Six Reasons Why Fancy TP is No Big Deal

Well, an article in the October 2, 2009 issue of The Week caught my attention. It’s titled “Soft toilet paper: Environmental threat?” If you’re not familiar with The Week, it draws from multiple sources to give an idea of the news and opinions currently filling newspapers, magazines, and our airwaves.

One of the sources quoted is David Fahrenthold in The Washington Post. In his article, Environmentalists Seek to Wipe Out Plush Toilet Paper he writes:

Environmental groups say … [using soft toilet paper constitutes a] dark-comedy example of American excess … [because] plush U.S. toilet paper is usually made by chopping down and grinding up trees that were decades or even a century old.

Faithful Timberati readers know I’ve written about this tempest in a toilet bowl before (see Toilet paper, hummers, and global warming oh my!).

1. Old-growth trees are not cut down to be made into paper … tissue or otherwise.

My reading of this kerfuffle is that people seem to think paper companies hew massively majestic over-mature trees to be chipped directly into paper. Such is not the case. Tight grained, knot free wood does not go for such low-profit ends. That is akin to using filet mignon for generic dog food.

“[Fifteen] percent of the wood harvested is used to manufacture pulp and paper mainly for printing, packaging, and sanitary purposes. Fully half of this wood is derived from the wastes from the sawmills which produce the solid wood products for building. Most of the remaining supply is from tree plantations many of which are established on land that was previously cleared for agriculture. So even if we did stop using wood to make pulp and paper it would not have the effect of ‘saving’ many forests.”

— Co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore

So while the chips used for pulping may come from an over-mature tree, the tree itself was not harvested expressly for paper; its wood went into furniture and dimension lumber. Then the end-pieces and sawdust from the mill went to the secondary market for pulping.

2. Fiber length hinges more on species than on age.

Fiber length is an issue because longer fibers make softer paper. David Frielander at says that paper companies use old growth because, “Old growth and virgin fibers are longer than recycled ones.”  This is true as far as it goes. True, tracheid cells (the fibers) increase with age, yet the species and even the cell’s position on the tree factor much more in the final result.1 (to read David Frielander’s post see Plush Toilet Paper: Soft on Your Butt, Hard on the Environment)

Within every tree are fibers of differing length, some shorter than average for their species and some longer than average for their species; it all depends on the position in the tree. A 25 year-old Pinus caribaea has longer tracheids (2.34 mm average fiber length)2 than a 50 year-old Eucalyptus regnans (0.80mm average fiber length).3

3. It’s a safe bet virgin fibers didn’t come from virgin tracts.

Virgin fibers are fibers that have not yet seen their first pulping process. Yes, virgin fibers average longer than recycled ones. That’s because recycling breaks fibers during the process of making new paper. But “virgin fiber” is not synonymous with fibers from primary forests4 and it’s definitely not synonymous with “old growth” (see the point above). Virgin fiber, as far as the paper process is concerned, is that fiber coming directly from a cellulose producing plant.

4. Fibers from old trees doesn’t necessarily equal old-growth.

There seems to be a trend to label second-growth and even third-growth stands as “old growth” because they happen to past middle age for the average American. You can see such a conflation in David Fahrenthold’s Washington Post piece, “… trees that were decades or even a century.” Up to a century is not terribly long in most forestry circles (New Zealand being a notable exception). You might say, foresters think in quarter centuries not quarters.

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension defines old-growth as “Trees that have been growing for such a long time that net growth or value is often declining.” Therefore, old-growth forest stands are so old they have numerous afflictions: rots, dead trees, broken tops, fire scars, etc. Yet, for purposes of pulping, older just means no longer a sapling.

For more information on old-growth forests see Old Growth Forests and Ancient Woodlands.

5. There is more variation between species than between over-mature and young-growth trees.

As you have read, not all trees have the same properties, partly because fiber length varies by species and partly the fact tracheid length varies by the location on the bole: whether it’s in the circumference and whether it’s above or below midway up the tree.

6. It’s okay, tissue paper accounts for only five-percent of the forest products market.

As noted before here, most of the material, in fact fully half, comes from scraps in the milling process not useable for higher end uses: sawdust and end pieces. The rest usually comes from tree plantations. I wonder if any of the quibblers are in bed with Big Bidet?


Facts won’t stop this debate and that’s unfortunate. Our goal should be sustainability and a balance. And rather than consider and discuss the balance point and how to stay there, we  hear quibbles about truly weird sh*t.

Literature cited

1. Source: Panshin, A. J., De Zeeuw, C. 1970. Textbook of wood Technology Volume 1. Pp 164-245

2. Source: Oluwafemi, O. A. 2007. Wood Properties and Selection for Rotation Length in Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea Morclet) Grown in Afaka, Nigeria. Pp 350-362

3. Source: Panshin, A. J., De Zeeuw, C. 1970. Textbook of wood Technology Volume 1. Pp 164-245

4. “Forest/Other wooded land of native species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.” United Nations, Food And Agriculture Organization.

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