Is Your Favorite Toilet Paper Made from Ancient Forests?

The NRDC's new "Issue with Tissue" report links toilet paper to deforestation.

Aerial view of selective logging in Canada
Aerial view of selective logging in Canada.

Christopher Morris - Corbis / Getty Images

 

The toilet paper you choose has an impact on climate change, a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says. The 2020 edition of the "The Issue With Tissue" report was released on June 24, and it reveals a deep divide between the winners, whose toilet paper contains high percentages of recycled content, and the losers, who continue to use virgin wood pulp exclusively.

The big problem with virgin wood pulp is that it drives deforestation in Canada's boreal forest, which the NRDC's report describes as one of the most ecologically important forests in the world. 

"The forest’s vegetation and slow-decaying soils lock away nearly twice as much carbon as is contained in all the world’s recoverable oil reserves. That’s more carbon than any other forest on the planet. Per acre, it holds nearly twice as much carbon as the Amazon."

And yet in Canada, the equivalent of the footprint of a small house (1,400 square feet) is logged every second – which adds up to the equivalent of a small city block being cleared every minute. The report challenges the Canadian government's view that its logging practices are sustainable, pointing at the dwindling herds of boreal caribou that are often considered the "canaries in the coal mine" when it comes to environmental problems, and the fact that logged land takes decades to recover, never returns to its original diverse state, and cannot be replaced by the monoculture "tree farms" that logging companies replant.

People need toilet paper; the report does not dispute that, though it does encourage the use of bidets, which use less water than the toilet paper manufacturing process does. But it argues that there are less harmful ways of producing toilet paper that consumers would do well to understand in order to make better informed decisions when shopping.

The NRDC report presents a scorecard that ranks popular brands according to their environmental commitment. Scores are based on percentages of post- and pre-consumer recycled content, the amount of virgin fiber, whether the virgin fiber is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (which NRDC describes as the "only voluntary forest certification system to have independent audits and robust protections for intact forests and Indigenous rights") and what kind of bleaching process is used. 

So what is a shopper to do with this information? The report has several suggestions.

1. Buy toilet paper made with recycled content.

This is a crucial first step that will make you realize how little you need the virgin material. Big companies may say that it's consumer demand driving their inability to use recycled content, but many smaller companies with far tinier R&D budgets have managed to prove that fully-recycled TP works perfectly well. Commit to this basic requirement when buying toilet paper forevermore. 

2. Ask store managers to stock sustainable alternatives.

If no recycled options are available at your local store, speak out! Ask for cleaner, greener toilet paper and explain why it matters to you. "This informs managers of the demand for more sustainable products and sends a message up the chain to retailer corporate headquarters about consumer preferences."

3. Urge corporations to change.

Go beyond the retailer to the producer, and speak out about your TP preferences. Companies do listen to the general public and are swayed by it; even in the past year, since the release of the first Issue with Tissue report, there's been far more talk about recycled content than ever before. The report authors say, "Do not underestimate the power of social media. Often a tweet or some other form of public communication with a company can create more accountability, inform them of market demand, and increase the likelihood that the company will change."

4. Use less toilet paper. 

You could be like my mother and designate specific numbers of squares allowed, according to the severity of the bathroom visit. (Yes, she actually did this, pre-ripping and stacking into neat little piles.) I thought it crazy at the time, but now with a bunch of TP-happy little boys in my own home, I suddenly understand. Rolls disappear in the blink of an eye. 

But seriously, do try to minimize usage. Teach kids not to use entire handfuls of toilet paper. Embrace reusables in place of tissue paper and paper towels, which are also included in the report. And do consider that bidet; most people really love them, once they get used to them. Read the full report here.