Sustainable Toilet Paper Can Help Fix Our Shortage

How professional line toilet paper can give consumers options and help save the climate too

Photo Credit Pam Walker/iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic is upending life for people and communities worldwide, posing economic and health challenges that we are all experiencing in different ways. In America, this difficult reality has even penetrated our bathrooms, creating an unexpected, but distressing problem: finding toilet paper. Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of us into our homes, creating shortages on store shelves everywhere, it feels as though every third news story and internet meme is about toilet paper and how hard it is to find.

As most of us “do our business” at home, rather than at workplaces or restaurants, some industry experts have said that at-home toilet paper use will increase as much as 40 percent. This new reality also means that our shuttered places of business are not using the professional lines of toilet paper that they buy for people to use when they are away from home. So while we are experiencing a TP shortage in grocery stores, companies are expecting there to be professional line toilet paper that is not being used. This toilet paper often also has the added benefit of being far more sustainable than the brands we most commonly use at home, made from materials with a fraction of the impact on forests and the climate.

There’s a huge opportunity for major tissue-makers in the United States to fix this supply chain quirk, getting much-needed toilet paper into consumers’ hands and providing a more sustainable option at the same time.

Why is workplace toilet paper any different from the TP in American homes?

While they’re made to do the exact same job, the toilet paper you use at work is made differently than the toilet paper you use at home. It comes in larger rolls. It is often single-ply. And most surprisingly, it’s usually made more sustainably. While at-home brands like Charmin and Quilted Northern are made entirely of virgin forest fiber from climate-critical forests like Canada’s boreal, it’s much more likely that the TP in your work bathroom has at least some recycled content in it, slashing its carbon footprint and its cost to our forests. In fact, rolls of toilet paper made from recycled content have just one-third the carbon footprint of those made from 100 percent virgin fiber.

Wait, store-bought toilet paper is made from forests?

Most American toilet paper is made from trees—what industry calls 100 percent virgin forest fiber. The Canadian boreal forest, where much of America’s toilet paper pulp comes from, is extremely carbon-dense, playing an essential role in keeping vast amounts of climate-changing carbon out of the atmosphere. It is also home for more than 600 Indigenous communities and many threatened species. But, due largely to logging and other industrial development, Canada is losing intact forests faster than any other country in the world besides Russia and Brazil. This forest loss, driven by demand for products like toilet paper, is significantly undermining global efforts to fight climate change.

In fact, logging companies in Canada have been deemed as essential businesses, in large part to continue to supply wood pulp to make toilet paper and other tissue products. While humanity will hopefully emerge from this pandemic in the next year or so, the forests that continue to be cut down for our toilet paper needs will not grow back in many of our lifetimes.

How can consumers get “professional” line TP?

Right now, there isn’t an easy way for consumers to get their hands on the more sustainable, “professional” line toilet paper. Some manufacturers have started selling it straight from their warehouses. Some restaurants and other local businesses in cities across the country are now selling their own TP stock to help with the economic fallout of the quarantine. But the bulk of this toilet paper isn’t getting to consumers where they are right now—their homes.

Two of the biggest manufacturers of at-home tissue products are Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific, and they both also have massive professional lines. (In fact, if you pay attention at airports, sports venues, and schools, it’s likely you’ve seen their tissue products in the restrooms.) Georgia-Pacific has pointed to supply chain challenges as limiting factors for getting this TP into our homes. But these desperate times present an opportunity to create a new way of doing business.

Tissue makers must make sustainable toilet paper the new normal

Other companies and individuals have risen to the challenges posed by the pandemic in incredibly innovative ways. An apron manufacturer started making masks instead. Engineers at the University of Maryland are turning breast pumps into ventilators. And General Motors has retooled an entire factory in Indiana to make ventilators instead of cars for the next few months.

If companies like GM can make such a massive shift in a matter of weeks, it stands to reason that, as demand drops from typical buyers of professional line toilet paper, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific can address supply chain challenges they face to start getting this more sustainable toilet paper into our homes as quickly as possible. Doing so would not only give people more options, it would reduce pressure on our world’s forests and make us more resilient in the long run.

Big tissue manufacturers have an opportunity to lead now to help address this acute crisis and the one jeopardizing our planet’s future. Let’s hope they do so quickly.

About the Authors

Shelley Vinyard

Boreal Corporate Campaign Manager

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