Currently, voluntary reports produced by some companies are inconsistent and incomplete, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, but there are blueprints for what companies could report.
One technique developed for this purpose is called a life-cycle assessment, which examines each stage related to making a product, beginning with acquisition of raw materials and concluding with final disposal.
To make the process uniform, the International Organization for Standardization, whose members include 165 national-standards bodies, published guidelines in 2006 to suggest general requirements for crafting a “cradle to grave” environmental-impact analysis.
ISO guidelines help smooth global trade by establishing common criteria so different countries’ products are compatible. Its life-cycle analysis standard can be used to inform decisions made by industry or government regarding topics ranging from mitigating environmental impacts to monitoring marketing claims.
But the guidelines are voluntary, and the federal government doesn’t require companies to produce life-cycle assessments although the Securities and Exchange Commission is weighing whether companies should disclose climate impacts in their annual financial reports. There are federal requirements for disclosing direct emissions, but those data serve a different purpose.
“Whole bulk emissions are useful for monitoring pollution,” said
director of Environmental Paper Network, a green-advocacy group. “Life-cycle assessments are useful for comparing different products to make decisions about which makes the least impact.”
To help compare paper products, the network offers a free online calculator, which Mr. Martin said uses more stringent measures than the ISO guidelines. For example, it fills in what he called the logging loophole—referring to carbon emissions associated with harvesting trees.
The primary impacts measured by the calculator are wood use, energy use, greenhouse-gas emissions, water use and solid waste, based on data from the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the market analyst Fastmarkets and others.
Toilet Paper’s Environmental Impact
Energy consumption, waste generation and greenhouse-gas emissions in the manufacturing of a one-year supply of toilet paper for one person*
Electricity consumed, million BTUs
Solid waste produced, pounds
Greenhouse gases emitted, pounds
The individual calculations are complex. Toxic-air-emissions data, for example, are retrieved for pulp and paper mills operating in North America from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory and Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory, according to the calculator’s 70-page methodology, and these data are cross-referenced with information from Fastmarkets to estimate average emissions for 14 paper grades.
Industry sources have objected to the calculator’s methodology because, they’ve said, its estimates are too large and it’s designed to penalize the use of virgin fiber, among other things.
Still, the calculator gives a sense of what a life-cycle analysis might convey—and why it might be useful to have agreed-upon standards.
Here’s how one product—toilet paper—looks using the calculator.
“This is a product everyone uses every day, and I think people give very little thought to how it’s made and where it might be coming from,” said Shelley Vineyard of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental-advocacy group that scores tissue and paper-towel products based on characteristics such as recycled content.
In the past 30 days, American households used an estimated 1,237,519 rolls of toilet paper, according to the consumer research firm MRI-Simmons.
It’s hard to pin down how much toilet paper an individual uses, but the NRDC said the number is 141 rolls a year, or about 2.7 rolls each week.
Critics have said that figure is too large, so let’s assume most people use at least one roll a week and a total of 52 in a year.
If each roll weighed about half a pound and contained 264 sheets (comparable to a mega roll of Charmin Ultra Soft), the calculator estimates that making 52 rolls would, over the life of the product, use:
• 120 pounds of wood;
• 500 million BTUs of energy, approximately what a refrigerator uses in three months; and
• 530 gallons of water, about as much as the average Portland, Ore., resident uses in 11 days for cooking, cleaning and showering.
Those rolls would also yield:
• 3.7 pounds of solid waste, about a pound less than the average person produces each day, and
• 309 pounds of greenhouse gases, around the amount emitted from a car burning 16 gallons of gasoline, enough to travel 411 miles at 25.7 miles per gallon, the 2020 average.
In comparison, the same amount of toilet paper made from 100% recycled material, according to the calculator, would use no virgin wood, 40% less electricity and 48% less water and would generate 48% less greenhouse gases and 8% less solid waste.
A spokeswoman for
the maker of Charmin, said the company uses tools such as life-cycle assessments to understand potential environmental impacts, but didn’t share how the results compare with the online tool.
Write to Jo Craven McGinty at Jo.McGinty@wsj.com
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