The toilet-tissue issue: an environmentalists' dilemma

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The American obsession with super-soft toilet paper may be the pinnacle of consumer silliness. Many people throughout the world use leaves or scrap paper for hygiene; in Europe, the toilet tissue of choice is a scratchy recycled variety. But in America, consumers strenuously defend their right to pillow-soft, "quilted" paper with minimal recycled content. It's expensive, it clogs plumbing, and it's made through long chemical-laden processes. For a certain type of environmentalist, it's the definitive indictment of the American way of life.

Soft toilet tissue arguably has a minor cost, both in terms of price and environmental impact. The long fibers of fresh-cut timber are key to making super-luxurious paper, but toilet and facial tissues account for only 5 percent of the output of the U.S. forest products industry. (Newspapers account for 3 percent.) From this perspective, green activists seem nagging and hectoring when they engage in the toilet-paper debate, although they're trying to advance awareness of real ecological problems.
Both sides of the debate have their merits. A recent Consumer Reports study demonstrated that many recycled brands are demonstrably rougher, and consumers using less environmentally destructive one-ply papers often have to waste more of it. Adding in issues like strength and biodegradability, both the softest and the greenest tissues fell behind in rankings.

This is hardly the first case in which environmental concerns have bumped heads with other issues. In the 1960s, DDT was America's preeminent insecticide and was a major factor in the battle against mosquitos' spread of malaria. But when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring documented DDT's environmental and health dangers, the book inspired a broad-based movement against the compound. Within 10 years of the book's publication, DDT was largely prohibited in the U.S.

The DDT ban reflects America's willingness to change when faced with a crisis. But it also demonstrates the numerous factors that policymakers and consumers must consider when making a drastic shift. There are long-term dangers of DDT exposure, of course, but DDT also helped stifle a far more virulent disease. In Africa, where the extended life cycle of mosquitoes made DDT ineffective, malaria still kills more than 1 million people every year.

Or take the battle over phosphates. In the early 1970s, when drifts of tan phosphate-laden suds blanketed the shores of Lake Erie, a movement to reduce pollution emerged. After years of protesting and lobbying, a series of regulations culminated in the Clean Water Act, which established guidelines for pollutants and designated government funding for wastewater treatment. Lake Erie still suffers from some seasonal pollution problems, but many fish and mussel species have repopulated its waters.

A few decades later, with industrial pollution better addressed, environmentalists shifted their focus to consumer phosphorus usage. In 2008, Washington State started a ban of detergents containing more than 0.5 percent phosphorus -- which led to complaints from citizens in Spokane and Whatcom counties that phosphorus-free detergents weren't cleaning their dishes. Environmental activists say the culprit is hard water -- and ignore the fact that phosphorus-laden detergents can help mitigate this problem. Many residents of the two counties, faced with choosing between spotty dishes and expensive water softeners, began smuggling phosphate detergents across the state line from Idaho. As journalist Jonathan Bardelline wryly noted: "When phosphates are outlawed, only outlaws will use phosphates."

As the DDT ban and Lake Erie recovery demonstrate, environmental movements can have massively positive effects. But when activists and policymakers move their focus from industry to consumers, it's vital to balance the positive effects of any course of action against potential lifestyle costs. Washington's move to eliminate phosphorus begat an illegal detergent-smuggling network. Today's toilet-paper debate threatens to spur a divisive battle over a market segment that represents a small segment of the U.S. forest-products industry's output. As the green movement scolds consumers over their toilet paper, the benefits to the environment may be badly overshadowed by the costs to the activists' public image, and thus their effectiveness.

In both the Washington State phosphate ban and the toilet tissue tiff, there is a third option. Significant subsidies for hard water treatment would let consumers choose clean dishes and environmental responsibility. Similarly, further development of super-soft, environmentally responsible toilet paper would let customers pair clean bodies with clean consciences. When it comes to the greening of America, the key ultimately lies in respecting lifestyle choices while offering environmentally responsible options.

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