The toilet-tissue issue: an environmentalists' dilemma

Bruce Watson

The American obsession with super-soft toilet paper may be the pinnacle of consumer silliness. Many people throughout the world use leaves or scrap paper for hygiene; in Europe, the toilet tissue of choice is a scratchy recycled variety. But in America, consumers strenuously defend their right to pillow-soft, "quilted" paper with minimal recycled content. It's expensive, it clogs plumbing, and it's made through long chemical-laden processes. For a certain type of environmentalist, it's the definitive indictment of the American way of life.

Soft toilet tissue arguably has a minor cost, both in terms of price and environmental impact. The long fibers of fresh-cut timber are key to making super-luxurious paper, but toilet and facial tissues account for only 5 percent of the output of the U.S. forest products industry. (Newspapers account for 3 percent.) From this perspective, green activists seem nagging and hectoring when they engage in the toilet-paper debate, although they're trying to advance awareness of real ecological problems.