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How Email Turned the Toilet Paper Industry Upside Down

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A post today on the always-excellent reads:

I'd been wondering if a video like this existed, but I'd never been able to find it before. "Most of us probably take our rolls of toilet paper for granted." I like seeing how the cardboard tubes are made.

Yes, most of us probably do take our toilet paper for granted, even though the average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper a day, about six times the global average.

The average American also insists on ever-softer, ever more-absorbent premium toilet paper like Cottonelle from Kimberly-Clark (KMB), while, in many cases, maintaining a preference for TP made with recycled materials, too.

And thus, the toilet paper industry finds itself at a crossroads -- a difficult situation that some blame on the advent of email, the rise of the Apple (AAPL) iPad, the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle, the Barnes & Noble (BKS) Nook, and products like PowerPoint from Microsoft (MSFT).

How so? According to a report in Chemical and Engineering News, used white paper is “increasingly hard to find and much more costly thanks to growth in electronic communications.”

This is of quite a bit of concern to Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at recycled paper company Seventh Generation, who said, "We want a recycled paper that has certain quality. We look for the longest fiber possible for strength and absorbency, and as flexible a fiber as possible so toilet tissue is soft."

Newly harvested trees provide wood pulp with long, strong fibers. Each time a piece of paper gets recycled, the fibers become shorter and weaker, leading to a rougher product with less tensile strength.

“It certainly is a challenge,” Jeff Landin, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, told me last year. “If you can’t get enough recyclable material, you need more virgin fiber. Everyone wants sustainability, but less paper utilization in the office and at home makes things difficult for paper producers.”

Dr. Alan Button, president of Buttonwood Consulting, a former executive at Georgia Pacific, and vice chairman of the Paper Industry Hall of Fame, explained that the issue isn’t quite as black and white as some have made it out to be.

“While the quantity of office paper being used is going down with the rise in electronic communication, there’s a disconnect no one’s talking about,” he said in a telephone interview. “Most recycled fiber from office paper is not useful for making premium consumer toilet tissue; to get to the level of softness consumers demand, it needs to be made from virgin fiber.”

Button said he has “never run into soft toilet tissue made from recycled fiber,” and notes that there is not a direct link between a lack of commercial office paper available for recycling and cottony recycled toilet paper.

“If manufacturers could get a good, soft post-consumer product that contains those fibers, I’m sure they would,” he said. “It’s clear the marketplace is demanding some level of recycled fiber in their toilet paper.”

Problem is, Button points out, “recycled office paper just really doesn’t make high-quality toilet paper.”

Though, we can all surely remember at least one or two memos that would’ve made perfect TP.
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