A recent AlterNet article revealed an alarming situation surrounding the popularity of ‘ultra-soft’ toilet paper. In order to obtain the soft, fluffy, quilted texture that has become preferable to many consumers, manufacturers use fiber from standing trees, rather than recycled material. The facts are quite disturbing: toilet paper is made from ancient forests, old growth forests, virgin forests, second growth forests, natural forests, high conservation value forests, temperate forests, tropical and sub-tropical forests and boreal forests.
The New York Times reports: “Although toilet tissue can be made at similar cost from recycled material, it is the fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel, and most large manufacturers rely on them… Although brands differ, 25 percent to 50 percent of the pulp used to make toilet paper in this country comes from tree farms in South America and the United States. The rest, environmental groups say, comes mostly from old, second-growth forests that serve as important absorbers of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas linked to global warming. In addition, some of the pulp comes from the last virgin North American forests… Greenpeace, the international conservation organization, contends that Kimberly Clark, the maker of two popular brands, Cottonelle and Scott, has gotten as much as 22 percent of its pulp from producers who cut trees in Canadian boreal forests where some trees are 200 years old.”
Personally, I am quite happy to use recycled toilet paper, which I find to be perfectly soft and not at all objectionable. In fact, the recycled paper is so similar to regular paper that I don’t understand why any toilet paper is still made of new fiber at all. There are vast stacks of post-consumer paper sitting in warehouses waiting to be recycled, due to the fact that the market for all recyclables has dropped dramatically since the economic downturn. It seems to me that a worthy government program would be to put resources towards turning all of that into useable paper, including toilet paper.
Sure, I’ve been in homes where they have the luxurious, soft, colored, fluffy toilet paper, and I’ll readily admit that using it does make you feel like a member of wealthy society. But frankly, knowing what it requires to make the paper feel that way makes it clear to me that it simply isn’t worth it.
In the 1990s, I was a part of an environmental campaign in New Zealand which succeeded in putting an end to government-sponsored logging of ancient, virgin Beech forests. At the time, New Zealanders already opposed the logging of native forests, but the logging company had hired a PR firm to lobby government on their behalf. Many regular New Zealanders didn’t even know that the logging was going on, let alone the extent of the damage it was doing to the last remaining forests in a country that was once over 80% covered in forest.
What made this forest massacre even worse in my eyes, was that there wasn’t even a market for the timber that came from these trees, which were often 400-600 years old. They weren’t using it for furniture or building (not that I would have condoned that either, since these forests are so old they are known by British botanist David Bellamy as ‘The Dinosaur Forests’.) No, these beautiful, ancient trees were being milled and sold as woodchips and sawdust, and frequently being turned into toilet paper for the overseas market.
I remember thinking at the time that this was completely obscene, and was such a striking offense against the magnificence of Nature, that created these majestic trees, who were not only a great joy to behold and walk amongst, but they also provided homes to such an extraordinary collection of remarkable creatures, many of whom are threatened or endangered due to the devastation of their habitat.
Destruction of virgin forests for any reason is a great crime against the planet. But to cut down these ancient trees to turn them into toilet paper…? It’s really quite difficult to express just how obscene that is. I wonder how the manufacturers of these products defend such a harmful practice. I imagine they don’t give it too much thought, as long as people are buying the fluffy TP. But they’ll certainly give it some thought if we stop buying it, and especially if people start voicing their complaints.
I believe that this only goes on because the majority of people don’t know about it. If people knew that ancient trees were being turned into toilet paper, I hope that we would all reject it in favor of more sustainable options. I am sure that with the technology we have available to us today, we are quite capable of making soft toilet paper out of any one of a number of sustainable materials.
What we, as consumers, need to do, is to generate demand for ethically produced goods, by buying only recycled toilet paper and encouraging others to do the same. Greenpeace has a guide for ethical toilet paper options. If you feel incensed or passionate about this issue, then consider channeling your anger into a phone call, e-mail or letter to the companies that are carrying out this massacre of ancient trees. When business realizes that consumers are showing an increased degree of responsibility about their purchases, they will respond with products that are aligned with our values of sustainability.
As a good friend of mine remarked when he heard these facts: “If they can put a man on the moon, they can create soft toilet paper without cutting down trees.”