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YES! But How? :: Paper v. Cloth

Does buying recycled household-paper products make that much of a difference? Are there any better alternatives?

Recycled Paper Photo by CreativeZazz

Photo by CreativeZazz

Most household paper products—paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, and napkins—are made of virgin pulp harvested from the Canadian boreal forest or from ecologically damaging monoculture tree farms in the Southeast. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “If every household in the United States replaced just one package of virgin-fiber napkins (250-count) with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 1 million trees.” So, the short answer is, yes, purchasing recycled household-paper products appears to be a good choice.

It’s surprisingly affordable, too. Contrary to popular belief, some recycled household paper products can be found for roughly the same price as their non-recycled competitors.

But finding the recycled symbol (whose use is poorly regulated) isn’t the end of the story. First, choose products with high post-consumer recycled content; increased demand for these products helps encourage and sustain recycling programs. Second, check to see if the product has been bleached. Bright whites come from chlorine, which can be harmful to streams and rivers, killing fish and disrupting aquatic ecosystems. Look for products labeled totally chlorine-free (TCF) or processed chlorine-free (PCF).

If you aren’t quite sold on the environmental perks of recycled products or doubt their durability, try cloth. Although its production makes considerable demands on the environment, cloth allows multiple uses and eliminates the plastic packaging associated with disposable paper products. And if you throw your dirty rags in with the rest of your laundry and line dry them, the environmental impact of cleaning cloth is negligible. When possible, choose linen over cotton, as the cultivation of flax requires less water and fewer pesticides.

For more information on the environmental impact of household-paper products, visit treehugger.com and nrdc.org.


Keith Rutowski mugKeith Rutowski wrote this article for Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Keith is an editorial intern for YES! Magazine.

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