On Hemp, Bidets & Bamboo: Issue with Tissue FAQs Answered

Our recently-published Issue with Tissue report and scorecard, which discusses the toll that Charmin and other tissue brands take on the boreal forest, has gotten quite a lot of attention from both U.S. and international media.

A lot of people were shocked to learn the brands they have used their whole lives aren’t quite as low-impact as they had thought. The response so far has been overwhelming. More than 60,000 people have urged Charmin to make their toilet paper more sustainable (You, too, can lend your voice here). Thousands more have responded to our social media posts, many sharing their shock or their favorite sustainable brands. Even Reddit joined in the conversation.

We wanted to compile some of the most common questions we’ve received to give you a little more insight into our report, our grading process, and how you can ensure your tissue purchases have the minimum possible impact on forests.

Here is our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions):

My favorite brand of toilet paper isn’t on the scorecard. What does that mean?

There are many, many brands of toilet paper across the United States, and we only had room to include a select few on the scorecard. But our scoring methodology works for any brand made from recycled content or virgin fiber pulp. Who Gives a Crap, for example, which was a fan favorite among many social media commenters, uses 100% post-consumer recycled content, giving it an A! To score your own brand, refer to the Appendix of our report. However, if it’s 100% recycled with at least 50% post-consumer recycled content, you can rest assured it’s going to be a top-scorer (at least a B). If there is no recycled content (as in most major toilet paper brands), it’s time to find a new go-to TP! Because there are no major brands made from fibers like bamboo, we did not include that as a factor in our methodology, but see below for our thoughts.

I use tissue products made from bamboo. Is that ok?

Bamboo-based products can be sustainable alternatives to those using virgin wood pulp, though they’re not quite as low-impact as post-consumer recycled products or alternative fibers from agricultural residue. When you buy products made from bamboo, you need to make sure the bamboo is sustainably sourced (read: FSC-certified); otherwise it could have come from areas that were deforested for the express purpose of growing bamboo.

HEMP!!!

Is that a question? We got a lot of really enthusiastic commenters who are devotees of hemp-based products. There are no hemp-based tissue brands yet, but like any alternative fiber, you need to ensure that the hemp is sourced sustainably, without impacting forests. Hemp can typically be grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or irrigation, but requires more fertilizers than other alternative fibers and more chemical additives in its processing. Life cycle analyses also indicate it has a significantly higher climate impact than other alternative fiber sources, though one that still pales in comparison to tissue products made from virgin fiber. With sustainable safeguards, hemp does seem to be a promising alternative to the far more destructive paradigm of relying on trees for our throwaway tissue. 

My toilet paper says it’s FSC-certified. Doesn’t that mean it’s sustainable?

FSC Certification was one of the factors we considered in assigning our grades. It’s true that if a product must use virgin wood—like, say, a wood table—it is critical that wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC is the only forestry certification system that is worth its salt.

However, there is no reason trees need to be used at all to make single-use tissue products, and FSC Certification simply isn't as beneficial to forests as avoiding trees in these products altogether. Right now, FSC doesn't avoid harming critical caribou habitat or places where Indigenous Peoples haven't consented to logging. In addition, brands like Charmin don't even have full FSC certification. They have what's called FSC-Mix certification, which sets an even lower standard for protection.

Furthermore, tissue sourced even from FSC-certified forests has three times the carbon footprint of recycled tissue. The good news is that FSC is working to increase the rigor of its standards for protecting boreal caribou habitat. But as demand for tissue products grows and the climate crisis grows more urgent, we need to reduce the pressure on our forests. It is unbelievable that in the 21st century we still rely on trees at all for throw-away products like toilet paper.

When you say “recycled toilet paper”... do you mean toilet paper that’s been used before?

Definitely not! “Recycled toilet paper” means it’s made from clean recycled content—paper products that have been used before and then re-processed into tissue pulp. Toilet paper itself isn’t recyclable because its fibers are already so broken down (which is why it’s so wasteful to turn trees directly into toilet paper), and we certainly don’t mean reusing dirty toilet paper!

Don’t companies replant the trees after they’ve logged them?

