Although Kleenex has had some controversies in the past, they have worked to recognize and reduce their own environmental footprint. They have switched over to processes that are less environmentally intensive, but consumers should stay vigilant and continue to put pressure on Kleenex to improve as they serve as industry leaders in this market. There may be more sustainable options which have a higher percentage of post-consumer recycled fiber or reusable handkerchiefs, but Kleenex serves as a relatively sustainable option for tissues. If you are looking for something affordable and super convenient this is a great option, but you should recognize that this product still has a long way to go to truly be sustainable as it is still a single use item.
Affordable, convenient, reforming
This is the precursor to making any type of paper products and there are many ways of producing it, but for tissue production chemical processes and the Kraft process is most likely used. In order to create a tissue paper that is white in appearance many companies utilize chlorine bleaching, but Kleenex utilizes Elemental chlorine-free bleaching which uses chlorine dioxide and does not produce dioxins which is very toxic and classified as a persistent environmental pollutant. The wood pulp making process utilizes water and energy from fossil fuels.
There is small amount of plastic on the packaging, but Kleenex says that the entire box is recyclable. It is unclear what type of plastic they use or where it is sourced from.
All the wood pulp that Kleenex sources for their products is primarily virgin fiber. They utilize virgin fiber because it has better softness and strength compared to recycled fiber which is used for its packaging. This wood pulp is sourced globally with a majority of fiber being FSC (63%) or FSI (35%) certified in 2019. Wood pulp production utilizes a lot of water and energy. Kleenex has been aware of this and have worked to reduce water usage by 29% from 2015 and have reduced their GHG emissions by 40% from a 2005 baseline. They still have more work to do however as they recognize that currently 92% of the energy used to produce Kleenex tissues is from non-renewable sources. In addition to this, they have taken steps such as using tools such as WaterLOUPE which help to understand and manage their water sources in tandem with local communities, especially is water scarce areas.
In addition to this, Kleenex has recognized that the paper industry can have severe environmental impacts with chemical runoff from their mills. Many papers are bleached white to improve its appearance but many companies use chlorine which can have severe environmental impacts. In order to combat this, they utilize elemental chlorine-free bleaching which uses chlorine dioxide which does not produce dioxins which are toxic to humans and are classified as a persistent environmental pollutant means. There are other chemicals used during the paper making process such as sulfur dioxide which can have harmful effects if not properly disposed of.
Its unclear how specific waste is disposed of, but from their report they claim that 55% of nonhazardous waste is repurposed as alternative daily cover for landfills, mine reclamation, and liquid solidification while 25% is recycled. Their nonhazardous waste however is either incinerated (39%) or blended in with fuels (30%). They have been worked on making a more circular operation and have been able to divert 96% of their operational waste from landfills to slightly better alternatives.
Kleenex is owned by Kimberly-Clark and they have faced some controversies in the past with their unsustainable sourcing of wood in North America. With public pressure and a campaign by Greenpeace called Kleercut in 2009, Kleenex has made great strides to reduce their environmental footprint. They had previously been uses practices such as clearcutting forests in order to source virgin fiber, but have worked to increase their use of recycled fibers and increased sourcing from FSC or FSI certified forestries. There have been concerns surrounding FSC certification as its auditing system is third-party based and there have been some reports of FSC certifications being placed on illegally sourced wood.