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Forests. Good for humans, good for animals, good for the planet. Intact, pristine forests are carbon sequestration powerhouses and home to thousands of diverse species. They’ve also been home to Indigenous communities for centuries. So yeah, they’re a pretty big deal.
Ultra-soft toilet paper. Nice for your bum. Not so nice for the planet. What makes it so soft? Trees from old-growth forests. In fact, the toilet paper industry has been sending old-growth trees straight to toilets around the world for years.
And the majority of tree-based tissue products in American households come from northern Canada’s boreal forest.1 This outdated method results in a “tree-to-toilet pipeline,” with centuries-old trees being flushed away forever.
The impacts on Indigenous communities, wildlife, our health, and the climate are devastating.
Let’s take a look at the issue with old-growth tissue.
The boreal forest is situated just below the Arctic Circle and spans 1 billion acres across Scandinavia, Russia, China, Alaska, and Canada.1 This ring of green around the northern edge of our planet is home to boreal caribou, martens, lynx, moose, and other forest-dwelling creatures who rely on the pristine forests for survival. It’s also a nesting ground for over a billion migratory birds that fly across North American skies.
The boreal is the largest carbon-dense forest on earth. This is due in large part to half a million square miles of wetlands spanning the forest. Wetlands not only provide a home for migratory birds and other wild animals, but they also store an enormous amount of carbon. The trees, soils, and wetlands of the boreal together store about 230 billion tons of carbon dioxide— that’s about 12% of the world’s carbon stores.1
Indigenous communities have also called these forests home for centuries.2 Over 600 Indigenous communities live in the Canadian Boreal. They have generations of knowledge and wisdom about living with and managing these diverse forests. Including Indigenous people in land management and use planning creates sustainable local economies and contributes to the protection and preservation of Canada’s boreal forest.
Toilet paper is a relatively recent addition to American homes. Prior to the 1850s, a variety of natural materials like moss, snow, and corn cobs were more common. Even old issues of the Farmer’s Almanac were used. (Ouch). Toilet paper was first invented in 1857, but it took a decade or so to really take off. Today, Americans make up just 4% of the world’s population but consume 20% of toilet tissue produced.1
And where does that tissue come from? Canada’s old-growth boreal forest. Between 1996 and 2015 more than 28 million acres of forest were cut down for toilet paper. That’s an area roughly the size of Ohio. The most common method of tree removal is clearcutting. Basically, this is where an entire stand of trees is completely razed, without regard for soil erosion, forest health, or the animal life that depends on the trees for survival.
Continued clearcutting of Canada’s boreal will release even more carbon into the atmosphere with devastating effects on climate change. One acre of forest sequesters about 2 tons of carbon dioxide a year, or about two cars’ worth of yearly emissions. But that’s just an estimate. And doesn’t take into account the loss of the wetlands, the loss of biodiversity, and the loss of a home for Indigenous communities.
So why are companies still using old-growth trees for toilet paper? It has to do with softness.
Two kinds of trees are used to make traditional toilet paper — hardwood and softwood. Hardwood trees are deciduous trees, like oaks and maples. Softwood trees are evergreens like spruce and Douglas fir. As you might guess, softwood trees give toilet paper its softness. The long fibers also help strengthen the tissue.
After clearcutting, the trees are sent to a pulp mill. They’re mashed up into what’s called virgin pulp (virgin meaning directly from trees without any recycled material). This process uses massive amounts of energy, water, and chemicals. The pulp is then transformed into tissue products and shipped around the world for distribution.
It takes time for softwood trees to develop those long fibers. How long? Spruce trees reach old-growth status in just over a hundred years. And many in the boreal forest are over 300 years old.3 300 years of growth and survival, just to be flushed down the toilet.
And using these old-growth trees for the softest toilet paper creates a massive carbon footprint — about three times as much as alternative pulps.
As if that weren’t bad enough, virgin pulp is made with a toxic chemical mixture that’s bad for humans and bad for the environment.
Using old-growth wood for toilet paper doesn’t fully soften the tissue for consumer tastes. The pulp must be bleached to further whiten, soften, and strengthen the final product. Elemental chlorine is a human-made chemical that produces dioxins when used to bleach tissue products.
Dioxins leach into the air and groundwater and are harmful to humans, animals, and the environment. Not good. Manufacturers, fortunately, moved away from elemental chlorine in the 1990s.
These days there are three methods used to soften toilet paper:
Virgin pulp processing creates other air pollutants like formaldehyde, which can cause respiratory issues and possibly even cancer. The process also emits sulfur dioxide which can cause smog, acid rain, and respiratory problems in humans and animals.
So who’s cutting down old-growth trees to make soft toilet tissue?
North America’s largest producers of toilet tissue all use virgin pulp:
Proctor & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific, and Kimberly-Clark
Their brands include Charmin, Angel Soft, Cottonelle, Brawny, Bounty, Kleenex, Quilted Northern, and Viva. And all of them received an F on the National Resources Defense Council’s sustainability scorecard.4 These brands also make the softest toilet papers on the market.
Want to help save the boreal forest? Good! We do too.
Here are four steps we can all take to help end deforestation:
A few small steps today can help save our old growth forests for generations.
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