By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009
ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. -- There is a battle for America's behinds.
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.
"It's like the Hummer product for the paper industry," said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We don't need old-growth forests . . . to wipe our behinds."
The reason for this fight lies in toilet-paper engineering. Each sheet is a web of wood fibers, and fibers from old trees are longer, which produces a smoother and more supple web. Fibers made from recycled paper -- in this case magazines, newspapers or computer printouts -- are shorter. The web often is rougher.
So, when toilet paper is made for the "away from home" market, the no-choice bathrooms in restaurants, offices and schools, manufacturers use recycled fiber about 75 percent of the time.
But for the "at home" market, the paper customers buy for themselves, 5 percent at most is fully recycled. The rest is mostly or totally "virgin" fiber, taken from newly cut trees, according to the market analysis firm RISI Inc.
Big tissue makers say they've tried to make their products as green as possible, including by buying more wood pulp from forest operations certified as sustainable.
But despite environmentalists' concerns, they say customers are unwavering in their desire for the softest paper possible.
"That's a segment [of consumers] that is quite demanding of products that are soft," said James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific. Sales figures seem to make that clear: Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, the three-ply stuff, sold 24 million packages in the past year, bringing in more than $144 million, according to the market research firm Information Resources Inc.
Last month, Greenpeace announced an agreement that it said would change this industry from the inside.
The environmental group had spent 4 1/2 years attacking Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kleenex and Cottonelle toilet paper, for getting wood from old-growth forests in Canada. But the group said it is calling off the "Kleercut" campaign: Kimberly-Clark had agreed to make its practices greener.
By 2011, the company said, 40 percent of the fiber in all its tissue products will come from recycled paper or sustainable forests.
"We could have campaigned forever," said Lindsey Allen, a senior forest campaigner with Greenpeace. But this was enough, she said, because Kimberly-Clark's changes could alter the entire wood-pulp supply chain: "They have a policy that . . . will shift the entire way that tissue companies work."
Still, some environmental activists said that Greenpeace should have pushed for more.
"The problem is not yet getting better," said Chris Henschel, of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, talking about logging in Canada's boreal forests. He said real change will come only when consumers change their habits: "It's unbelievable that this global treasure of Canadian boreal forests is being turned into toilet paper. . . . I think every reasonable person would have trouble understanding how that would be okay."
That part could be difficult, because -- in the U.S. market, at least -- soft is to toilet paper what fat is to bacon, the essence of the appeal.
Earlier this year, Consumer Reports tested toilet paper brands and found that recycled-tissue brands such as Seventh Generation and Marcal's Small Steps weren't unpleasant. But they gave their highest rating to the three-ply Quilted Northern.
"We do believe that you're going to feel a difference," said Bob Markovich, an editor at Consumer Reports.
Marcal, the maker of recycled toilet paper here in New Jersey, is trying to change that with a two-pronged sales pitch. The first is that soft is overrated.
"Strength of toilet paper is more important, for obvious reasons," said Spring, the chief executive, guiding a golf cart among the machinery that whizzes up vast stacks of old paper, whips it into a slurry, and dries it into rolls of toilet paper big enough for King Kong. He said his final product is as strong as any of the big-name brands. "If the paper breaks during your use of toilet paper, obviously, that's very, very important."
The second half of the pitch is that Marcal's toilet paper is almost as soft as the other guy's anyway.
"Handle it like you're going to take care of business," company manager Michael Bonin said, putting this reporter through a blind test of virgin vs. recycled toilet paper. Two rolls were hidden in a cardboard box: the test was to reach in without looking and wad them up, considering the "three aspects of softness," which are surface smoothness, bulky feel and "drapability," or lack of rigidity.
The reporter wadded. The officials waited. The one on the right felt slightly softer.
That was not the answer they wanted: The recycled paper was on the left.