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The real problem with toilet paper: Where it comes from

Within the space of about a week in March, hundreds of millions of Americans were told to shelter in place to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many Americans looked around at their places, assessed their capacities to hunker down for a while, and then went out to stock up on toilet paper. It was a predictably irrational response, the bandwagon effect turning perceived scarcity into actual empty shelves. 

The irrationality of armed confrontation over toilet paper, however, is nothing compared to the irrationality of how America’s toilet paper is supplied every day of the week. Huge tracts of the Canadian boreal forest, a globally important carbon sink, are being clear-cut every day to create the softwood pulp that goes into most American T.P. 

Americans are the world’s leader in toilet paper consumption. Every year, the average American uses over 140 rolls of T.P. – that’s 28 pounds, twice as much as someone in France or Italy. In fact, Americans, just 4 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for 20 percent of global toilet paper consumption. And most of our toilet paper is made from virgin softwood pulp, with zero recycled paper content. In the $9.4 billion U.S. toilet paper market, recycled products make up a paltry $161 million, or less than 2 percent.

The result is that our toilet paper habits lead directly to the degradation of forests across the southeastern U.S. and threaten the Canadian boreal forest, the subarctic forest that stretches from Alaska to the Atlantic and accounts for 12 percent of the world’s carbon storage

Between 1996 and 2015, an area of Canadian boreal forest the size of Ohio was cut down - most of it clear-cut - with virgin pulp representing a “substantial driver of logging in the Canadian boreal forest.” Over half of Canada’s pulp and paper exports go to the United States. Without realizing it, we’re flushing millions of pounds of this important carbon sink down the drain every year.

Most major U.S. toilet paper brands claim to be sustainably produced, and some can point to Forest Stewardship Council certification, an important first step for producers to show their supplies aren’t coming from illegal deforestation. But these products are still driving demand for virgin pulp. And just because deforestation is legal doesn’t mean it’s responsible. 

In Canada, a clear-cut old-growth forest is not considered deforested if trees are replanted, even though the land could take a hundred years to regrow a fraction of what was lost. And official statistics may underestimate the problem. A report by the Wildlands League, a Canadian conservation organization, found that boreal deforestation in Ontario alone – where just a sixth of Canadian logging takes place – is taking place at seven times the “official” reported rate for all of Canada. 

The solutions start by reducing the demand for 100% virgin pulp, thus reducing the amount of deforestation that occurs to support our toilet paper habit. A wide variety of less damaging options exist: alternatives to virgin pulp include pre-and post-consumer paper content, bamboo, and agricultural residue. None of the most popular brands contain any recycled material at all, despite the fact that 85 percent of Americans want toilet paper companies to use more environmentally responsible materials. 

Manufacturers should listen to those consumers and ensure that at least half of the material used in toilet paper - and ideally all of it - is forest free. Adding a portion of recycled material to existing brands’ standard mix of virgin pulp would have significant climate benefits. Bamboo toilet paper releases 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than virgin wood; recycled paper, 66 percent fewer.  

Better recycled options and more sustainable logging practices are important, but reducing the 57 squares of toilet paper the average American uses each day is just as important. Both by being more conscious of our usage every day, and by considering alternatives such as bidets, which are common worldwide (97 percent of Italian households have one) and can dramatically reduce toilet paper consumption. 

People have strong - and very personal - opinions about toilet paper. (Whether the toilet paper should hang over or under the roll can spark fights among the right crowd). So, while change might be challenging, it’s worth considering - especially given the stakes. We shouldn’t accept vast swaths of badly degraded Canadian boreal forest - especially when good alternatives are at our fingertips.

With a strong commitment to conservation by manufacturers and consumers, the toilet paper we find on our local store shelves - whenever it reappears - can do more to protect our precious forests and our climate.

Photo courtesy of Trevor Hesselink/Wildlands League