Soft Tissue Paper is Hard on the Environment

Updated August 2014

Do you want to make a big environmental impact fast? Changing your behavior on tissue paper use is a very simple and immediate way. In the United States we use about 50 pounds of tissue products per person every year. This is 50% more than the consumption rate in Western Europe and Japan, and usage has grown considerably over the past few decades. We just can’t seem to get enough tissue. About two-thirds of tissue paper use is at home and one-third is away from home, so the majority of tissue purchasing and use is within your control.

Some things about the tissue paper market are disturbing and just don’t make sense to me.

  • Almost all of the heavily advertised tissue products available at your local store are made from trees, rather than recycled paper.

  • According to These Come from Trees, one tree produces about 100 pounds of paper. A household of four will consume 2 TREES every year when using non-recycled products.

  • We have a lot of recycle paper looking for a second use.

  • Paper can only be recycled a few times, so a perfect “final use” for recycled paper is tissue paper products.


Why not use only recycled paper for tissue products? The reason according to major manufacturers is that Americans want extremely soft tissue, and the fiber taken from live trees give tissue that plush feel. Recycled paper has slightly rougher feel. In other countries the use of recycled paper for tissue is much higher than in the U.S. We sacrifice our forests for soft tissue. There is a very interesting NY Times article reviewing our “national obsession with soft paper”. Check it out.

Let’s take a look at paper in general
If you browse the environmental blogs you find many strong opinions about paper. Statements like “household paper use is more harmful to the environment than driving a Hummer.” Well, there are good reasons for these kinds of statements. According to Natural Resources Defense Council “the paper and pulp industry may contribute to more global and local environmental problems than any industry in the world.” Here is a quick summary of some of the issues:

Paper manufacturing is environmentally harsh:

  • It uses a lot of timber destroying wildlife habitat.

  • It’s a major generator of water and air pollution including dioxins and other cancer-causing chemicals.

  • The industry is the third largest industrial emitter of global warming gasses.

Transportation to the consumer consumes fuel:

  • Paper and pulp mills are typically far away from the major population centers.

  • Paper is heavy and consumes energy and creates air pollution for transportation.


Disposal is an environmental challenge:

  • According to the EPA about 28% of all household waste is paper.

  • Only about one-half of this is recycled, and much of our recycled paper is shipped to China and other Asian countries for reuse, rather than being used in the U.S.

Tissue Paper Products
It clearly makes sense to minimize our use of paper overall. Tissue paper products are a great place to start. Our strategy is to REDUCE and USE RECYCLED. Tissue is an easy area to significantly limit use and then to buy only recycled products for the remaining use.

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How do we use tissue paper?
Our usage of tissue falls mainly into four categories; toilet paper, paper towels, facial tissue and napkins. The chart at the left shows the breakdown of use in North America. With some simple behavior changes we can significantly reduce usage for paper towels, napkins and facial tissue. For remaining use, buying tissue products made from 100% recycled paper will help further. Together these will actually make a big environmental impact.

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What if we used eco-friendly tissue paper habits?
By changing to eco-friendly habits we can reduce our tissue usage to Western Europe and Japan levels. That means cutting use from 50 pounds to 33 pounds per person each year. If you also bought only 100% recycled products for the remaining use, a household of four people will save the environment:

  • About 1½ live trees per year.

  • Cut water and energy used in manufacturing by more than half.

  • Eliminate the toxic dioxin used for pulp bleaching.

  • Reduce local sewer tissue waste and landfill waste.

We have put together a guide outlining simple ways to reduce use in each product category. It is a summary of our experiences in reducing tissue paper use.

Our experience – it was easy!
We started with napkins and paper towels. We had a stack of cloth napkins that sat in the cabinet for years. When our supply of paper table napkins ran out, my wife converted over to cloth. This has worked out great for us. We keep the napkins folded on our placemats on the kitchen table and they will last a day or two before washing. It hasn’t created any incremental batches of laundry.

I had a bad habit was grabbing a stack of napkins when I went to a fast food restaurant. I’d always have a stack in the car glove box that was overflowing until I threw some away. Now I limit myself to one or two, and surprisingly this adds up.

Paper towels were another bad habit. Every time that I washed my hands I’d dry with a paper towel. While cooking I’d go through a half dozen towels. Now I just use the dishtowel. In public restrooms I use the hand dryer when available.

