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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Toilet Paper

A couple of years ago, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s leading producer of paper. Even though paper is generally thought to have been invented in China, the country’s meteoric ascent in the forest products industry has been nothing short of astonishing. China now produces in less than a month what Wisconsin (the leading U.S. state in paper manufacturing) produces in a year.

I once worked in a Fortune 500 paper mill that made toilet paper. Actually, we didn’t call it toilet paper. We referred to it as “bath tissue.” Also, we didn’t use words like feces or excrement or stool. Don’t ask me why, but the term the corporation used for poo was “insult.”

Our mill produced tons of toilet paper per day. Every day, three shifts, around the clock, 360 days a year. The only “down days” were: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Labor Day, Day after Labor Day and Fourth of July. Surprisingly, civilians seemed quite curious about the operation. Here are the answers to the five most common questions.

When was toilet paper invented?

While there is no hard evidence to support it, toilet paper is thought to have been invented in 14th century China, exclusively for the use of the royal family. Prior to the introduction of toilet paper, people got the job done by using water, fabric, animal hides, grass, leaves, tree bark, polished stones, etc. Toilet paper was first produced in the U.S. in 1857.

How is it made?

It’s made like any other base tissue sheet. It begins as a slurry—a mix of water and pulp (the preferred furnish is eucalyptus, due to its long fibers and high oil content)—that is metered onto a wire, then a felt, then onto a dryer, then scraped off and wound into “hardrolls.” These are trucked to machines that rewind them into “softrolls,” which eventually get rewound into “logs,” which are sent through a log-saw where they are cut into bathroom-size rolls.

What do consumers most desire in toilet paper?

Based on customer surveys, softness, strength, absorbency and scent (in descending order) are the four most desired qualities. Some rolls get embossed, others get printing applied to them, and others get dyed various shades of pastel. Despite the choices, white still remains the most popular color.

What are the most common complaints by consumers?

Other than not being soft or strong enough, the two biggest complaints are ply separation (where a double-ply roll comes apart, leading to mismatched sheets) and bad perforations (where the sheets don’t release as intended). If you grab a sheet and it tears instead of releases (leaving an attached fragment) it means the crew had failed to detect a bad perf blade.

What can a consumer tell about softness by squeezing the package?

Absolutely nothing. Those ubiquitous TV commercials that insist you can “feel the softness” through the polyethylene wrapper are a total, shrieking lie. The only thing you can determine by squeezing a roll is how tightly wound it is. And a roll’s “spool coefficient” is a whole other issue.

Moreover, if a roll wrapped in polyethylene feels “soft,” it means it is loosely wound, basically full of air. And not only do mushy rolls have nothing to do with softness, the surface of the most “squeezable” roll on the market could be as harsh as sandpaper.

Indeed, at my company, mushy, loosely wound rolls were classified as “defective.” They never made to the retailer. Instead, they were broken down and recycled, sent back to the repulper. So much for false advertising.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book, “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories,” will be published in June. He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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