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Paradox: Extremes

Tissue products have the highest average recycled content in the paper industry - nearly 60% - yet the most prominent, highly advertised consumer brands are made from 100% virgin forest fiber.

At Home (Consumer, Retail) Tissue Markets

Consumer tissue, sold in supermarkets, variety stores and pharmacies, makes up about two-thirds of tissue production, yet less than 30% of these products have any recycled fiber. Even those with recycled are not likely to identify their environmental content.

Why? We hear conflicting reasons:

A. Manufacturers think customers don't care about environmental content.

B. At the same time, manufacturers think that many customers would avoid recycled content if they knew about it for fear it is not clean enough.

So let's get this ridiculous myth out of the way right now!

Q: Is recycled content tissue made from used toilet paper that's been recycled?

A: Are you kidding?!? Think that one through for a minute. Where does used toilet paper go? Right . . . down the sewer to sewage plants, where it turns into sewage sludge. Some sewage sludge may be composted for fertilizer and soil amendments. But it does not get made into paper or tissue. It cannot be used to make paper or tissue. NONE of it is turned back into paper or tissue. Recycled content tissue products are made from recovered office papers.

Q: Okay, but couldn't those have something pretty nasty in them that could end up in the tissue I use to wipe my baby's nose?

A: The deinking process that turns recovered office paper into recycled fibers for use in new papers is a heavy-duty washing, scrubbing and screening process. Those office papers are dumped into huge vats, similar to several-stories-tall washing machines, where surfactants (specialized detergents) wash and scrub the papers apart.

Inks are floated to the top of the vat, where they are skimmed off. Heavier non-fiber materials in the paper (such as paper clips and staples) are swirled through centrifugal force and shoved through smaller and smaller screens to separate them from the fibers and send them out of the system as waste. (Different deinking configurations vary in how they separate the fibers from the rest of the paper, but all achieve the same results.)

Recycled fibers are washed and scrubbed and washed and scrubbed and screened and washed again over and over before they get to the papermaking machine. They're probably a whole lot cleaner than your baby's nose (but surely not as cute).

Look at it this way: You are using recycled fiber tissue at schools, offices, hotels, hospitals, sports stadiums, airports and just about every other public venue. So why be concerned about using it at home?

Why the difference in recycled content between the Away from Home and the At Home/Consumer market? Simple: advertising that influences consumer choice. Not only does the paper industry not see recycled content as a positive advertising attribute, they worry that it is negative.

Keep in mind, also, that "premium" brands, virtually all of which are 100% virgin forest fiber, include enhancements such as air fluffing that are not done with most of the "value" brands, which happen to be the ones most likely to include recycled content. Many of the differences consumers may perceive between products have to do with these enhancements, not whether or not the product has recycled content.

The Recycled Content Tissue Bogeyman! (But Trees, Too!)

Where does this fear come from? Most likely, it goes back to advertisements for the first toilet tissue introduced by Scott Paper Company in 1913. (1000 sheet rolls for 10 each!) At the time, toilet tissue was considered a medical item and was advertised as such.

For example, a 1931 Scott Paper ad featuring scary surgical instruments promised relief from "Toilet Tissue Illness" if customers used ScotTissue or Waldorf brands, which were promised to be safe from "harsh, chemically impure toilet tissue - made from reclaimed waste material."

A 1933 ad diagnosed a schoolgirl, "Mary," who "was so fidgety she couldn't concentrate," as suffering from the effects of "harsh toilet tissue." A few days of treatment with ScotTissue and "Mary's trouble had entirely disappeared." (Could we be on to something, with today's high rates of childhood ADHD?)

It wasn't always recycled content that caused the problems, though. Other ads promoted toilet tissues that were "splinter-free," a claim that seems to have fallen by the wayside despite the fact that the big brands are still made from wood.

Consumer Market for Tissue

Four major paper producers control nearly three-quarters of the entire North American tissue market and over 40% of the world market.

