The Issues with Household Tissues
By Andrea Alban-Davies, Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee
Toilet paper is not a sexy topic of conversation. It doesn’t make for a great eco-friendly post the way volunteering at a tree-planting event does, but it is important. More important to the issues of climate change and species extinction than most people know. When I first learned this, my first thought was: really?!? Because toilet paper is not a high-grade consumer paper product, I assumed that its impact would be lower than a lot of other paper in my life. I was dead wrong, and here’s why: Most major toilet paper makers source their products from climate-critical Canadian boreal forest. The traditional brands we’re used to seeing on the shelves of supermarkets and big box stores are made almost exclusively from virgin pulp from these centuries-old forests.
Conservationists dedicated to informing the public and lobbying for changes in the industry call it the direct “tree-to-toilet pipeline”. They are urging us all to stop flushing away some of the most environmentally important – and threatened – forests in the world. The boreal forest is important for many reasons. Perhaps the one that resonates most with people across the globe is that the remaining boreal forest stores more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem — 300 billion tons of climate-altering carbon in its soils, plants, and wetlands. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) puts that number into perspective for us: it’s twice as much carbon as the entire world’s oil reserves. The boreal forest also provides critical habitat for myriad species, many of which are already threatened, and it holds deep importance for Indigenous Peoples.
Right now, more than 1 million acres of the Canadian boreal forest is clear-cut each year. While not all of this is attributable to the toilet paper industry, a significant portion of it is, and we can do something about it. Today! While professional conservation organizations are hard at work trying to protect the primary forests of the boreal, we, as consumers, can make our own meaningful impact by making sure we aren’t supporting destructive practices. We obviously can’t stop using toilet paper, so what can we do?
Not surprisingly, given the importance of this issue, there are established sustainable tissue options on the market. The best one, as per NRDC’s “Issue with Tissue” report, is toilet paper made with 100% recycled content. A handful of our local grocery stores carry options, and several are even competitively priced store brands.
If you still use paper towels, which have all the same sourcing issues as toilet paper, look for other household paper products made from recycled content from these same companies and brands. Bamboo is also a now-popular alternative. While bamboo’s environmental footprint is smaller than virgin forest fiber, it is still considerably larger than recycled fiber. And, if you do opt for bamboo, make sure to look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FCS) logo to ensure that it is being sourced from a bamboo plantation that wasn’t established through clearing and conversion of primary forests, i.e., those that have never before been industrially disturbed.
Does 100% recycled content toilet paper have the exact same qualities as the paper we’re used to? No. Does that feel like a small price to pay to save centuries-old, climate-critical virgin forests? Absolutely.