Few people give much thought to how their toilet paper is made. And to be fair, there’s nothing particularly engaging in the backstory of this industrially produced, single-use paper product. But it’s important to remember that many toilet paper products equal trees—and we flush them down the drain at an alarming rate. Each year, vast swaths of forest are logged to produce the wood pulp that gets turned into toilet paper, with the final product chemically bleached to whiten and soften.
In fact, tissue products—facial tissues, paper towels, napkins, and toilet paper—are the fastest-growing sector of the international paper industry, with production forecast to rise by 6 percent annually through 2022. In the United States, we consume more than 15 billion pounds of tissue each year. That means we currently buy, use, and flush about 20 percent of the world’s supply of tissue products, even though we account for just over 4 percent of the world’s population.
To see the devastating impact of this market, U.S. consumers need only look north of the Canadian border to the great boreal forest that rings the continent in green, which is being felled at an alarming rate, in part to satisfy the global appetite for tissue. Logging crews mostly clear-cut 28 million acres of woodland between 1996 and 2015, an area roughly the size of Ohio, according to NRDC’s report The Issue With Tissue: How Americans Are Flushing Our Forests Down the Toilet.
This logging destroys and degrades wildlife habitat, threatens the lands and way of life of indigenous peoples, and robs the planet of one of its most important defenses against climate change. “The boreal is a massive storehouse of carbon that has accumulated in its soils and vegetation over millennia,” says the report’s author, Jennifer Skene, an environmental law fellow in NRDC’s International Program. “When it is released because of logging, it has devastating ramifications for global efforts to mitigate climate change.”
Only by using alternatives to tissue products made with virgin wood pulp can we begin to reverse the destruction of the Canadian boreal and other forests, Skene says, who points out that “Many people are not aware of the toll tissue takes on our forests.” Here’s how you can be part of the solution.
Shop for sustainability.
Fortunately, there are plenty of competitively priced varieties of tissue with minimal impact on forests. The Issue With Tissue report’s scorecard assigns grades to all the major brands of toilet paper, paper towels, and facial tissues, as well as popular house brands at leading supermarkets and brands that have adopted more sustainable practices.
Leading the scoreboard are six products—Green Forest, 365 Everyday Value 100% Recycled, Earth First, Natural Value, Seventh Generation, and Trader Joe’s Bath Tissue—that are made entirely of recycled material and use a chlorine-free bleaching process that does less harm to the environment than other methods. Grades of A go to toilet papers that contain the most postconsumer recycled content; this means that most of their materials have already been processed once and therefore reduce waste. (The alternative, preconsumer recycled content, is largely scrap and excess raw material collected during the manufacturing process. While it is far preferable to virgin forest fiber, it does less to offset waste than postconsumer recycled content.) The brands that get an A “have looked into the impact of their products and are embracing alternative materials that will allow us to continue using tissue products with a fraction of the environmental cost,” Skene says.
Think twice before buying these products.
Brands that get an F in the scorecard—including Charmin Ultra, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, and Up & Up Soft & Strong—rely entirely on virgin forest fiber for their products. These tissue products have three times the carbon footprint of those made from recycled paper; many also use dangerous bleaching processes. You may notice that the label “FSC certified” appears on some of these brands. While the Forest Stewardship Council is the world’s most creditable independent certifier of responsibly managed forests and provides an important set of standards for products that require the use of wood (like lumber), there is no reason tissue products should be made from trees in the first place, Skene says.
Give your household tissue use more consideration.
Next time you reach for a package of facial tissue at the supermarket, visualize a majestic evergreen spruce or fir in the forest. “Something that we use once and throw away should not be destroying a vital part of our earth,” says Shelley Vinyard, who oversees NRDC’s work encouraging corporations to establish stronger protections for Canada’s boreal forest. In the bathroom, use paper tissue products with reusable materials that get the job done. Keep rags beside your sink and use them as much as possible instead of paper towels. Replace paper napkins with cloth versions, and instead of one-and-done facial tissues, rely on handkerchiefs and washcloths that can be laundered and reused indefinitely.
Despite the steady degradation of the boreal forest, the leading tissue brands stubbornly maintain a business-as-usual approach to the manufacture and marketing of paper tissue products. Charmin, Bounty, Kleenex and other brands continue to manufacture tissue using methods that have changed little since the 19th century, still relying entirely on virgin wood pulp. Meanwhile, they have vast research and development budgets that they could leverage to create soft, strong recycled tissue products. “The companies themselves have said people aren’t calling for this,” says Vinyard. You can help change the manufacturers’ minds by letting them know your concerns about wood pulp from Canada’s boreal forest—nearly 60 percent of which is shipped to the United States annually.
“It’s all about where responsibility lies,” says Vinyard. “Consumers can create the demand for recycled content, but really it’s up to major companies with large R&D budgets to innovate and figure out how to make a product that is appealing to shoppers and doesn’t destroy our forests.”
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