Sept. 28 2011 12:00 AM

Three weeks ago I discussed the purchase
of coffee, the second most traded commodity in the world. But not
everyone drinks coffee. This time I decided to look into something
everyone reading this does use—toilet paper, one of life’s often
overlooked daily necessities (except when you run out!). We could crack
a few jokes along the way, butt I’ll try to avoid that.

Before I get into the fascinating topic
of toilet paper buying, I should perhaps introduce the idea of “import
substitution” into our shopping mentality. Why import things beyond our
community, state, or national boundaries that we can grow or make here?
More and more restaurants and grocery stores are proclaiming that they
are proud to offer and celebrate locally produced food and beer, with
some products highlighted in the push for “Made in Michigan” or USA.  Ever hear any of them boast about their toilet paper? 

We have numerous forests and
approximately 20 pulp mills in Michigan, including a relatively vibrant
recycled paper industry, so getting paper products made from our own
backyard should be doable. There is no real need for us to export our
dollars to Georgia, Washington, or Ontario to make our toilet paper and
then add all the environmental burdens of shipping it here. By using
our natural resource base wisely we can build jobs and reduce our
impact on the natural world.

There is at least one working paper
tissue mill in Michigan — the Great Lakes Tissue Co. in Cheboygan. They
use 100 percent recycled /20 percent post-consumer pulp (mostly from
juice boxes and plastic coated refrigerated products). They
mechanically remove the plastic and then pulp the fiber for making it
into tissue products. There is no chemical bleaching involved, says
Clarence Roznowski of Great Lakes Tissue, thus the product is PCF:
process chlorine free. But Roznowski says there is no real retail
market for the 100 percent recycled toilet paper because consumers
don’t request it, so most of it is sold either through janitorial
supply outlets (none locally) by the case or more, or directly to big
institutional buyers like universities, school districts and hospitals.

Perusing the shelves at the local
Meijer, Kroger, Target, Foods for Living, East Lansing Food Co-op, and
Gordon’s Food Service we see a range of options. Kroger and Target
offer the usual brands (Cottonelle, Charmin, Angel Soft, Northern,
Scotts,) plus some house brands, but none of these contains recycled
content or any other environmental attributes, at least as noted on the
package. Foods for Living and East Lansing Food Co-op, on the other
hand, each offer multiple options containing only recycled content and
chlorine free processing, and in some cases even the packaging is made
from post-consumer waste (Seventh Generation, Green Forest, and Field
Day). Gordon Food Service carries just one brand — Array— that is
certified with the “Environmental Choice” (Canadian Government)
eco-label. Meijer also offers the standard brands, a house brand and
its own (EcoWise) that shares similar attributes of the Green Forest,
Seventh Generation, and Field Day brands. 

Comparing costs is much trickier because
package sizes vary greatly, as do the lengths of the rolls within them.
Experience also suggests that some brands require fewer sheets to
perform effectively than others. Thus, the best value based simply on
effectiveness requires some testing.

All else being equal, buying local
should be a winner (truth in advertising: I was a key player in the
birth of the Capital Area Local First). So if you want to buy local
(Michigan-made) toilet paper, our work is cut out for us. 

not everything is equal. The production end is very important, but save
the little information on the “greener” products, we know nothing of
the producers of this everyday product. We don’t know anything about
their environmental performance or if they compensate and treat their
employees well or contribute to the communities where they operate. But
we also know little about the performance of the retail establishments
at which we buy the products. Are we so fixated on price that we are
ready to externalize all other costs (to employees, communities,
ecosystems) to others? To make better choices for a sustainable future,
we need better information. Then we need to follow our values. In the
coming columns we’ll look at additional angles on more consumer
products and how to make choices that align more closely to our values,
beyond the retail price.