We’re Destroying Virgin Forests For Toilet Paper — What Are The Alternatives?

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The vast majority of the tissue products found in our homes are made from wood pulp, the use of which drives the degradation of forests around the world. Their everyday consumption facilitates a “tree-to-toilet pipeline,” according to the NRDC. Think of it. Trees that sprouted when your great-great-great grandparents were born are chopped down, converted into tissue pulp, rolled into perforated sheets or stuffed into boxes, and flushed or thrown away.

On average, a person in the US can be expected to get through 141 rolls of the stuff annually, equating to roughly 12.7 kilograms, according to Statista. Tissue is big business in the US, as it generates $31 billion in revenue every year. People in the US comprise about 4% of the world’s population but consume over 20% of global tissue.

Much of the tissue pulp in the US comes from the boreal forest of Canada. This vast landscape of coniferous, birch, and aspen trees contains some of the last of the world’s remaining intact forests. It’s home to over 600 Indigenous communities, as well as boreal caribou, pine marten, and billions of songbirds.

Yet industrial logging for paper products like toilet paper claims more than a million acres of virgin boreal forest every year. Isn’t it time we accept our responsibility to choose sustainably sourced personal paper products?

Cultural Shifts are Difficult: But Virgin Forests for TP? Really?

I must admit it: when I traveled in Europe and the MidEast, I didn’t know how to use a bidet. So I didn’t, continuing the practice common in the US of relying on toilet paper during my bathroom visits. But now I’ve learned that the manufacture of soft, gentle, fluffy bathroom tissue is one of the most environmentally destructive processes on the planet. Isn’t it time for the US to accept a cultural shift and install bidets in our residences?

Some people consider squirty bidets to be a key green technology because they eliminate the use of toilet paper. They’re much less stressful on the environment than using toilet paper. If you argue that a bidet uses too much water, Biolife Technologies, manufacturer of the high-end line of Coco bidets, says the amount of water used by a typical bidet is about 1/8th of a gallon, with the average toilet using about four gallons per flush.

In the meantime, it’s important for each of us to understand the affects of our daily paper usage of tissue products such as toilet paper, paper towels, and facial tissue. Sure, they’re cheap and convenient, but the consequences for Indigenous Peoples, precious wildlife, and the global climate are devastating, as large-scale use of paper contributes to unnecessary deforestation.

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Some of our most personal time is spent in the bathroom, right? And you deserve the best when it’s all about you, true? Yet the choices we make for the paper products we use in the bathroom have environmental consequences. When you flush toilet paper with that’s oh-so-soft, you’re likely flushing away a regal old-growth tree. Our satisfaction in gentle paper is taking a toll on virgin boreal forests, which generally offer some very special features:

  • has attained great age without significant disturbance
  • exhibits unique ecological features
  • likely classified as a climax community
  • possesses diverse tree-related structures that provide diverse wildlife habitat
  • increases the biodiversity of the forested ecosystem
  • has multi-layered canopies and canopy gaps, greatly varying tree heights and diameters
  • offers diverse tree species and classes and sizes of woody debris

A 2019 report from the NRDC titled “The Issue With Tissue” describes how most major household toilet paper brands, including Charmin, Cottonelle, and Angel Soft, are made from virgin forest fiber. In our recent CleanTechnica research, it seems like not much has changed in the year since the report was originally released. There are options and alternatives, of course, to relying on virgin boreal forests for paper supplies, but major companies decry their use.

Sustainable alternatives to toilet paper exist— major brands simply choose not to use them.

Which TP Brands are Best to Buy?

The NRDC offers a scorecard for produces that offer the highest sustainability quotients in the toilet tissue products. Its study shows that there are 2 entirely separate camps when it comes to sustainability — some companies using almost entirely recycled content in their products, while others incorporate none. The following toilet tissue brand lines received an “A.”

  • Green Forest
  • 365 Everyday Value, 100% Recycled
  • Earth First
  • Natural Value
  • Seventh Generation
  • Trader Joe’s Bath Tissue

The products that have the word “soft,” “ultra,” “plus,” and other superlatives in them — even if the word “sustainable” is added — tend to receive very low grades — “D” or “F.”

  • 365 Everyday Value, Sustainably Soft
  • Cottonelle Ultra
  • Scott 1000
  • Scott ComfortPlus
  • Trader Joe’s Super Soft Bath Tissue
  • Charmin Ultra
  • Kirkland
  • Angel Soft
  • Quilted Northern
  • Up & Up Soft & Strong

The Big 3 Tissue Companies & Their Tired Excuses

Many of the leading tissue companies in the US refuse to reconsider virgin fiber pulp in their name brands rather than investing in existing consumer alternatives. Commercial tissue products from the big producers have undergone some transitions, but the 3 companies with the largest market shares in the residential tissue sector, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific, still rely almost exclusively on virgin pulp.

P&G offers a simple reason for not using recycled wood pulp: They argue it doesn’t make for good toilet paper. “Have you tried recycled toilet paper yourself?” a P&G spokesperson asked CBS MoneyWatch. She pointed to Charmin as a superior product. “I promise you’ll enjoy it much more,” adding that P&G’s experience making recycled tissue products shows that “a significant amount of recycled fibers ends up as solid waste sludge going to landfill.” Excuses?

Kimberly-Clark is one of the biggest suppliers of toilet tissue worldwide. The proportion of recycled wood pulp used by the company has fallen over the years from just under 30% in 2011 to 23.5% by 2017. The growing trend — which is corporate driven — for “luxury” 4-ply and quilted toilet roll is inspiring Kimberly-Clark to create the softest possible product, which points the conglomerate to virgin pulp.

Georgia-Pacific boasts, “Our products are manufactured using recycled and virgin fiber, and our mills have chain of custody and fiber sourcing certifications from recognized third-party groups, including the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) and Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC®).” Fiber sourcing standards set mandatory practice requirements for the responsible procurement of all fiber sourced directly from the forest, whether the forest is certified or not. What’s less clear, however, is why Georgia-Pacific insists on virgin boreal forests for their virgin fibers when so many alternatives exist. Indeed, there is no reason to make single-use tissue products from wood, according to the NRDC, and FSC certification simply isn’t as beneficial to forests as avoiding the use of trees in these products altogether.

Alternatives to TP

Fortunately, solutions to the tree-to-toilet pipeline already exist. Instead of relying on virgin pulp, tissue companies can use recycled content or sustainably sourced alternative fibers such as wheat straw and bamboo. Use of these materials to create tissue can dramatically reduce our destructive impact on the boreal and other forests around the world. Some companies have already begun incorporating these far more sustainable materials into their products.

Alternative fibers include both virgin fibers from rapidly renewable sources (hemp, flax, Arundo donax, bamboo, kenaf) and agricultural residues (wheat straw and bagasse). And let’s not forget the hygenic and practical bidet.

The NRDC acknowledges that many people in the United States are reluctant to stop using their tissue products. For those who don’t want to make the switch, the best thing to do is follow the sustainability guide and buy only tissue products made from recycled materials.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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