By Lisette Johnson
Although the invention of paper dates back two millenia, it wasn’t until the 20th century that paper products for the home were readily available, and it took another couple decades for them to become ubiquitous in American households. Using disposable cleaning products became a mark of wealth and prosperity rather than waste and irresponsibility. That notion is changing as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, when over 30 percent of the waste in U.S. landfills consists of paper products, most of which could be recycled or replaced with reusable counterparts.
Collectively known as “sanitary grades,” paper towels, napkins, facial tissues, and toilet paper are a billion dollar industry in America. They are made from varying proportions of bleached tree pulp and sulfite to create an absorbent sheet. Toilet tissue is also treated with resins to increase its strength when wet—production processes that emit harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Most house-hold paper products are treated with chlorine to make them whiter and brighter, another chemical that has been proven to have harmful effects on the atmosphere when released during manufacturing. The easiest first step to reducing your environmental impact from use of these products is to seek out those labeled TCF (totally chlorine free) or PCF (processed chlorine free). Of course, the most effective way to reduce your impact and increase your environmental responsibility is to avoid using these products at all. The second most effective is to seek out those made from recycled material.
One major debate in the green revolution is that reusable alternatives to sanitary grade paper products are unsanitary—and this argument both holds water (pun intended) and misinformation. It’s certainly true that cloth can harbor more germs than disposable products, but with proper cleaning, cloth towels are the most viable alternative to paper products (with the exception of toilet paper!). When using a cloth towel to wipe up a normal spill, there’s no need to take special precautions. Spilled water, milk, juice, or cooking oil can be cleaned using only one cloth, which should then be washed. If using a cloth towel to clean up a bacterial spill, however, such as egg, meat blood, or chicken fat, multiple towels should be used for sanitary reasons. One should be used to wipe, one to wash the area with hot water, and one to dry. All towels need to be washed after use. Following these steps makes using cloth alternatives just as easy and sanitary as paper ones—and greatly reduces environmental impact. And, for the record, far more water is needed to grow tree farms and run pulp mills than to run a weekly load of cloth towels through the washing machine.
Though debatable, there’s plenty of scientific evidence that the complete eradication of germs and bacteria is actually more detrimental to our health than beneficial. Appearing in a 2000 article in The New York Times, Dr. Stuart Levy, a program director at the Tufts University School of Medicine, reports that our obsession with cleanliness is changing the bacteria we’ve adapted to over millions of years. That same year, several preliminary findings reported that common household germs and dust may actually strengthen our immune system—a serious blow to an industry built around a culture of germaphobia. In 2001, the World Health Organization issued a global strategy to reduce bacterial resistance to antibiotics, due to an over-emphasis on cleanliness that has resulted in microbes becoming immune to disease-reducing medicines.
A Brief History of Sanitary Grade Products
Paper towels were an (un)happy accident, invented in 1907 when the Scott Paper Company unintentionally loaded a railroad car full of paper sheets that were too thick to be used for printing. Upon hearing the news, company president Arthur Scott recalled a newspaper article from 1879, in which a schoolteacher provided soft paper instead of cloth towels for her students, in an attempt to avoid a cold epidemic. Scott partitioned the mis-made paper, and marketed it as “Sani-Towel,” a product to make households more hygienic. Though it was originally a flop on the market, by 1931, perforated paper towels were a grocery store regular.
Paper napkins have a similar history, as do facial tissues. Napkins were first used at the dinner table in the 14th century, but were sheet-size pieces of fabric attached to the table and held by servants to dab the mouths of the wealthy. By the 16th century these had been sized down to three by four feet. The invention of the fork in the 18th century changed the role of napkins again. Paper napkins hit the market in the early 20th century—the first were manufactured by the Scott Paper Company in the 1930s. They were available for widespread consumption in the 1950s. Facial tissues existed in the form of washi (a disposable paperlike cloth now used for stationery and art) in Japan before the 17th century. The brand Kleenex was first introduced in America in 1924 by the Kimberly-Clark Company, to eliminate the need for cold cream, cleverly marketed by Hollywood starlets. It was the consumers themselves who began to use Kleenex as a disposable handkerchief, and by WWII they had become a common household item.
Toilet paper has a more storied history. Humans have been pretty inventive with their bathroom necessities throughout history (people of the Caribbean typically used coconut shell skin, while Eskimos were known to use tundra moss when the ice thawed), and for good reason. There is some evidence that toilet paper was manufactured for Chinese imperial courts as early as the 14th century, but during the Middle Ages using paper to wipe oneself was seen as unsanitary. It wasn’t until 1857 that modern toilet paper was introduced by American inventor Joseph Gayetty. It was called Gayetty’s Medicated Paper, and marketed as a means to reduce hemorrhoids.
Alternatives to Sanitary Products
There are ecologically sound alternatives using sanitary grade paper products that don’t involve getting rid of them altogether. Leading manufacturers compete for the “softness” factor, which is the problem. Softness is achieved by using virgin tree fiber. Every year tens of millions of trees are clear-cut to make paper products. According to the National Resources Defense Council, if every American household made the commitment to replace brand-name paper products with recycled versions, the impact on the industry would be monumental. This includes products that are made in part from post-consumer content. Post-consumer fibers are those that have been recovered from recycled paper that would otherwise have been dumped into a landfill or incinerated.
If everyone in the country replaced just one 70-sheet roll of traditional paper towel with recycled paper towel, it would save 544,000 trees.
Replacing just one 175-sheet box of traditional facial tissues with recycled ones would save 163,000 trees.
Replacing just one 500-sheet roll of traditional toilet paper with a recycled roll would save 423,900 trees.
Replacing just one 250-count pack of traditional paper napkins with recycled ones would save 1,000,000 trees. (That’s as many trees as are being planted over the course of ten years in the NYC Million Tree Initiative!)
There are plenty of recycled paper product manufacturers popping up, the most popular of which are Seventh Generation, Whole Foods 365, Marcal, and Green Forest. Brands that use less than one percent recycled material and use chlorine in their production process (read: brands to avoid in the name of environmental responsibility) include Kleenex, Puffs, Charmin, Cottonelle, Bounty, and Viva. If you’re skeptical about how the recycled products fare against their virgin counterparts, try them out and decide for yourself how much softness you can sacrifice in the name of the planet. You can’t make an informed decision if you don’t try.
This new year marks the first of a new decade, and an opportunity to make responsible life choices and changes that will affect decades to come. The American Forest and Paper Association reported that from January to November 2010, Americans consumed 7 percent more recovered paper than in the same period of 2009, which is hopeful. Using cloth alternatives—safely and cleanly—is the best alternative to virgin pulp sanitary grade products, but using those made from recycled material is a low-impact-for-you, high-impact-for-the-environment decision. So as you’re making your resolutions this month, consider one for the betterment of the world, as well as your personal life. You’ve got nothing to lose but waste.