Just not green enough

I made a startling discovery yesterday while perusing the site of “The Green Restaurant Association”. This is a great organization that encourages restaurants to become certified “green”. They look at the processes and materials used in the restaurant making sure the business is energy efficient and using eco friendly products. Usually this means greater expense for the restaurant, so being certified green gives them an opportunity to make their efforts known and perhaps reclaim some of these costs in their pricing. Good idea.

What came as a shock was that this association does not consider tree free tissue products “green” enough to qualify for their members since they are “virgin” and not made from recycled paper. Apparently, only tissue products made from wood pulp based recycled material qualify. Huh? I know these are smart and ecologically passionate folks so I figure there must be a logical disconnect somewhere. I also figure if they feel this way then perhaps a lot of people feel this way also.

Armed with my confusion, I decided to roll up my sleeves and figure out where this notion came from and if perhaps they are correct or not.

Current thought leaders approach

I started by looking at the publications of thought leaders in the environmental world.

There are a lot of organizations out there publishing their world view on the tissue product industry and thank goodness for that. I'll reference two. The NRDC focuses their analysis on carbon capture of the end product. SCS Global Services casts a wide net, looking for impacts across a spectrum of environmental issues.

Each organization's analytic approach places recycled feedstock at the top. This choice is flawed (I can state this flatly since, well, it’s my blog). It's easy for recycled feedstock processes to look good next to harvested feedstock sources because the worst part of the processing already occurred and produced the original recycled material. A complete analysis needs to look at the cumulative contribution of past and present processes. An inclusive view of the recycled material stream would drop these processes into the middle of the pack at best. Leaving previous cycles out denies the reality of the feedstock's impact. Recycled materials carry with them their legacy contributions.

Recycled materials would only be thrown away

In this line of thinking, anything you do with used paper is inherently good because it was headed for landfill. This line of reasoning assumes again that there is no environmental cost of creating the original material. Stretching a point to make a point, this is like saying it's fine to purchase baby seal pelts and produce coats because the seals were already dead and there was no sense just throwing away the pelts (OK, this analogy is kind of emotionally loaded and a little unfair but you get my point).

Resource depletion

Resource depletion and habitat destruction are as important as carbon capture. Perhaps more important since forests and habitats take hundreds to thousands of years to regenerate fully. If we change our stance from 100% global warming focus to include forest destruction, then bamboo starts looking pretty importance.

Bamboo and land use efficiency

You'll see from the information below that bamboo is 100x more efficient in growing feedstock than trees. 100x ! We can see why this is critically important when we compare the sustainable forest footprint for a feedstock.
The sustainable forest footprint required to supply the entire US with wood pulp feedstock is 3,500 square miles while a bamboo sustainable footprint is 36 square miles (calculation below).

I think this is a big deal. Please tell me you agree.

Alternative feedstocks reduce the need for tree sourced pulp

Filling the supply chain with alternative feedstock products reduces the overall industrial need for trees. The entire personal tissue market is currently based on trees. Introduction of bamboo pulp will supplant tree pulp and drive forest materials to other uses.


I don't think there is a case for "recycle only" tissue products at the exclusion of alternative feedstock products. Habitat and forest environments are too precious. Bamboo addresses this directly.

Today, just 2% of personal tissue products come from recycled tree based sources. This is not a time for exclusionary activism. The environment is complicated. Having a multiplicity of environmental approaches is healthy. Plus, this market needs all the help it can get.

                           Bamboo background and calculations

I thought I would share a couple of compelling facts about bamboo vs recycled tissue:

* Bamboo and Trees both consume about 10tons of CO2 per acre per year.
* Bamboo creates 35% more Oxygen.
* Farmed trees mature in 40 years while bamboo takes 5 years to mature as a plant and then can grow 90ft every 60 days for 50years.
* In 40 years an acre of trees will produce 36tons of wood.
* In 40 years an acre of bamboo will produce 3500tons of bamboo.
* Bamboo is 97x more efficient than tree production (let's just say 100x).

This is an impressive and important distinction of this plant vs trees.

The often quoted 27,000 trees per day producing toilet paper translates to 57,000 acres per year. A sustainable plot of land for a 40 year growth cycle is 3,560 sq miles.

Since bamboo is renewable every 5 weeks, a 36 sq mile area would suffice.

Sources available upon request (honestly, all this stuff is available on the internet but I do have links if you are interested).


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