Technically, logging companies are supposed to replant the trees they cut down. However, this dynamic often isn’t as rosy and seamless as trade groups like Canada’s industry group, the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), make it sound. First, there is insufficient post-harvest monitoring in place to adequately assess recovery. Each year, over a million acres of forest are logged, and there just aren’t people on the ground surveying how well the forest is recovering. In addition, there is growing evidence that forests don’t come back in nearly the way the logging industry describes. Forthcoming research from Wildlands League shows that logging creates “scars” on the landscape from roads, equipment, and piles of wood waste where the forest has failed to return even decades later.

Finally, even where the forest does grow back, it often is not the same as it was before. Often, companies will choose to replant trees to feed future logging operations, not the environment, opting to plant monocultures of certain tree types that weren’t prevalent before. Where companies allow the forest to regrow naturally, regrowth takes years, and after decades the forest usually has less biological and structural diversity than it had before it was logged. That is likely why there is no case on record of boreal caribou returning to previously-logged habitat, and why so many Indigenous communities are losing other species they depend upon like moose and marten.

I’ve heard the tissue industry just uses “scraps” left over from lumber production and doesn’t itself drive logging. Is that true?

We’ve heard this talking point as well, and it’s just not the case. A substantial amount of boreal wood pulp comes from whole logs, which are also known as roundwood. In Ontario, one of the largest exporters of pulp to the United States, more than 40% of all pulp comes from roundwood, according to an estimate from Stand.earth. In addition, even “scraps” help to keep the logging industry economically viable, incentivizing further incursion into intact forests. Any way you cut it, the tissue industry is, in fact, a key driver of the loss intact boreal forest.

Isn’t Canada an environmentally friendly country? I thought we didn’t need to be concerned about their forests.

While Canada has cultivated a strong international reputation as an environmental leader, its  profligate use of its natural resources has left many of its ecosystems in jeopardy. Between 2000 and 2013, Canada had the third-highest intact forest loss in the world, behind only Brazil and Russia. Each year, Canada loses over a million acres of its forests to logging, equating to 7 NHL hockey rink-sized areas every minute. The federal government and provinces have largely failed to implement key environmental protections including the Species at Risk Act, driving threatened species like the boreal caribou ever closer to extinction. Even as species like the boreal caribou continue to decline, provinces like Ontario are rolling back the protections that are in place. Canada is also not fully accounting for the extensive carbon emissions from degrading its forests, undermining its position as a global climate leader.   

Americans use 3 rolls a week? Really?! 

It’s surprising but true. People in the United States use an average of 28 pounds of toilet paper every year—more per capita than any other country. If you assume an average roll weighs about 90 grams, that equals just under 3 rolls a week. However, this doesn’t just include the toilet paper you use in your home—it includes away-from-home use as well (such as at restaurants and workplaces).  

Why not just use bidets?

Bidets are a fantastic alternative to using tissue products. In fact, they even use less water because of how much water the tissue-making process requires. Doctors have also highlighted the hygienic benefits of bidets. In many parts of the world, like Japan, bidets are quite popular. However, we know that in the United States, many people don’t want to stop using their tissue products. For those who don’t want to make the switch, the best thing to do is follow our sustainability guide and buy only tissue products made from recycled materials.

Don’t recycled products cost a lot more?

Many of the brands in our scorecard were so-called “premium” brands. Rolls of Charmin and Angel Soft are often actually more expensive than their recycled content counterparts. In addition, the cost of any tissue made from virgin forest ignores the immense externalities from the product’s impact on forests, Indigenous Peoples, wildlife, and the climate. When you add in that cost, tissue made from virgin pulp is very, very expensive.

In sum…

While there’s a lot of confusing and misleading information out there, especially from tissue companies and logging industry interest groups, a lot of these arguments are as thin as the tissue they’re promoting. The point is simple: in the 21st century, we shouldn’t be relying on intact forests for products that we use once and throw away. This “tree-to-toilet pipeline” is irresponsible and archaic, and as we look at all the environmental challenges we face today, the tissue industry needs to switch to creating products that don’t mean flushing our forests down the toilet.

About the Authors

Jennifer Skene

Environmental Law Fellow, International Program

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