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At UVM, Even the Toilet Paper Is Green

By Joshua Brown Article published September 16, 2008

People once used stones, leaves, grass, snow, hay, sand, fruit rinds, seashells, and even corn on the cob to complete the most basic ritual of human hygiene. Now, we use nothing but toilet paper. Millions of miles of toilet paper. Each year, 26 billion rolls are sold in America alone.

And all that paper means a lot of tree cutting, wood pulping, processing, bleaching and packaging. Last year, the University of Vermont purchased about 32 tons of the stuff.

Which is why UVM announced this week that it has signed a new contract to purchase "green certified" toilet paper and paper towels made from 100 percent recycled paper, bleached without chlorine, and that meets other stringent environmental standards.

Part of a new university-wide contract with Vermont-based White River Paper Company for custodial products from mops to hand soap, the paper will be manufactured by Cascades Inc. The paper, as well many of the other new cleaning products UVM will be purchasing, are approved by Green Seal, an independent "green certification" organization.

"UVM is switching to a toilet paper that meets standards for environmental responsibility, prompted by student concerns," says Gioia Thompson, UVM's director of sustainability. "This use of standards fits well with the university's commitment to sustainability — and it's a success story for student activism."

In 2006, Basil Tsimoyianis '09 approached Thompson and other university officials, asking UVM to stop buying toilet paper manufactured by the large paper producer, Kimberly-Clark. Tsimoyianis had been following Greenpeace protests against Kimberly-Clark based on allegations that the company harvested wood from old-growth forests and practiced poor forest stewardship in Canada's boreal forests.

Kimberly-Clark denies this claim, Thompson says, and their website states "we will not knowingly use fiber from forest areas requiring protection." But their products are not approved by Green Seal or EcoLogo, another major green certification organization—and "the UVM Office of Sustainability found that Kimberly-Clark did not fit UVM's environmental standards," Thompson notes.

When Tsimoyianis returned to campus in 2007 after a semester working with Greenpeace, he formed a group called Forest Crimes Unit to draw attention to the claims against Kimberly-Clark and to UVM's use of their toilet paper.

"When we first started this, people were laughing — 'aren't there better things people could do?'" Tsimoyanis says, "but this touches all of us. We all go to the bathroom everyday. A positive change like this will go on and on for years, once we make the switch."

What began as a student protest — including public displays of toilet sitting on university walkways — developed into a collaborative research project.

During the spring of 2008, the students in the group worked with Custodial Services and with the Office of Sustainability to look into alternative suppliers of toilet paper including Cascades and several other brands. They researched manufacturing practices, cost, service delivery, recycled content, and total waste. They tested different brands across campus and collected information from staff and students.

"This issue was brought to my attention by Basil," says Leslye Kornegay, director of custodial services. "It's been a good opportunity for us, since our contract was about to end, to look closely at other vendors based on third-party certification, recycled content, and cost."

Cascades paper came out on top — and White River Paper Products had the most competitive, attractive bid.

"We have a paradigm shift here, where the students are really our partners," says Kornegay. "These students had legitimate concerns and we take that into account in our business decisions."

For more information contact Gioia Thompson, Director, UVM Office of Sustainability, 656-3803, gioia.thompson@uvm.edu.