Did you know the average American household uses 3 rolls of toilet paper per week… PER WEEK! What in the world are we doing in there?? We use more bathroom tissue than any other country! (source)
Our need for a cushy butt-wiping experience has gained a lot of recent attention as the effects are more evident than ever. The term “tree to toilet pipeline” has even been coined to describe the devastating consequences of our bum-coddling. (yes, I said it — no sugar-coating here.)
This is too big of a deal to water down or soften the facts, so I’m not doing it. Especially when there are so many sustainable options on the market now. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you need to understand what’s actually happening as a result of our pampered posteriors.
And our sensitized snouts! (ok, ok, enough alliteration, get on with it…)
Five Facts on Forest Flushing
1. We are taking away from the largest intact forest in the world, and one that holds immense value for Indigenous Peoples and animal species.
The Canadian boreal forest is where the majority of virgin bathroom tissue products come from. “Between 1996 and 2015, more than 28 million acres of boreal forest were logged, an area roughly the size of Ohio… Much of this logging goes to feed global demand for tissue pulp—especially in the U.S. The Canadian boreal is a major source of northern bleached softwood kraft (NBSK) pulp, the U.S.’s most favored grade of virgin softwood pulp for tissue products.” (source)
This forest provides a habitat for many iconic species, including the boreal caribou, the Canada lynx and the American marten. Over 600 indigenous communities live in and are deeply connected to the boreal forest, going back thousands of years. Species like the boreal caribou are strongly tied to many of these cultures, yet they’re being driven out of their habitats. Several indigenous communities are fighting to preserve their homeland and to protect the boreal forest from logging without their consent. (you can learn more about this here)
2. The boreal stores twice as much carbon per acre as tropical forests and absorbs the carbon equivalent of 24 million passenger vehicles every year.
“The boreal forest is the most carbon-dense forest ecosystem on earth,” write the authors of the “Issue with Tissue” toilet paper report. “When the boreal is deforested and degraded from logging, its capacity to continue sequestering carbon significantly declines and releases into the atmosphere carbon that had been locked up in the trees and soils.” (source)
“The thick layers of moss, soil and peat of Canada’s boreal, which stretches across the country’s entire northern range, form one of the world’s largest terrestrial storehouses of carbon dioxide and play a critical role in preventing global warming.” (source)
We are already in a climate crisis and we need all the help absorbing CO2 that we can get. Cutting down ancient trees to manufacture a product destined for butts, noses and landfills doesn’t make any sense, especially not from the most helpful intact forest we have in existence!
3. The worldwide toilet paper market is worth $80 billion and so much of it is completely unnecessary!
Not much else to say on that one, honestly… It’s just ridiculous. So much money, so many resources — all being washed away. There is no need to use virgin paper for our bums and face! This video addresses some of the craziness within our current toilet paper industry.
4. Facial tissue is also included in this wasteful mess.
“Many U.S. tissue paper manufacturers operate in both the United States and Canada, and tree fiber, pulp and tissue paper products move across the border among logging operations, pulp mills, tissue paper mills and consumer markets. These companies rely on virgin fiber from the Canadian boreal forest, as well as from the biologically sterile tree plantations that are quickly taking the place of species-rich U.S. forests, especially those in the Southeast.” (source) The article continues to describe how the native forests across the southeastern U.S. are “vanishing at an alarming rate” and talks about how these ecosystems are now considered “fragile”.
And why is that again? Oh right, so we can blow our noses into virgin-paper we can toss.
Also. Interesting side note: the origin of disposable facial tissue came out of World War 1 ending, was presented to the female public as a way of keeping their “skin pretty like famous movie stars”, and promoted the convenience of having a “handkerchief you can throw away”. (source)
5. Have you ever thought about how it’s made?
Here are the typical ingredients needed to produce most virgin-fiber toilet paper rolls (and facial tissue): trees, water, chemicals for extracting fiber, and bleaches like chlorine dioxide. Most of today’s commercial bathroom tissue is cooked in a “chemical pulp” to create that bright white and cushy feel. (source)
A single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water to make. Bleaching a batch uses 235,000 tons of chlorine (which then pollutes surrounding water). 17.3 terawatts of electricity is used per year in the manufacturing and transporting of this toilet paper. (source)
I personally don’t need all those chemicals and that environmental guilt hanging over my head.
