Cold and flu season seems an appropriate time to investigate our habit of using disposable pieces of paper made from trees to wipe our runny noses.
This first of two posts investigates the history of paper facial tissue and its environmental impact. The second post will examine green alternatives.
Paper Facial Tissue History
Early people most likely wiped their noses on the back of their hands, clothing, or both. Some still do.
Using a separate piece of cloth to wipe your nose may have originated during the Roman Empire when people are said to have used linen cloths to wipe their faces and noses. Fast forward to the 16th century when Europeans repurposed the kerchief, a cloth used as a head covering, as a cloth for wiping hands, faces, and noses. Thus the handkerchief was born and is still in use today.
What Does World War I Have to Do with Facial Tissue
Prior to World War I, creped cellulose wadding was developed in Europe as a cotton substitute. Kimberly-Clark brought the idea to the U.S. in 1914 and trademarked the material under the name Cellucotton. During a World War I cotton shortage, Kimberly-Clark convinced the U.S. military to use Cellucotton for surgical dressings and gas mask filters. After the war ended, Kimberly-Clark was faced with finding a new market for their cotton substitute material.
If at First, You Don’t Succeed, Try Again
During the 1920s, Kimberly-Clark developed a smooth, soft tissue paper. The first consumer product created with this material was a feminine sanitary napkin marketed under the name Kotex. Apparently, it was not readily accepted by American women. Perhaps they were embarrassed to be seen buying such an intimate product along with their groceries. Kotex did eventually catch on but in the meantime, Kimberly-Clark needed another product that used tissue paper.
The next venture was a disposable facial tissue for women to wipe off cold cream when they were removing their makeup. It was trademarked Kleenex and launched in 1924.
A Kimberly-Clark researcher with hay fever contributed to Kleenex sales doubling in the 1930s. He used Kleenex tissues instead of cloth handkerchiefs and convinced the marketing team to advertise Kleenex as a way to avoid spreading germs, “the handkerchief you can throw away.” This clever advertising approach elevated Kleenex from being a niche product for women to a universal product that could be used by men, women, and children.
Competition and Product Enhancements
Other companies entered the disposable facial tissue market like Puffs, Scotties, and Angel Soft but the name Kleenex became synonymous with facial tissue.
Over the past seven decades, facial tissue manufacturers have tried a number of product improvements to increase sales and market share such as adding colors, patterns, scents, lotions, and even germ-fighting agents. Other advancements include providing a variety of package sizes, creating designer dispenser boxes, and introducing tissues with recycled paper content.
Paper Facial Tissue Environmental Impact
Americans use upwards of 255,360,000,000 disposable facial tissues a year (yep, billions).1 That’s just in the U.S. The global demand for tissue paper (facial tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins) is expected to grow 4% every year through 2021 with China accounting for just over 40% of the growth, followed by Latin America (15%), Western Europe (11–12%), and the rest of the world.2
Let’s consider facial tissue for a moment.
Trees: regardless of whether the facial tissue you buy is made from virgin or recycled paper pulp, it is still made from trees, a material that takes years or decades to grow. Logging practices can degrade forests thus contributing to global warming, causing loss of habitat for plants and animals, and polluting waterways.
Manufacturing: paper plants are always located on a body of water. They use copious amounts of water and electricity; emit pollution into the air, and empty effluent into waterways. The environmental footprint of facial tissue is increased when it is bleached white, has something added like lotion, and is packaged in cardboard and plastic.
Transportation: raw materials and finished facial tissue are transported to and from factories via CO2 emitting vehicles that travel across the country and sometimes overseas.
Although the video below is not specific to facial tissue it provides a good overview of what goes on inside a tissue products mill.
All this and for something you use for a few seconds and then throw away.
Are facial tissues really necessary? In the next post, we will explore that question and evaluate green alternatives to facial tissues made with virgin wood pulp and bleached white with chlorine.
Reader Note: Angel Soft, Kleenex, Kotex, Puffs, and Scotties are registered trademarks.
- Bags – Paper vs. Plastic: Environmental Impact
- Paper Facial Tissue – Green Alternatives
- Paper Towels – Use and Environmental Impact
- Paper vs. Cloth Table Napkins – Which are Greener?
- Calculated based on 2012 facial tissue tonnage (399) from RISI – US Tissue Monthly Data, January 2013 multiplied by 20 (approximate number of facial tissues in one ounce).
- Bright Market Insight – Mobilization On a Growing and Increasingly Tough Tissue Market, Summer 2013
- A Brief History of the Handkerchief in Europe during the Late Middles Ages through the Renaissance, by Margaret Roe
- American Forest & Paper Association – Our Products
- American Forest & Paper Association – Pulp
- Kimberly-Clark – Protection you can throw away: Story of facial tissues
- Natural Resources Defense Council – Paper Industry Laying Waste to North American Forests
- Proctor & Gamble – Puffs History
- Wikipedia – Handkerchief
- Wikipedia – Kerchief
- Wikipedia – Tissue Paper
5 thoughts on “Paper Facial Tissue – History and Environmental Impact”
Hi, thanks for the article, do you know the carbon footprint that a box tissues generates? Luke
It’s an interesting question. I bet transportation is one of the biggest factors in the carbon footprint of a box of facial tissues.
We buy recycled content facial tissues and never throw them away..they go into our wood stove to start heating fires, instead of using easily recycled newspaper. It is a great way to ‘reuse’ them and removes any chance of germ contamination.