Household paper goods are so ubiquitous we don't even think about them anymore, but there was a time when towels and napkins were made of soft, reusable cloth. Nowadays the equivalent of about 270,000 trees are used and discarded each day worldwide.
The average North American churns through 50 pounds of paper products a year, including napkins, paper towels, tissues, and toilet paper. While some of these goods are made from sustainable tree farms, native forests are still a primary source. This leads to erosion and loss of animal habitats.
Plus, papermaking is a toxic process that is hard on the environment. Many paper products are whitened with chlorine-based chemicals -- which aren't as harmful as chlorine bleach, but still release carcinogens and toxins into the water. Others are scented, dyed, or treated with "lotion" made of petroleum, silicone, and chemical surfactants. (See Candles and Air Fresheners, for drawbacks of fragrance; many commercial dyes are environmental pollutants.)
Thinner paper is more environmentally friendly than thick or quilted varieties. Use paper towels sparingly and reuse them when practical; some brands can be rinsed numerous times. Buy only plain, unscented, white, lotion-free toilet paper and tissues, which are better for the environment. more
Help reduce chlorine-related dioxins in the air and water by purchasing paper products that have been whitened with hydrogen peroxide, oxygen, or ozone bleach. "Totally chlorine free" (TCF) is best, "processed chlorine free" (PCF) is at least made without the most harmful type of chlorine, and "elemental chlorine free" (ECF) is the least desirable, but better than conventional paper goods. Unbleached paper products are the best choice.
Use cloth napkins and wash them when they're soiled; they are more absorbent than some of the "eco" paper brands. Substitute sponges, dishcloths, or kitchen towels for paper towels. (A good way to start is to throw a dish towel over your paper-towel rack, as a reminder to dry your clean hands, countertops, and dishes with a reusable cloth towel instead of a disposable paper one.) Look for products made of recycled paper. Among the recycled papers, a high postconsumer waste (PCW) content is best, because it keeps paper out of landfills and reduces the need to use virgin wood fiber. Recycled papers usually list the amount of PCW on their packaging; look for varieties with the highest PCW percentage you can find.
Tip: Help reduce chlorine-related dioxins in the air and water by purchasing paper produces labeled "totally chlorine free."