Gross. So, What Can We Do?
I’m glad you asked! The answer is simple: replace virgin-paper bathroom tissue with sustainable products. Like I said earlier, there are plenty of options on the market these days. Let’s dive into the ways you can help clean up this mess. (literally!)
Hankies and Bidets
In my research and personal experience, bidets are hands-down the best zero-waste option for your lower half… But we’re not going to talk about that today. I totally understand if you’re more than a little hesitant to even consider trying something that new (been there!), and it’s a bit of an investment. So, I’ve got a full blog post coming in the near future devoted only to this wonderful invention called “the bidet”. If you feel like researching on your own and trying it out, good on ya! But don’t feel pressured to make that change yet if you’re not ready. I’ve got more ideas below.
What about your top half? Your nose, your sniffer, your snout? If you’re looking for the best zero-waste option, handkerchiefs are making a comeback! You may be thinking that’s just gross, but check out this post from Colleen Patrick-Goudreau to learn about the overall benefits and cost comparison of hankies vs. disposable tissue.
If you’re not up for trying it, the next best thing would be purchasing tissue made with recycled paper fibers. Be sure to check that it hasn’t been whitened using bleach or other harmful chemicals. “About 163,000 trees would be spared by replacing one box of virgin fiber facial tissue with a 100 percent recycled one in every household in the US.” (source)
TBH, I don’t use it. Although it is a very zero-waste approach — replacing disposable toilet paper with cloth that is washed and reused — I have found that the pro’s and con’s seem to be about equal. If you’re up for trying it, go for it — no judgement! If you’re not ready to go to that level of zero waste, though, I feel ya. My personal preference (besides using a bidet) is the category below.
Sustainable Bathroom Tissue Options
The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) published their “Issue With Tissue” report in 2019 and gave different toilet paper brands a score based on their “sustainability score-card”. It kind of blew up the internet for a minute. So many consumers were shocked to find that some brands they had thought were sustainable were actually green-washing. The article is a fairly quick read and definitely worth a look.
That being said, I want to briefly compare bathroom tissue made with recycled paper fibers and those made with paper alternatives. Both, in my opinion, are incredibly powerful choices for creating less waste and are better for the environment in most ways.
“According to some studies, if every household replaced just one roll of virgin toilet paper with 100 percent recycled toilet paper, we will save almost half a million trees. Toilet paper made of recycled ingredients could help you save money as well as the planet.” (source) It may not be as soft, but you only use it for a few seconds anyway and that choice alone leaves a lasting imprint on the planet. (Be sure to check that the recycled paper fibers have not been bleached or soaked in other harmful chemicals.)
Bamboo (sustainably-sourced) is a fantastic paper alternative. It’s not a tree but actually a grass and it grows up to 39 inches per day! This makes for a much more eco-friendly product, and I’ve found it to be even softer than paper (if that’s important to you). Most bathroom tissue brands made with bamboo do not use chemical bleaching and source their bamboo ethically, but it’s always good to check! It’s also worth noting that bamboo toilet paper dissolves naturally and will not clog pipes or septic systems. (thanks, Kevin, for your engineering mindset and always making sure I dig deep in my research!)
Here are some of my personal favorite brands for sustainable toilet paper: Tushy, Green Heritage, Who Gives A Crap? and Bim Bam Boo. Have fun researching which brand you like best and giving it a try!
If you still have lingering questions: this is a fantastic resource with FAQs.
Saving The Planet Is Our Duty
Ok, so maybe it’s not fully our duty — that’s kind of a lot of pressure to put on ourselves. I just couldn’t resist the joke.
But really, one of the easiest (and affordable!) steps you can take with a dramatic impact on the environment is the one right under your nose. Or bum.
We don’t need virgin paper products for our bathroom tissue. We just don’t. It doesn’t make any sense financially or ethically.
The climate crisis is calling on us to make better choices, to look at the bigger picture and care for the world beyond our personal bubble. “Saving the planet” is not an individual’s responsibility — true. But remember that other post about zero-waste takeout? When individuals become the masses, people start listening. People in charge, people who have the power to change systems.
Nothing will systematically change without people demanding it.
So, to save all our butts, what will you wipe yours with?