In the scheme of things, paper products seem kind of mundane, says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Washington, D.C.
But depending on your choices, the paper you choose to use at home -- facial tissue, toilet paper, paper towels, napkins and computer paper -- can put you on a green path, save you lots of money and help save the earth.
To do so, two mandates come into play: Use less paper, and make it green paper. Compliance is not that hard, according to Hoover.
"A roll of paper towels lasts a year in my house, and I still have the better part of a 2-year-old box of facial tissues," she says. How does she perform such mind-boggling feats?
There are perfectly acceptable, age-old alternatives for both, according to this resource specialist. "Except handling messes, such as pet accidents, use a sponge for cleanups and a dish towel for drying off the counter or your hands," she advises. Send the sponge through the dishwasher now and then to keep it respectable.
"And do you really need paper napkins? Cloth napkins served families for hundreds of years, and so did handkerchiefs for runny noses," she adds.
All of which is not to say Hoover and her NRDC associates are extremists.
"We're just saying look for reasonable alternatives and anything that can be reused."
In the case of paper products, there are a lot of eco-friendly varieties out there now; you just need to read the labels, she says.
"Look for the percentage of recycled content in the paper, the higher the better," she says. "Especially desirable are products that say 'post-consumer,' which means it has already gone through a process of being recycled by the consumer and then put back into the marketplace."
This green alternative paper may not be as white as some of the most popular name brands, but it is eco-friendly. Look for products labeled TCF, totally chlorine-free, or PCF, processed chlorine-free, Hoover advises. Chlorine contributes to the formation of highly toxic chemicals, which are harmful to humans and wildlife.
When it comes to facial and bathroom tissue, Hoover rates them according to softness -- "as soft as possible" and "soft enough." "Soft enough" is her byword. When we select the softest and whitest, there is an environmental price to pay in terms of toxins, as well as recyclability.
When Hoover isn't extolling the virtues of recycled paper, she is lending her voice as an advocate for bioplastics, which are plastics made out of plant materials that are renewable, as opposed to plastics made from fossil fuels, which are not renewable.
However, "plastic is challenging," Hoover says.
"Products are now made out of renewable materials, such as corn or beets, but in most cases, the edible portion of the corn is used. We're hoping the market will become more focused and concentrate on making products from the agricultural waste we throw out."
In addition, the earth has a problem with the petroleum-based products still being made.
"Nobody knows how long petroleum-based products take to break down," Hoover says. "Plastics have only been around for 60 years ... and they're probably not going to biodegrade for way longer than that."
You can recycle some plastics, but it varies from community to community which can and cannot be recycled. "It's very confusing."
Currently, in terms of plastic products, the main things the NRDC recommends are to read labels and to remember to take your own reusable bags to the supermarket.
While recycled paper in all its permutations is clearly one of the top success stories of the green movement, there are other green products emerging.
"There's clothing made from cork and corn and office and school products created from recycled tires on the market now," says Tasha Eichenseher, editor and producer of National Geographic's Green Guide, an environmental periodical. Organic beer and dog food are out there now, too.
In addition, the Energy Star program, which evaluates a wide range of consumer products for their energy efficiency, is introducing a new rating and buying guide for computers that will include greater attention to the recycling of parts when you replace your computer, according to Eichenseher. For the newest environmental product news, visit http://www.TheGreenGuide.com.