The next environmental battlefield

Led by activist and writer Bill McKibben last Saturday, people around the world, including me, spent a part of our day focused on the number 350. The goal was to raise awareness of our belief that we have to act now to stop global climate change by decreasing the number of carbon-dioxide particles in the atmosphere from 389 per million, where we are now, to 350. Some of the activities were more practical than others, but all were well-intentioned.

Few of the activities, however, focused on what David Fahrenthold recently suggested in a terrific article in The Washington Post might be one of the next environmental battlefields: soft toilet paper.

Anytime anyone talks about toilet paper, my ears perk up. This is not simply because I have the emotional maturity of a 5-year-old — though I do. It’s because years ago when I worked in advertising, one of my accounts was the Scott Paper Company, now a part of Kimberly-Clark. That means that I spent more time than most people focused on what consumers really want in their toilet paper. I still watch the YouTube video showing how Consumer Reports tests toilet paper the way some people savor “American Idol.”

Don’t worry, the video is not nearly as bad as it sounds. A lot of the footage shows lead pellets being dropped on wet tissue and sheets being swirled in tornado-like funnels of water to see how quickly they dissolve. A good sheet of bathroom tissue is strong enough to do what it’s supposed to do, but not so strong that it will cause — to quote the video — “unnecessary plumbing issues.”

When I was in advertising, I was actually a part of what was called a bathroom tissue business-building team. One of our big ideas? What would happen if we placed toilet paper dispensers beside urinals in airports? Would men use the stuff the way women did? If so, then we were going to sell a lot more bathroom tissue. The experiment never happened, but a friend of mine who still works in marketing remains convinced we were ahead of our time and someday men will be racing through airport restrooms and viewing urinals without toilet paper the way today we view outhouses without Sears catalogs.

I’m not so sure, especially now that we understand that consumption for the sake of consumption is making the planet old before its time. Let’s face it, outhouse gases are nothing compared to greenhouse gases.

Likewise, some luxuries are more senseless than others, and according to a number of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace, soft bathroom tissue is one of those small extravagances that may be damaging the atmosphere. How? It’s not simply that the softer tissue is less likely to be made from recycled products; it’s also that quilted toilet paper is soft in part because of fibers harvested from gigantic old growth trees. One article on the Greenpeace Web site argues that destroying a forest to make toilet paper is dumber than driving a Hummer.

Now, does this mean that we all should move from super soft tissue to sandpaper? No. But of all the places where a small sacrifice can make a big difference, this may be one. There are definite environmental benefits to recycled bathroom tissue.

Still, there were few public events last Saturday that were centered on toilet paper — at least in my neighborhood. To wit, I didn’t see rallies on my block for recycled bathroom tissue or demands that rolls come with exactly 350 sheets. There may have been some private protests in private bathrooms, but even I don’t need to know those details. But that doesn’t mean that here isn’t a largely effortless way we can help save the planet — a single sheet at a time.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on November 1, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.