At Tissue: Paper Products

Some students are calling for replacement of Kleenex and other brands with those they say are greener.
February 29, 2008

Scrutinizing campus purchases -- see the "anti-Coke" initiative or the grape boycotts of a previous era -- has long been a student tradition. Some colleges have begun to reconsider the use of everyday items -- lunch trays, for one -- that are seen as contributing to wasteful practices.

Consider, then, a campaign taking shape to ban Kleenex and other paper products from parent company Kimberly-Clark as a something of a hybrid.

A campus grocery store at Wesleyan University has stopped stocking Kleenex after two students sent a message decrying the lack of recycled fibers in Kimberly-Clark's products -- and the facial tissue in particular.

The students first wrote the proposal to ban the company's paper brands as an assignment for an environmental studies class. Their ultimate aim is to see the entire campus Kleenex- [and other Kimberly-Clark-product] free, replaced with items they say are more environmentally friendly.

"Our college prides itself on becoming more sustainable," said Aurora Margarita-Goldkamp, one of the students. "This is one little way to act around campus."

Margarita-Goldkamp said the campus store is a starting place. (It also has started carrying more energy-efficient light bulbs at the request of another student.) The store carried alternative products before, and ordering more of them wouldn't be a burden, the students argued.

They say that while Kimberly-Clark uses some products that meet their criteria of being environmentally sound (Kleenex isn't one of them), until the company commits to increasing the recycled-fiber content of some of its products, they will continue to call for the boycott.

A group of students at the University of Vermont is also organizing a campaign to boycott Kimberly-Clark products. Going by the name "UVM Forest Crimes Unit," as a reference to the trees cut down in order to make the products, the group has attracted attention for scattering around campus toilet bowls with tree parts shoved inside.

Basil Tsimoyianis, a group organizer, said he's gotten hundreds of student signatures calling for an outright ban on the company's products.

Gioia Thompson, director of Vermont's Office of Sustainability, said she appreciates the students advocating "environmental responsibility and sustainable forestry."

She said the university's contract is with the distributor to provide paper towels and tissue that fit in the university's dispensers, and not with a specific company. She estimates that last year's purchases of toilet paper and paper towels, most of which were from Kimberly-Clark, averaged 30 percent post-consumer waste, which she said is roughly in line with federal recommendations.

"People at UVM would like to do better than that, and to pay attention to other environmental attributes, including bleaching method, packaging waste, and forest practice," she added.

Lance Latcham, a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark, said he's aware of some student initiatives. "We certainly understand they have a concern, but we hope folks take a look at what our practices actually are," he said.

Kimberly-Clark's Web site outlines some of what it calls "sustainable fiber practices," including the use of virgin and recycled fiber that it says is "in line with industry practices." The company says it is expanding trial of Kleenex and Scott products that have 20- to 80-percent post-consumer recycled fiber.

The argument over Kimberly-Clark's products has been public for several years. A campaign organized by Greenpeace makes many of the same claims about the company's practices. The student campaigns aren't directly connected with that effort, although in both cases organizers say they have communicated with the group.

At Vermont, students are meeting with the director of custodial services to consider alternative products, with the aim of testing many of them out in buildings. That brings up the question of how students would respond.

"I don' t think anyone is going to notice," Margarita-Goldkamp said of possible changes in dorm tissues. "We would try to find replacement products that are soft."

Gina Yeomans, the other Wesleyan student, said if students are strongly attached to a current product, the university should listen. The university taking their suggestion into account is a step toward getting most students what they want, she added.

"Wesleyan is our home and we should have a large say in what goes on, especially if we are thoroughly dissatisfied with an aspect of campus," she said.


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