We’ve started buying 100% recycled toilet paper and paper towels. I personally haven’t noticed a major difference. Sure the premium commercial brands are soft but from a utility standpoint they both do the job well.

Daisy’s insatiable appetite for tissue paper – Naughty Dog!

We adopted Daisy, a young bloodhound, a few years ago. She's a sweet loving dog with a strong streak of mischief. One of her numerous “weaknesses” is shredding and eating tissue paper. It all started with the stack of paper napkins that we’d leave in the napkin holder on the kitchen table. Occasionally we came home to find the remains of the entire stack, in a corner, in tiny little pieces. If one of the kids left a napkin on their placemat, she'd quietly sneak over and slip it off of the table, and off to the corner she would go. Paper towels left on the counter found the same fate.

Soon afterward the raids on our downstairs bathroom began. Daisy would manage to get the end of the toilet paper and unroll most of the roll. Of course she’d gnaw the side of what was left on the spool to destroy the entire roll. A dog gate solved the problem, as long as the kids don’t leave it open. Her final trick was “counter surfing” for the box of Kleenex that sat at the far back of the counter. Daisy would stand up on her back legs and quietly grab the box. Then off to her favorite corner for some fun!

Our new eco-friendly habits for tissue use have changed this. While Daisy hasn’t mentioned it to us, I don’t think she likes our move to cloth napkins, dishtowels and handkerchiefs, not to mention the dog gate that protects the bathroom. She is not interested in chewing the cloth products. Now she goes to her dog toy box and selects a favorite squeaky toy to munch on. Not quite as appetizing as tissue, but her “girlish figure” has returned!

Why use only 100% recycled tissue paper products?

  • It provides a second use for recycle paper materials.

  • Paper fibers can only be recycled a few times so tissue is a good final use.

  • Recycled paper uses 50% less water in manufacturing.

  • Recycled paper uses 40% less energy in manufacturing.

  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency‎ (EPA) has found that recycling causes 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution.

  • Recycled paper does not need re-bleaching; NO toxic dioxin and chlorines.

With all of this evidence, it’s clear that using non-recycled tissue paper is a terrible waste of our natural resources and the environment.

But what about the cost?
We all have this impression that recycled tissue paper products are way more expensive than regular products. I did a very quick price comparison of recycled verses non-recycled products to see what the cost difference really is.

Prices Updated August, 2104

  • At Trader Joe’s you can buy a 3-pack of 100% recycled paper towels (2 ply 80 sheets per roll, 11 in. x 11 in.) for $3.99. (Total of 220 feet of paper at 1.81 cents per foot)

  • has Seventh Generation 100% recycled paper towels 6-pack (2ply 140 sheets per roll, 11 in. x 5.4 in.) is $7.99. (Total of 378 feet of paper at 2.11 cents per foot)

  • has Bounty - Softer Huge Roll 2-pack (2ply 110 sheets per roll, 11 in. x 8.8 in.) is $5.88. (Total of 161.3 feet of paper at 3.65 cents per foot)

  • Trader Joe’s 12-pack of 100% recycled bath tissue (2 ply 250 sheets per roll) is $4.99. (Total of 1000 feet of paper at 0.50 cents per foot)

  • has Cottonelle Ultra Comfort Care bath tissue - 12 Roll (2ply 136 sheets per roll) is $8.49. (Total of 544 feet of paper at 1.56 cents per foot)

  • has Charmin Ultra Soft bath tissue - 12 Roll (2ply 176 sheets per roll) is $9.29. (Total of 704 feet of paper at 1.31 cents per foot)

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From this quick analysis it appears that the cost difference between recycled and non-recycled tissue is minimal, and in many cases it's much less than the premium soft products. Shopping around can easily save you money.

The case for using 100% recycled tissue paper is building and awareness of this issue is becoming widespread. Greenpeace recently published a handy pocket guide for recycled tissue and toilet paper. You can carry it when you purchase products. Below is a summarized list of brands from the Greenpeace guide.

Tissue brands to use: (80%+ recycled paper content)

Green Forest, Seventh Generation, 365 (Whole Foods), Natural Value, Earth Friendly, Trader Joe’s

Tissue brands to avoid: (Little to NO recycled paper content)

Charmin, Kleenex, Kleenex Naturals, Scott, Scott Naturals, Quilted Northern,Vanity Fair, Puffs, Bounty, Brawny, Target, Kirkland, Wal-Mart, CVS, Rite Aid