Kimberly-Clark, the maker of pretty much all the softest TP we've heard of, has been targeted for years by the NRDC regarding its wood pulp sourcing for a throw-away product that is used for just seconds. About 12-15% of fluffy TP comes from old-growth trees in Canada, and healthy standing forest ecosystems in the southern US. These are active ecosystems that are home to a complex web of species that are cut down so we can wipe our butts. Sure, many of them are replanted after the companies have devastated the area, but have you ever seen a forest before and after clear-cutting? It's ugly and depressing.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
TP’s Sustainable History
In the past, (and commonly today, in developing nations) people used their hands and water after they did their 1′s and 2′s – and in fact some still regard TP as less clean than a good post-loo wash (hence, bidets). But people have used all kinds of methods to keep clean: ancient Romans used a sponge on a stick that was kept in salt water near the privy, and Inuits used moss in the warmer seasons and snow when it blanketed the ground. Brits used discarded sheep’s wool and native Hawaiians used coconut shells. Most famously, in the United States, the Sears & Roebuck catalog and corn cobs took the place of the TP we now use.
The first purposeful manufacture of toilet paper was in China. According to Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1, Paper and Printing by Joseph Needham, “During the early 14th century (Yuan Dynasty) it was recorded that in modern-day Zhejiang province alone there was an annual manufacturing of toilet paper amounting in ten million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets of toilet paper each.”
The first toilet paper in the US was made from off-white hemp paper and began selling much later in human history – not until 1857: “Geyetty’s Medicated Paper—a perfectly pure article for the toilet and for the prevention of piles” was a Victorian-era upper class staple. Later, as costs went down and a process was developed for processing tissue (following on the heels of more efficient manufacture of newsprint – insert journalism joke here), toilet paper became available to everyone at an affordable price.