Paper Facial Tissue – History and Environmental Impact

Box of Paper Facial Tissues with Pile of Used TissuesCold 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

Elisabeth de Valois Holding a Handkerchief - Alonso Sánchez Coello, c 1560Early 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

Stack of Paper Facial Tissue BoxesOther 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.

Related Posts

References

  1. 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).
  2. Bright Market Insight – Mobilization On a Growing and Increasingly Tough Tissue Market, Summer 2013

Resources

Keeping Clean — Bar Soap vs. Liquid Soap

Bar Soap and Liquid Soap“When did we stop using a simple bar of soap to clean our hands and bodies?” That thought struck me recently while refilling the plastic kitchen soap dispenser with liquid soap from a bigger plastic container. I decided to investigate and write about the topic.

Bar soap has been around for centuries. Liquid soap was first patented in the 1860’s but didn’t become a mass market item until around the 1970’s. Is one better than the other?

Bar Soap vs. Liquid Soap

Cleansing / Additives

Both bar and liquid soap are effective for washing hands and bodies and are available with moisturizers, antibacterial agents, scents, etc.

Size and Shape

Bar soap is usually oval or rectangular shaped and sized to fit in one’s hand. Liquid soap is sold in a variety of bottle sizes and shapes from travel size to giant economy size.

Price

Plain bar soap is likely a more cost-effective choice than liquid soap. However, use for use, a luxury handmade bar of soap may cost more than a store brand bottle of liquid soap.

Packaging

Bar soap is usually packaged in a paper or plastic wrapper and often a cardboard box too. Liquid soap typically comes in a plastic bottle and may have a pump to make dispensing easier. Multi-packs of bar soap or liquid soap are usually wrapped in plastic or packaged in a box.

Transportation

This is where bar soap and liquid soap part ways. Bar soap is small, compact, and lightweight. The first ingredient in liquid soap is water and water is heavy and uses a lot more energy for transportation from the manufacturer to the store.

Waste / Recycling

At the end of the life of a bar of soap, there is nothing left or maybe a small sliver to throw away or attach to the next bar of soap. At the end of the life of a bottle of liquid soap, there is an empty plastic bottle. The bottle can be refilled and reused or recycled.

How Many Liquid Soap Containers and Dispensers Does One Household Need?

I decided to survey my own household to see what was in use.

  • Kitchen – plastic bottle of liquid soap
  • Laundry Room – nothing (whew)
  • Bathrooms – plastic dispensers with liquid soap and non-refillable bottles of various body washes. We also had a collection of plastic bottles/tubes containing facial cleansers, shampoos, and conditioners (but that’s a topic for another post).

When did I buy the first plastic liquid soap bottle or dispenser? I don’t remember but perhaps it all started years ago when I purchased our first bathroom accessory set with matching toothbrush holder, cup, liquid soap dispenser, facial tissue holder, and wastebasket. Who decreed we needed these decorative items in our bathrooms I do not know but I succumbed. Once we started using liquid soap for hand washing it was only a matter of time before it found its way into our showers.

So What

When you think about it, transporting water around in the form of liquid soap doesn’t make economic or environmental sense. Both bar and liquid soap often come with unnecessary packaging. And then there are all the plastic dispensers and bottles.

Stack of Bar SoapWe refill the dispensers and recycle the plastic bottles but that’s still a lot of water being transported and plastic uses energy during recycling. So what could/should we do next? We decided to try bar soap in the shower again and move on from there.

Think about what you use in your household and could / should you make a change?