Opinion: Here’s a fluffly topic

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Commentary by Ward Degler

When I first heard the term, disposable fluff, I thought it was a euphemism for “political rhetoric.” Turns out, it’s a paper product.

In everyday parlance, it’s the stuff used to make Kleenex, toilet tissue, paper towels, personal hygiene products and disposable diapers. The fluff is made from wood chips that have been reduced to cellulose fiber.

To be clear, virtually all commercially made paper is made from soft wood. Years ago, the Weyerhaeuser Paper Co. developed a genetically designed pine tree that grows exceptionally fast and is worthless for any purpose other than making paper. The fiber in these trees is so soft it must be processed into paper pulp within 24 hours of being cut or it turns into useless mush.

As it turns out, we aren’t destroying our forests to make paper, after all. Paper pulp trees are a crop, not unlike soybeans or corn.

One more point: There are two types of fluff pulp – kraft pulp and dissolvable pulp. While both processes start by breaking down the cellulose in wood chips, kraft pulp is reduced to microscopic fibers that are treated with an aeration process called defiberation that separates the fibers to produce a bulky, fluffy material.

Dissolvable pulp is reduced to a syrup which can be hardened into tough plastics used in making computer chips and disposable picnic knives and forks, or spun into the textile yarn called rayon.

Rayon was the first-ever synthetic fiber. It was invented in 1903 but gained fame as a substitute for silk to make women’s stockings during World War II and to subsidize cotton production, which was unable to keep up with escalating demand. And until nylon came along, it was the foundation for making automobile tires.

The kraft pulping process uses chemicals that, unfortunately, gave the paper industry a black eye from water and air pollution years ago. Few smells can rival those from a paper mill in full flower. As a result, much of today’s fluff production has shifted to mills in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

An estimated 4 million tons of disposable fluff is produced annually, and 80 percent of that is used for disposable diapers, a product first brought to the market in 1956 by Proctor & Gamble as a sanitary way to deal with an unpleasant but unavoidable human process.

So, maybe, it’s not so far removed from political rhetoric after all.

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