In the “what will they think of next” category, Scott Paper Company just announced the introduction of a new tube-free toilet paper. The innovation, which is the result of a proprietary winding process, eliminates the cardboard roll that has formed the core of the roll since 1880. According to information from Kimberly Clark, who also makes Kleenex, 17 billion paper toilet paper tubes are produced every year in the US. If my math is right, that’s about 56 rolls per person. That sounds a little high to me, but then again, I’m a guy.
All those tubes result in eighty thousand tons of trash, or enough to make one tube a million miles long. I wonder if you could use it to play “telephone” with someone a million miles away.
I recycle my tubes. But according to Doug Daniels, brand manager at Kimberly-Clark, parent company of Scott Tissue, “most consumers toss rather than recycle used tubes.” Come on people, get with it. Next time you change over your roll, think about that million mile long tube. I mean, really, even if we cut it down by three-quarters, it will still be long enough to reach the moon.
In case you’re wondering, the first commercial toilet paper is said to have been used in China in the year 1391, when the Bureau of Imperial Supplies produced 720,000 sheets a year for the emperors. Each sheet was three feet long and two feet wide. I guess if you’re making toilet paper for the emperor, it’s better to err on the side of too big than too small.
The new tubeless paper will initially be rolled out in Sam’s Clubs and Walmarts in the Northeast, and priced the same as regular rolls. According to Daniels, “Consumers don’t want to compromise to do something good for the environment, they’re not there yet.”
The new rolls are undoubtedly greener, though perhaps not as green as they could be. The paper itself is does not contain recycled content and the wrappers are plastic, which is not recyclable.
But Kimberly Clark, has done a fair amount of homework on this.
They offer a Scott Naturals line of toilet tissue, which has 40% recycled content. Their slogan is “Green Done Right,” claiming that these products use just the right amount of recycled fiber to allow them to perform, “the way you need them to.”
They also offer a “Smart Flush Bag,” free with the purchase of some large packages of toilet tissues. The bag, which is placed in the toilet tank, expands under water to about a liter, displacing enough water to save a typical family of four some 2000 gallons of water per year.
In April 2008, the company had a life-cycle assessment (LCA) report performed on a number of their products, including toilet tissue. The study set out to answer three basic questions:
- Is the use of either recycled or virgin fiber environmentally preferable?
- Are there opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts associated with tissue manufacture and use?
- How meaningful are the environmental impacts associated with tissue products throughout their lifecycle?
The peer-reviewed study looked at air pollution impacts (including greenhouse gas emissions, acid rain, toxicity and more), water pollution (including eutrophication and water consumption), non-renewable resource depletion and waste.
What they found was that there was no significant overall difference between the use of recycled vs. virgin fiber, though recycled fiber was more favorable in terms of human toxicity, while virgin fiber used less fossil fuels and had a lower impact on water quality. There was no appreciable difference between the two, in terms of water usage or waste produced. The study did not evaluate the idea of a tube-free roll, though that idea might have emerged from evaluating the results. We can safely assume that there would be both environmental and economic benefits across the board as a result of eliminating the roll, though those were not made available.
Downside? Well, the rolls were handy for arts and crafts projects and hamsters love them.
But don’t worry, I’m sure that it won’t be long before you see them for sale in the stores, courtesy of the invisible hand of the marketplace in action.
RP Siegel is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though can we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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