffy and getting fluffier so fast that manufacturers are running out of synonyms for "soft" (Quilted Northern Ultra Plush is the first big brand to go three-ply and three-adjective).

It's a menace, environmental groups say -- and a dark-comedy example of American excess.

The reason, they say, is that plush U.S. toilet paper is usually made by chopping down and grinding up trees that were decades or even a century old. They want Americans, like Europeans, to wipe with tissue made from recycled paper goods.

It has been slow going. Big toilet-paper makers say that they've taken steps to become more Earth-friendly but that their customers still want the soft stuff, so they're still selling it.

This summer, two of the best-known combatants in this fight signed a surprising truce, with a big tissue maker promising to do better. But the larger battle goes on -- the ultimate test of how green Americans will be when nobody's watching.

"At what price softness?" said Tim Spring, chief executive of Marcal Manufacturing, a New Jersey paper maker that is trying to persuade customers to try 100 percent recycled paper. "Should I contribute to clear-cutting and deforestation because the big [marketing] machine has told me that softness is important?"

He added: "You're not giving up the world here."

Toilet paper is far from being the biggest threat to the world's forests: together with facial tissue, it accounts for 5 percent of the U.S. forest-products industry, according to industry figures. Paper and cardboard packaging makes up 26 percent of the industry, although more than half is made from recycled products. Newspapers account for 3 percent.

But environmentalists say 5 percent is still too much.

Felling these trees removes a valuable scrubber of carbon dioxide, they say. If the trees come from "farms" in places such as Brazil, Indonesia or the southeastern United States, natural forests are being displaced. If they come from Canada's forested north -- a major source of imported wood pulp -- ecosystems valuable to bears, caribou and migratory birds are being damaged.

And, activists say, there's just the foolish idea of the thing: old trees cut down for the briefest and most undignified of ends.


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