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Published: Monday, 10/5/2009

Really, Mr. Whipple, recycled toilet paper?

A BATTLE of sorts has been under way on the sidelines away from news-grabbing daily headlines. It is the battle about how we wipe our behinds.

On one hand are the manufacturers of toilet paper who, in response to the public demand, produce the softest and fluffiest toilet paper.

On the other are environmentalists appalled about the gradual loss of the world's ancient forests for a transitory comfort and pleasure of indulging ourselves. Have we become, the question is asked, like the story of the princess and the pea, too soft and indulgent?

Toilet paper and facial tissue account for 5 percent of the forest-product industry in the United States. Paper and cardboard packaging accounts for 20 percent and newspapers a mere 3 percent. The rest are nonpaper products.

We have come a long way in refining the methods to clean ourselves. The Romans used an L-shaped stick, made of wood and even precious metals and resembling a hockey stick in shape, but not in size.

At different times people used sponges, sand, powdered bricks, small chunks of earth, corncobs, and, of course, water. A great majority in the world still relies on many of these items, but water remains the most popular and commonly used.

Paper, in one form or another, has been with us from the days of ancient Egypt 3,500 years before the birth of Christ. Its present incarnation dates back to the late 15th century.

Toilet paper was invented around 1880, but its price was out of reach for most Americans who continued to use whatever paper they could find - old letters (pity the sender), envelopes, paper bags, and scrap paper.

Many old folks still remember, not too fondly I must add, Sears Roebuck catalogues in their outhouses.

The demand for softer and luxurious toilet paper has been increasing steadily as luxury goods have come within the reach of most Americans.

In somewhat amusing toilet paper commercials a few decades ago, Mr. Whipple, the fictional general store manager, admonished us not to squeeze the Charmin because it was so soft.

That frame of mind gave way to the three-ply Quilted Northern Ultra Plush in lieu of a less soft and a bit courser earlier variety. But this comfort and luxury comes at a steep environmental cost.

In this country, an average person uses 100 rolls of toilet paper every year. Translated in environmental terms, each one of us consumes about five full-grown trees to do the job with comfort.

Each sheet of toilet paper is a web of wood fibers. The older the tree, the longer, smoother, and more supple the web and thus the fluffier and softer the product.

Toilet paper made of recycled materials - magazines, newspapers, computer printouts - have shorter fibers and thus a courser texture. It is also true of wood from newer and younger trees.

There has been an alarming disappearance of forests in the world. Other than losing the aesthetic beauty, forests also absorb carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, the shrinking habitat and disappearance of the ecosystem have a direct effect on wildlife. It is particularly true of caribou, bears, and migratory birds in Canadian boreal forests. Canadian forests are the main source of older trees for the toilet paper industry.

The struggle between the industry and environmental groups has had some positive results. Greenpeace has been in the forefront of campaigning to have the industry use more recycled and thus environmentally friendly ingredients to manufacture toilet paper.

After more than four years, Greenpeace called off its "Kleercut" campaign against Kimberly Clark, the makers of Kleenex and Cottonelle toilet paper.

+In return, the company agreed to use recycled paper and sustainable forests for 40 percent of its fibers by 2011.

In the final analysis, consumers would have to accept the change. For some, it would be akin to a lifestyle change. But in comparison to the rest of the world, we do consume and waste an awful lot of resources.

The simplest solution would be to use a bidet, a common fixture in France, or to install a hose with a small shower head by the toilet, a common toilet accessory in Arab and Muslim countries. It would not only cut down on the consumption of paper, it would feel much cleaner as well.

There are many brands of recycled toilet paper on the market. Some are good and strong but not very comfortable.

One of my cynical friends would not even think of switching to less plush brands. To him, all recycled toilet paper could be labeled as the John Wayne brand because "they are rough, they are tough, and they don't take no s---."

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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