Dead-Tree Hypocrisy

The Times chides Americans for their tree-killing "obsession" with soft toilet tissue: "But fluffiness comes at a price." So, how many trees have to die to churn out one million editions of the Times every day?

Reporter Leslie Kaufman, who works for apaper thatprints over one million copies every day, lectured Americans for using wastefully cushy toilet paper in Thursday's "What Mr. Whipple Didn't Say: Softer Paper Is Costly to Forests."

Americans like their toilet tissue soft: exotic confections that are silken, thick and hot-air-fluffed.

The national obsession with soft paper has driven the growth of brands like Cottonelle Ultra, Quilted Northern Ultra and Charmin Ultra - which in 2008 alone increased its sales by 40 percent in some markets, according to Information Resources, Inc., a marketing research firm.

But fluffiness comes at a price: millions of trees harvested in North America and in Latin American countries, including some percentage of trees from rare old-growth forests in Canada. Although toilet tissue can be made at similar cost from recycled material, it is the fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel, and most large manufacturers rely on them.

Naturally, America is to blame:

In the United States, which is the largest market worldwide for toilet paper, tissue from 100 percent recycled fibers makes up less than 2 percent of sales for at-home use among conventional and premium brands. Most manufacturers use a combination of trees to make their products. According to RISI, an independent market analysis firm in Bedford, Mass., the pulp from one eucalyptus tree, a commonly used tree, produces as many as 1,000 rolls of toilet tissue. Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per capita a year.

Other countries are far less picky about toilet tissue. In many European nations, a rough sheet of paper is deemed sufficient. Other countries are also more willing to use toilet tissue made in part or exclusively from recycled paper.

Questions not answered in the paper's latest example of obsessive environmentalism: How many trees have to die every year for the Times to print one million copies of its daily edition and 1.5 million of its Sunday behemoth? And how much recycling takes place in the process? After all, newsprint is notoriously costly to recycle. An earnest ecology blogger from (yes) Berkeley contacted the Times and was disappointed with the figures she got back:

...only the NY Times had gotten back to me, stating that the paper they use ranges from 21 to 28% recycled content. The ambiguity of that statement is that they consider waste paper from their plants to be recycled content, which obfuscates the question as to whether it is post-consumer fiber or not (and they didn't answer my question on post-consumer fiber).

If the Times seriously wants to get rid of cushy toilet paper, it should be proactive and offer its readers other sanitary choices. And haven't we all imagined alternative uses for our daily Times?