Toilet Paper Problem: Good Raw Material Being Wiped Out

A shortage of high-quality paper for recycling could mean scratchy toilet tissue. To keep consumers happy and avoid any chafed rear ends, companies are now on a quest to find new paper supplies, according to an article in the current issue of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN).

The problem: Consumers once could fill up large bins with their recycled newspapers, magazines and print paper. But as electronic communication surges, these sources of recycled paper are becoming scarce.

The shortage could impact those who choose toilet paper with a bulky amount of recycled material, but most household tissue products contain very little recycled paper, according to WWF, an international environmental organization.

For those who prefer the eco-brands, high-end choices are more than about status. High-quality paper contains long cellulose fibers with intact cell walls, so it can be used to make high-end products, including toilet paper. The gold standard is virgin pulp from newly harvested trees, whose fibers are long and strong. Each time that paper gets recycled, the fibers become shorter and weaker, with lower-quality brown paper producing recycled material with the shortest, weakest fibers.

One green-products company, Seventh Generation, is already feeling the heat. The Vermont-based company has had to extend beyond its normal paper mills to find the best recycled paper.

"We want a recycled paper that has certain quality," Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at the company, told C&EN. "We look for the longest fiber possible for strength and absorbency, and as flexible a fiber as possible so toilet tissue is soft."

In addition to the paper chase, chemical companies are developing new coatings and other additives that can improve the softness, strength and performance of recycled paper.

Live Science Staff
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