Is Your iPad Making Toilet Paper Scratchier?

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Last year, the New York Times reported on the staggering environmental impact of making super-soft toilet paper from virgin forests. But now, according to this week’s cover story in Chemical & Engineering News, it’s getting harder to make soft TP out of recycled paper: As consumers ditch magazines, newspapers, and paper bills in favor of the electronic versions, companies that produce recycled paper products are facing a shortage of raw materials.

One major problem is offices are using less white paper—which is coveted by producers of recycled toilet paper because its long fibers make for a softer product. That means manufacturers are now using lower-quality recycled paper, so the fibers are shorter and produce a rougher product—and the more times paper gets recycled, the shorter those fibers become. The challenge, then, is for companies to figure out how to do more with less:

Chemical companies that supply papermakers with bleaching and processing aids are introducing new products to make those fibers go further. The best of them also reduce costs by helping paper mills recycle water and save energy.

The pulp and paper industry is one of the largest consumers of chemicals in North America, according to the market research firm Frost & Sullivan. Every ton of paper and paperboard produced requires 600 lb of basic and specialty chemicals. Most paper chemicals firms offer a wide range of products, from commodities such as hydrogen peroxide to process chemicals including enzymes, biocides, and defoamers to functional aids such as sizing chemicals, coatings, and binders.

So either you destroy virgin forests to make a really soft non-recycled TP, or you pump a ton of chemicals into recycled paper to make the short-fibered stuff easier on our backsides. All of which has me wondering: Could we learn to live with a little scratchiness?

Via fellow MoJo staffer and sometimes Blue Marble contributor Stephanie Volkoff Green.

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