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The issue with tissue: how Americans are flushing forests down the toilet

22 Feb 2019

Tissue products such as toilet paper, paper towels, and facial tissue are cheap and convenient—but they cost the planet a great deal. The vast majority of the tissue products found in our homes are made from wood pulp, the use of which drives the degradation of forests around the world. Their everyday consumption facilitates a “tree-to-toilet pipeline,” whereby centuries-old trees are hewn from the ground, converted into tissue pulp, rolled into perforated sheets or stuffed into boxes, and flushed or thrown away. The consequences for Indigenous Peoples, treasured wildlife, and the global climate are devastating.

This Issue with Tissue report and scorecard evaluates the sustainability of major at-home tissue brands in the United States, based on data the authors collected from product packaging, product websites, and communications with parent companies. The authors selected the flagship brands from the three tissue companies with the largest market shares in the United States, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific. To gauge tissue products’ impact on forests, the scorecard examines products’ recycled content, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for their virgin pulp, and their bleaching process. The authors' methodology gave the products different weights depending on which criteria they satisfy, with the greatest weight given to postconsumer recycled content. For a full methodology, see the Appendix. The scorecard is not a comprehensive overview of all tissue products. For any brands not covered, the authors encourage readers to look at each brand’s recycled content, FSC certification, and bleaching process using the criteria outlined in the Appendix.

The scorecard shows that there is a strong dichotomy in the tissue industry when it comes to sustainability, with some companies using almost entirely recycled content in their products, and others using none. Tissue products from companies such as Green Forest and Natural Value, for example, contain 100 percent recycled content, with at least 80 percent postconsumer recycled content. Major brands such as Charmin, Cottonelle, and Angel Soft, however, are made entirely from virgin fiber.

The companies with the largest market shares have the power to make a significant difference for the future of our world’s forests. Instead, they largely adhere to decades-old tissue formulas that have taken a devastating toll on forests. Recycled content and alternative fibers are readily available solutions, and these large companies need to dedicate their substantial research and development budgets to tackling the problems their products cause for the planet. In the meantime, consumers can push for change with their pocketbooks, buying only those tissue products that minimize their impact on forests.

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