In California, even toilet paper has a carbon footprint

Mary Nichols.
Mary Nichols. Sacramento Bee file

If you think the most controversial thing about toilet paper is the age-old argument over which way to hang the roll, you haven’t seen bathroom tissue’s carbon footprint.

The California Air Resources Board has studied the numbers on toilet paper’s contribution to climate change, and the board’s attempt to regulate those greenhouse gas emissions is stirring up an ugly fight within the industry.

For Californians who fear big government, this might sound like the ultimate nightmare: An unelected board and its vast scientific bureaucracy is going to force us to pay more to wipe our butts.

Perhaps. But the story is also a good reminder that everything we do – from the time we wake up until we go to bed – contributes in some way to the creation of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

The idea behind Assembly Bill 32, the 2006 legislation that set all of this in motion, was to put a price on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The goal was to encourage industry – and consumers – to use products that can be made with less harm to the environment.

To get there, the state capped the total tons of emissions allowed in a given year and then required companies to buy permits for the right to pollute.

But rather than put all those permits up for sale, the state decided to give some of them away based on each industry’s historic emission levels. This was done in part to soften the blow on the big electric utilities, which emit huge amounts of carbon and would have had to hike their rates to pay for their permits, potentially causing a consumer backlash.

That decision, however, also put the state in the tricky business of deciding who would get the free “allowances,” and how many each company would receive.

Which brings us back to toilet paper. In deciding on carbon allowances, the Air Resources Board set a benchmark based on the most efficient producer in each industrial sector. If another company creates more greenhouse gas per unit of the same product, it has to buy more allowances – effectively a financial penalty for producers of more carbon.

But only two companies make toilet paper in California. So the state’s process was likely to create one winner and one loser. And that’s exactly what happened.

At first, the ARB set the carbon benchmark based on the mill that created the fewest greenhouse gases, which seems straightforward. That calculation favored Kimberly-Clark, which produces toilet paper and other tissue products in Fullerton.

But the other toilet paper company – Procter & Gamble – complained that the decision failed to account for the superior quality of its tissue, which it makes in Oxnard. The company said its paper was so different that it should be considered a unique product and given its own carbon benchmark.

The state tried to split the difference. First the ARB separated toilet paper from other tissues – like facial tissues and paper towels. Then it recalculated its benchmark for toilet paper to adjust for “water absorbency” – the trait Procter & Gamble said made its paper so special. That change made Kimberly-Clark’s Fullerton factory look like the bigger carbon hog.

Now Kimberly-Clark is crying foul, arguing that the ARB’s decision to consider water absorbency was “without scientific basis” and will make its Fullerton plant less competitive. The company continues to look for a way to overturn the ruling.

A different approach – a carbon tax or a permit sale with no free allowances – would have been far simpler, and wouldn’t have required such fine distinctions. But neither of those approaches was politically feasible.

So this is where we are today, with state officials sticking their noses in our bathrooms, studying the relative fluff and absorbency of toilet paper and assessing the damage each kind of tissue does to the environment.

Maybe the real answer is to use bidets instead.

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report.