Top 4 World Tissue Producers
(Consumer and Commercial)

Tissue Producers
World Market Share
North American Market Share
Procter & Gamble
Source: Pulp & Paper/Paperloop, Global Fact & Price Book 2003


In fact, three of these top tissue producers also control more than two-thirds of the U.S. consumer market overall, including more than 80% of paper towels and 85% of bath tissue:

  • Georgia-Pacific, the largest tissue producer in the world, corners nearly 35% of the North American tissue market (both at-home and away-from-home), with dominance in at-home consumer bath tissue.
  • Procter & Gamble controls nearly 15% of the North American market overall, but more than 25% of at-home consumer bath tissue and nearly 40% of the paper towel market.
  • Kimberly-Clark controls close to 20% of the North American market overall, but over a quarter of at-home consumer bath tissue and over half of consumer facial tissue.

U.S. Consumer
Bath Tissue Market

Georgia-Pacific 33.0%
Procter & Gamble 26.4%
Kimberly-Clark 26.0%
Source: Pulp & Paper/Paperloop, North American Factbook 2002


U.S. Consumer
Paper Towel Market

Procter & Gamble 38.1%
Georgia-Pacific 24.3%
Kimberly-Clark 18.2%
Source: Pulp & Paper/Paperloop, North American Factbook 2002



The marketing of consumer brand tissue often defies environmental reason, considering the disposable nature of the product. While the paper industry in general does little public advertising, its one exception is tissue, which spends enormous effort on simple brand loyalty. Babies, kittens, fluffy bears and other cute and cuddly images are used to sell products based on softness, absorbency, appearance and branding. Procter & Gamble even bought television ads for its Charmin-brand bath tissue during the high-priced Super Bowl telecast. And now premium tissue producers are looking to gain more market share with added features such as scented tissues, tissue with lotion added and premoistened tissues and towels.

After extensive discussions with tissue paper manufacturers, we found that consumer products such as bath tissue and paper towels generally fall into one of the following three categories.

100% Virgin Forest Fiber Products Dominate Consumer Market

A number of the leading companies' premium flagship brands have zero recycled content, a fact that they often proudly proclaim.


Consumer Tissue Brands with 100% Virgin Forest Fiber Content

Bath Tissue Charmin
(Procter & Gamble)
Angel Soft
Paper Towels Bounty
(Procter & Gamble)
Facial Tissues Kleenex
(Procter & Gamble)
Source: Conservatree Interviews and Research 2004


When pressed on environmental questions, some of these producers point out that the cores used in the centers of their bath tissue and towel products are made from recycled fiber. The cores used by Procter & Gamble, for instance, are made from recycled fiber produced at a non-P&G paperboard mill. Likewise, Kimberly-Clark points out that the boxes used for Kleenex facial tissue are made from recycled paperboard. Charmin has recently begun advertising that it is so absorbent that fewer sheets of tissue are needed, most likely a selling point for cost-conscious consumers but also possibly a nod to source reduction, although it's questionable whether consumers will actually use less. Given the disposable nature of tissue products, these types of claims are not anywhere near enough for meeting environmental responsibility.

Note that Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific have other tissue brands with recycled content. Their premium brands could, too!

An interesting perspective on the marketing of branded virgin tissue is put forward by Jed Ela, an artist and entrepreneur who markets his own brand of 100% recycled content bath tissue called - no kidding! - ShitBegone.

Possible Recycled Content But Unwilling To Identify It

These are most likely to be the "value" or non-premium brands. While some are not identified because of manufacturers' concern over customers' perceptions of recycled content, more are likely to lack identification because their contents regularly change. They may be produced by converters who buy large rolls of tissue to cut and package into private label brands. As a commodity item from various sources, some of their suppliers use recycled content, others don't. They can't, or don't want to, guarantee specific content requirements.

Yet some in our Champions list below also buy from converters, but require them to meet their environmental specifications. Consumer demand could convince the "hem-n-hawers" to require recycled content, too.

The Champions - Using Environmental Contents and Proud of It! - See Conservatree's List!

Manufacturers such as Marcal, Cascades, Atlantic Packaging, Bay West, and Atlas Paper Mills. as well as private label retailers such as Seventh Generation and Planet Inc., make high recycled content tissue paper available to consumers.


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