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Wait! Don't flush that plush!

Fluffier toilet paper takes a greater environmental toll.

By Teresa Mears Dec 14, 2009 7:09PM

I could be drummed out of the personal-finance blogging community for this confession, but here it is: I do not have a toilet paper strategy.


When I run out, I buy more, usually at the supermarket. Sometimes I use a coupon, but usually I don’t. I try to buy it on sale, but I don’t obsess if I pay full price. I do not buy toilet paper (or anything else) in bulk because I don’t have room to store it.


Now comes the news that not only should we worry about what we’re spending on toilet paper, we should care about how we are affecting the environment. And we don’t just mean using fewer sheets.


Unlike Trent, at The Simple Dollar, I’m not willing to go through a series of complicated calculations to determine the price per sheet to ensure I’m buying the cheapest paper. That One Caveman doesn’t believe that even calculating the price per sheet gives you the true picture. He says cheap toilet paper isn’t always the best deal.


I have bought generic or recycled paper, but in recent years I’ve preferred the fluffier stuff.


When I read a story in The Kansas City Star that says that using soft toilet paper is bad for the environment, because it is made from old-growth trees, I thought it was time to take another look at recycled toilet paper.


"At what price softness?" Tim Spring, chief executive of Marcal Manufacturing, a New Jersey manufacturer of 100% recycled paper, told The Washington Post. "Should I contribute to clear-cutting and deforestation because the big machine has told me that softness is important?"


After all, he said: "You're not giving up the world here."


Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups have pushed manufacturers to stop using wood from virgin forests to make tissue products and use recycled paper instead. But, each time paper is shredded during the recycling process, its fibers get shorter. The shorter the fiber, the less soft the tissue.


"The truth is that other parts of the world are further along in using recycled content," Kay Jackson, spokeswoman for Kimberly-Clark, told The Star. "The American consumer still wants softness, and they are speaking with their pocketbooks."


Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Cottonelle and Kleenex, recently pledged that 40% of the fiber in its tissue products will come from recycled paper and sustainable forests by 2011.

Recycled toilet paper, by the way, isn’t always the least expensive.


Consumer Reports tested toilet paper and chose Kirkland Signature (Costco) and White Cloud (Wal-Mart) as its best buys, at 12 to 15 cents per 100 sheets. That was about half the cost of Quilted Northern, Charmin, and Cottonelle, among the plushest brands.


Some recycled paper was cheaper and some was not.


Marcal’s Small Steps cost 8 cents per 100 sheets, but Seventh Generation was three times that price. And, yes, they were not as soft.


If you’re looking for toilet paper brands made of 100% recycled fiber, you can check this list put out by the National Resources Defense Council. Greenpeace also has a tissue guide.


Times have changed since the first toilet paper was invented in 1857 and was generally ignored in favor of the pages of the free Sears Roebuck catalog. The product was considered so unmentionable that brothers Clarence and E. Irvin Scott, who popularized the concept of toilet paper on a roll in 1890, didn’t take credit for their product until 1902, writes Mental Floss in a fascinating article on the history of T.P. Charmin is credited with bringing discussion of bathroom paper out of the closet, so to speak, by using a logo of a beautiful woman to advertise it in the late 1920s and 1930s.


What’s your view? How much time and effort are you willing to invest to save money on bathroom paper? And are you willing to sacrifice softness to save trees?


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