Recently, I saw an advertisement for Bounty paper towels featuring none other than beloved environmentalist, Bill Nye. I couldn’t help but feel perplexed watching him promote a product inherently made to be single-use and cradle-to-grave in design. For one, the pulp and paper industry itself is one of the largest consumers of water and energy worldwide, and its products account for over a third of all municipal landfill waste. And yet, it’s safe to say a majority of households find Bounty paper towels as the most preferred and essential quick picker-uppers, its branding as a soft, easily absorbent material its most popular and distinguishing feature. Despite Proctor & Gamble (P&G) maintaining ambitious sustainability goals with regards to their Bounty products and other brands alike, there is still a long way to go for this product to be a full-proof environmental option for our daily clean-ups. Though Bounty intends to make more sustainable strides, I cannot shake off the feeling we could save more trees and resources and uplift greater social equity if we ditched paper towels altogether.
Bounty paper towels are made out of third-party Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified 100% virgin fiber from softwood and hardwood trees like spruce and pine. Virgin fibers come directly from forests as opposed to recycled paper products that utilize recovered fibers from manufacturing waste and unused stocks, mitigating deforestation and saving more paper from excessive landfill disposal. In fact, it is estimated if every household in the U.S. replaced “one roll of virgin-fiber paper towels with 100% recycled ones, we could save 1.4 million trees.” In spite of their sustainably-harvested FSC certifications, Bounty has not yet incorporated completely recyclable, post-consumer fiber materials. Much of their pulp sourcing is detrimental to Canadian boreal forests, in which wood-milling processes draw upon fossil fuel sources like coal and oil. There is also little transparency over whether or not they respect UN-recommended protocol for ensuring consent to operate on traditional Indigenous lands.
In addition, most of their packaging is single-use, plastic-based polyethylene, which is mainly extracted from natural gas and petroleum sources and contributes to high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Along with this, Bounty’s towels are noted as elemental chlorine free (ECF), meaning there is no chlorine gas employed in the bleaching process of their fibers. However, ECF still incorporates chlorine derivatives like chlorine dioxide in the mix, which does not fully eradicate toxic compounds, such as carcinogenic dioxins, from harming the environment and human health. In terms of resource conservation, pulp and paper require high water inputs in both their manufacturing and sourcing processes with a half pound of paper towels calling for 2.5 gallons of water. The only outright sustainable feature of the product in its design is its purported 95% recycled fiber and 84% post-consumer recycled packaging of the inner paper cores, cartons, and boards that make up Bounty rolls. There is clearly a lot of work to be done to implement more sustainable, less toxic materials within Bounty’s paper products.
Manufacturing Bounty’s paper towels begins with logging wood from Canadian forests, home to various threatened species like that of the caribou, and processing it into pulp. After a process of debarking, such pulp is transformed into chips that are then treated through cleaners and screens in factories and bleached for better design and absorbency features. All Bounty factories are sited in a variety of U.S. locations like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Missouri, and California among others. Such distributed citing helps reduce transportation costs and associated environmental externalities. In particular, P&G has succeeded in combatting truck transportation mileage by more than 25% per unit of production, reducing total emissions in their distribution sector. Currently, each of P&G’s plants are powered by 30% renewable energy sources with all of their plants achieving zero manufacturing waste to landfills by 2020. Although this is a worthwhile accomplishment within Bounty’s manufacturing sphere, it does not acknowledge the complete life cycle of their paper product that ultimately ends up accumulating and emitting toxins in landfills each day.
Even with Bounty’s promise to reduce their GHG emissions with all their purchased electricity stemming from renewables by 2030, the company still heavily depends on fossil fuels for their forest extraction operations and facility power. Specifically, their pulp production and manufacturing accounts for their greatest share of GHG emissions as due to the high-energy demand for paper production. Yet, one significant part of their manufacturing operations is that Bounty does prioritize stringent safety and training initiatives with vast wellness and inclusivity resources for each of their over 4000 American employees. There seems to be a heavy corporate commitment to elevating worker wellbeing within their factory settings in spite of their work-in-progress environmental efforts. Nonetheless, there is still a lack of transparency regarding the equitable protections within all spheres of their labor force.
P&G maintains a diverse array of brands like Tide, Charmin, Pampers, and Pantene along with Bounty— all of which have come under fire for environmental neglect over the years. Recently, environmental advocates have exposed P&G for their unethical palm oil supply chain that continues to destroy habitats and employ forced labor within the tropical forests of Indonesia and Malaysia. It is unsettling to hear about these issues when the company publicly prides itself on its commitments to sustainability and environmental partnerships. Bounty collaborates with the WWF and Arbor Day Foundation to promote preservation and restoration plans, claiming to protect biodiversity, water, food security, and community engagement in forest areas. They specifically helped the Arbor Day Foundation plant 2 million trees through their California Wildlife Restoration Project that sequestered over 23,000 metric tons of carbon. Bounty has also promised to increase the amount of forest areas that are FSC protected, invest $20 million in alternative fiber research by 2025, and plant a tree for every tree they use. Regardless of these goals, Bounty should do more to pursue direct sustainability efforts that are not majorly rooted in carbon offset projects. Bounty should prioritize planning and implementing renewable energy in their operations and find ways to holistically use less water and toxic chemicals. In general, I think the most important feat they must consider is working to end their wood and palm oil sourcing from climate-critical forests and attend to more sustainable and socially equitable fiber alternatives.
Oddly enough, Bounty recently received the Ethical Supply Chain award from Reuters Responsible Business Awards in 2018. This award recognizes businesses that uphold transparency with regards to how and where they source and distribute their materials. And yet, many environmental groups have cited CEO, David Taylor’s supply chain practices as tied to human rights violations with regards to Indigenous communities, deforestation, and biodiversity degradation. It is important to note that even 100% recycled, post-consumer paper towels, like those produced by Seventh Generation, still sit in landfills once their fiber resilience has petered out. Perhaps, the best option for cleaning up is using organic cotton or recycled cloth napkins and dishtowels. Ultimately, throwaway towels are just another symptom of our single-use, excessive consumption habits that continue to damage our ecosystems and communities at large.