A toilet paper roll’s story begins in a forest, long before that roll sees the inside of a bathroom, and it continues long after it is flushed away, in the clearcut forest and long-term climate impact it leaves behind.
As NRDC’s new report The Issue With Tissue 2.0: How the Tree-to-Toilet Pipeline Fuels Our Climate Crisis notes, many major toilet paper brands found in the United States come in part from one of the most climate-critical ecosystems on the planet: the Canadian boreal forest. This great northern forest is the most carbon-dense, intact forest left on the planet, locking up in its soils and trees twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves. Yet, despite the fact that we have only a matter of years left to act to avoid catastrophic climate change, tissue companies are continuing to drive a tree-to-toilet pipeline that is flushing away this essential climate ally.
Each year, the logging industry in Canada degrades over a million acres of this climate-critical forest, in part to feed U.S. demand for toilet paper. While Canada has a global reputation as an environmental steward, in recent years, Canada ranked third globally in its rate of intact forest loss—behind only Russia and Brazil—with logging the leading driver of that loss. 90 percent of this logging is in the form of clearcutting, a machinery-intensive practice which removes nearly all the trees in an area, and leaves behind a barren landscape.
Because of the boreal forest’s carbon wealth, clearcutting for toilet paper and other products creates a devastating impact on the climate. Each year, even according to conservative estimates, logging in the boreal releases 26 million metric tons of carbon through driving emissions from the forest’s carbon-rich soils and eroding the forest’s ability to absorb carbon. Toilet paper’s impact is even more severe because, since it is so short-lived, it quickly releases its remaining carbon into the atmosphere. That is why, according to the Environmental Paper Network, toilet paper made from trees has three times the climate impact as toilet paper created using recycled materials.
Unfortunately, the climate impact from toilet paper made from trees is likely even greater in reality. The logging industry and tissue producers claim that for every tree cut down, another one is regrown. However, not only does it take a human lifetime or longer for the forest to regain its same value for species and the climate, but, across much of the forest, the trees aren’t regrowing at all.
A recent study from the NGO Wildlands League conducted across two dozen study sites in Ontario, a province that is a significant source of U.S. toilet paper, showed that clearcutting is leaving scars across the landscape for decades after logging. These essentially barren areas, resulting from roads, heavy equipment, and tree landing sites, covered an average of 14 percent of the clearcut. By 2030, assuming this rate of logging scars continues, these deforested areas in Ontario alone will release more than 40 million metric tons of carbon.
While Canada has taken steps to regulate emissions from fossil fuels, it has not done the same for logging’s emissions. Nor do any of the major U.S. toilet paper companies have any commitments around reducing the climate impacts from the pulp they source--impacts that can dwarf their emissions from other sources. This means that toilet paper is continuing to drive unregulated, often uncounted, carbon emissions. While these toilet paper-driven emissions may not be on tissue companies’ radars, the impacts on the global climate are severe and long-lived and cannot be ignored.
Canadian provinces, meanwhile, have continued to roll back forest protections, exacerbating logging’s climate impacts. Even after Wildlands League highlighted the true cost of logging in Ontario, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government took further steps to deregulate Ontario’s forestry by eroding vital species protections and other checks on industry's footprint.
Climate experts have called for transformative change to avoid devastating climate impacts, which entails a reevaluation of how we treat and view our natural world. Indigenous Peoples have been leading the way on creating a more just, sustainable world, and it's time for companies and policymakers to follow suit. Climate change isn’t just about smokestacks and tail pipes, or oil wells and coal mines. It’s also about our forests, which have been regulating the climate for millions of years. Toilet paper is a poster child for the way in which we have devalued and squandered our precious intact forests. Solutions for more sustainable toilet paper exist, and it is time to build a more resilient, sustainable way of living. We can’t keep costing future generations so much for something as short-lived as a flush.