Tissue Products: More Sustainable Than You Think

Jun 27, 2019

By Mark Pitts, Executive Director, Printing-Writing, Pulp and Tissue

Many paper industry products are such an imbedded part of our lives that we often take them for granted, but just think about what our lives would be like without the tissue segment of our business.  While paper products are inherently sustainable, the growing circular economy discourse has drawn single-use products like tissues and paper towels into the conversation—and often not in a positive way. However, a closer look at the tissue product sector reveals some interesting sustainability facts that may not be top of mind.

First, consider that tissue products are highly engineered to perform multiple functions at once. Bathroom tissue, for example, must be strong, soft and absorbent enough to perform its primary purpose, yet break down in a matter of seconds to pass through wastewater systems.

To make products that perform according to a wide range of functions and align with consumer needs, paper towel and tissue manufacturers must use the appropriate mix of wood fiber pulp and recovered paper, as each brings different properties to the table. Achieving ultra-softness and absorbency, for instance, requires the use of fresh fiber. U.S. manufacturers are committed to responsible and sustainable wood fiber sourcing. As part of an overall paper industry sustainability goal, paper towel and tissue producers are continually increasing the amount of fiber procured from certified forestlands and through certified fiber sourcing programs.    

Did you know that tissue manufacturers are major consumers of recovered paper? Few people realize that in 2018 tissue manufacturers consumed 4.4 million tons of recovered paper to make new tissue products. In fact, according to Fisher International, North American tissue manufacturers utilize a greater proportion of recycled fiber in their products than those made in Europe and Asia. That’s a good reminder that the tissue sector is doing its part to use recovered paper in products when it makes economic and environmental sense to do so.

Tissue products also contribute to a dimension of sustainability rarely talked about: the social pillar of sustainability. Yes, these products may be intended to be used only once, but for that very reason they provide hygiene benefits, preventing the spread of germs and illness, which results in extending human health. Supporting healthy communities and improving the quality of life are sustainability benefits to society that are easily overlooked.

Consumers now have a wider range of options than ever before when considering what kind of tissue product meets their needs best. Preferences for softness, strength, absorbency, recycled content and price point can all be fulfilled among the various brands available today.

As conversations about product lifecycles and the circular economy evolve, it is worth considering not only how many times a product can be used, but how it contributes to the overall environmental, economic and social pillars we use to define sustainability.

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The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) serves to advance a sustainable U.S. pulp, paper, packaging, tissue and wood products manufacturing industry through fact-based public policy and marketplace advocacy. AF&PA member companies make products essential for everyday life from renewable and recyclable resources and are committed to continuous improvement through the industry’s sustainability initiative — Better Practices, Better Planet 2020. The forest products industry accounts for approximately four percent of the total U.S. manufacturing GDP, manufactures nearly $300 billion in products annually and employs approximately 950,000 men and women. The industry meets a payroll of approximately $55 billion annually and is among the top 10 manufacturing sector employers in 45 states. Visit AF&PA online at afandpa.org or follow us on Twitter @ForestandPaper.