The eco-friendly pitch for recycled toilet paper has long faced a harsh reality: the scratch factor.
Quebec-based Cascades Inc. is aiming to counter the reputation that bathroom tissue made from 100-per-cent recycled material is too rough. On Friday, the company plans to announce it is spending $30-million on state-of-the-art technology that it says can churn out a product as soft and absorbent as the No. 1 brands like Charmin and Cottonelle Ultra.
The potential to make money is huge, considering that tissue from recycled fibres makes up only about 2 per cent of North America's $6.4-billion in annual sales. The challenge for companies like Cascades is to convince consumers that their products are better for the environment and show people their tissue is as soft and bouncy as the top brands.
It's a move up the value-added chain for Cascades, whose existing recycled toilet paper and paper towel products under the Enviro brand name hold only a sliver of the Canadian market. Unlike other commodity producers, the forestry sector has long struggled to produce consistently strong profits. A product that's a hit with consumers and environmentalists could help change their fortunes.
Industry leaders like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark don't use recycled paper in their soft toilet paper brands, opting instead for new fibres from felled trees, which give the paper the plush texture that consumers demand.
But Cascades believes it can now have it both ways. At its sprawling facility in Candiac, Que., just south of Montreal, the company has so far invested $20-million on Atmos, a machine that can turn completely recycled paper into super soft tissue - a feat the company says is a first in North America.
The new machine replicates the traditional soft-paper process - in which pressing is kept to a minimum in order to preserve softness and buoyancy - using recycled paper instead of new fibre.
The Atmos process uses a combination of heated-air and heated-cylinder technology that allows for an even drying technique that doesn't reduce softness.
The formal launch of Cascades supersoft recycled toilet paper in stores across Canada will be in April, followed by a marketing campaign in the fall.
"The consumer perception has been that recycled paper is not high end. Well, we're out to change that image," said Suzanne Blanchet, president and chief executive officer of Cascades Tissue Group. "We're confident we have a product that is as soft and cushy as Charmin or Cashmere."
Ms. Blanchet won't talk about specific targets Cascades is aiming for, but believes there is huge potential to win over consumers to its ultrasoft paper that is also environmentally friendly.
Consumers' environmental awareness continues to grow and it increasingly includes the toilet-paper market, one of the last holdouts of consumer resistance.
Environmentalists have for years been attacking industry practices that involve destroying huge swaths of forest just to get the virgin fibre needed to make thick and fluffy toilet paper.
Lisa Jester, a Procter & Gamble spokeswoman, wouldn't comment on Cascades' strategy, but said the company is instead focusing on using raw materials "as efficiently as possible."
"Charmin's business remains strong. Our consumers count on Charmin for its softness, absorbency, and strength. We do not use recycled fibre in our tissue, as the process of recycling can break and damage the fibres, which could lead to less strength, absorbency and softness."
Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council, says his group is pleased to see Cascades pushing ahead with its premium recycled toilet paper.
"We applaud the work they're doing," he said in an interview.
"The selling point 50 years ago for toilet paper was its hygienic quality. But there has been a very successful marketing movement since then selling softness," he said.
"If it's possible to make it a little softer without compromising the recycled fibre content, then good for them."