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Environmentalists have a new target: Charmin toilet paper

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Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble faces pressure from environmentalists to clean up its act. 

More than 150 groups are pushing the maker of Charmin toiler paper and Bounty paper towels to use recycled materials in its products. Currently, neither of those products uses recycled paper, and about one-third of it is sourced from Canada's boreal forest — a large swath of virgin forest that rings the Arctic Circle and acts as a critical check on climate change.

"It's just unacceptable that a company like P&G is making toilet paper, a product that is used for seconds and flushed, from virgin pulp," said Shelley Vinyard, boreal corporate campaign manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of several dozen protesters at P&G's annual shareholders meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Tuesday. 

The NRDC likens Canada's vast forests to "the Amazon of North." Replacing just half of P&G's virgin pulp usage with recycled content "would dwarf the company's current climate commitments," the NRDC said in a letter to the company that was co-signed by 150 other activist groups.

P&G offers a simple reason for not using recycled wood pulp: It doesn't make for good toilet paper.

"Have you tried recycled toilet paper yourself?" a P&G spokeswoman asked CBS MoneyWatch who also pointed to Charmin as a superior product. "I promise you'll enjoy it much more," she said.

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P&G is one of the world's largest consumer products companies, with annual revenue of $67 billion and a stock market value of $305 billion. Along with Charmin and Bounty, its many brands include Crest toothpaste, Gillette razors, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Pampers diapers and Tide laundry detergent.

Toilet paper made from recycled fibers doesn't have the same qualities, causing people to use more tissue made directly from trees, the spokeswoman added. She also noted that P&G's experience making recycled tissue products shows that "a significant amount of recycled fibers ends up as solid waste sludge going to landfill."

Instead, P&G promises to source its paper from forests that are well-managed, which in the company's view is a more responsible course of action than using recycled products. About 40% of its product line today comes from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit conservation group, according to the company and the FSC. The rest is certified by other third parties.

FSC certification is widely held to be the gold standard of sustainable forestry, although even it has come under criticism for not going far enough to protect indigenous rights and sometimes shielding bad actors.

36 billion toilet paper rolls per year

"Personally, I buy recycled toilet paper because we can and it's good for the Earth," said Andrew Musgrave, director of Catholic Social Action at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and one of the 150 signatories to the letter sent to P&G.

Musgrave said he learned about the issue of deforestation for toilet paper relatively recently, through a member of the congregation, and that it was a natural fit with church teachings on preserving the environment. "We believe in the dignity of life, and part of that is having a place to live," he said.

He added that Cincinnati-based P&G had a history of "supporting work and social justice in the community," and he believed it was possible to shift to a recycled paper product without reducing quality. 

"Frankly, there are a lot of different companies that have moved in the direction of using recycled paper, and I have a hard time imagining that they would have done it if it were not economically sustainable," Musgrave said. 

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Making paper sustainably doesn't necessarily mean using 100% recycled content, said Stephen Donofrio, director of the Ecosystem Marketplace initiative at the nonprofit Forest Trends. "It could potentially be a mix. It could be single-source certified and recycled.

Wood has a heavy presence in most U.S. bathrooms — Americans use more tissue paper than any other nation except China, which has more than four times its population. That comes out to 36 billion rolls per year, according to an analysis in Scientific American. The top three companies in what's called the tissue industry — P&G, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific — rely almost exclusively on virgin pulp for their products.

Last week, P&G promised to increase the portion of FSC-certified fiber in its products to 75% from the current 40% within six years and to better protect caribou habitat in the Canadian forest where it gets much of its pulp. FSC certification limits forest clear-cutting and ensures trees are re-planted at the same rate they are harvested. 

However, even harvesting from a sustainably managed forest has an environmental cost when compared with leaving trees uncut in the first place.

"The question we should be asking is whether or not those products are from virgin primary forests, which are rich with biodiversity, food systems and other ecosystems," Donofrio said. "It's that natural infrastructure that we're trying to avoid being lost. When companies make these pledges to be sustainably sourced or use recycled content, that's the problem that they're solving."

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