Quantcast

The Issue With Tissue and Toilet Paper: How the U.S. Is Flushing Forests Away

Insights + Opinion
Morning fog over a boreal forest in Alaska. Alan Majchrowicz / Stockbyte / Getty Images

By Jennifer Skene and Shelley Vinyard

For most people, toilet paper only becomes an issue when it unexpectedly runs out. Otherwise, it's cheap and it's convenient, something we don't need to think twice about. But toilet paper's ubiquity and low sticker price belie a much, much higher cost: it is taking a dramatic and irreversible toll on the Canadian boreal forest, and our global climate. As a new report from NRDC and Stand.earth outlines, when you flush that toilet paper, chances are you are flushing away part of a majestic, old-growth tree ripped from the ground, and destined for the drain. This is why NRDC is calling on Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of Charmin, to end this wasteful and destructive practice by changing the way it makes its toilet paper through solutions that other companies have already embraced.


The Canadian boreal forest is the largest intact forest in the world, holding immense value for Indigenous Peoples, species and the climate. It is home to over 600 Indigenous communities whose cultures have remained inextricably linked to the forest for millennia, and is habitat for iconic species like the boreal caribou, Canada lynx and American marten. In addition, the forest is critical in the fight against climate change, storing the carbon equivalent of nearly twice the world's recoverable oil reserves in its soil.

Yet, this forest is under severe threat from industrial logging operations that push further into intact boreal forests each day. Between 1996 and 2015, more than 28 million acres of boreal forest were logged, an area roughly the size of Ohio. Each year, boreal logging emits hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, dramatically accelerating the pace of climate change.

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. The U.S. is a particularly voracious consumer of tissue. Over the last 150 years, since toilet paper was first invented, Americans have developed an insatiable demand for these coiled white rolls. The average four-person household in the U.S. uses over 100 pounds of toilet paper a year, far outpacing the rest of the world and driving a dangerous "tree-to-toilet pipeline" whereby trees are converted into pulp, turned into toilet paper, and flushed away.

Fortunately, alternatives to the "tree-to-toilet" pipeline already exist. Tissue products made from recycled materials are far more sustainable because they do not rely on clearcutting forests and they emit one-third the greenhouse gases as tissue products made from virgin fiber.

NRDC and Stand.earth have developed the scorecard below to inform consumers of which brands lead on sustainability, and which lag behind. Companies like Seventh Generation and Natural Value have brands that perform well because they use a high percentage of recycled material. The biggest tissue producers—Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific—perform poorly because their brands like Charmin contain zero recycled content, irresponsibly relying exclusively on virgin pulp even as threats to our forests mount.

Consumers have power in their pocketbooks and can make a big difference through their toilet paper purchasing decisions. By following this scorecard, you can minimize the environmental toll your everyday toilet paper use is having on the planet. In addition, you can urge Procter & Gamble, which produces Charmin, to transition to a more responsible alternative by embracing tissue made from recycled content and sustainable alternative fibers for their at-home toilet paper.

Now, more than ever, we need to protect our remaining forests. Given toilet paper's extreme cost to Indigenous Peoples, the global climate, species and forests like the boreal, tissue companies need to act as global citizens and usher the world into a more sustainable, sensible paradigm that does not rely on trees for creating their products. Just as we need to abandon coal, plastic straws and other devastating practices, the tree-to-toilet pipeline must end. For the good of communities, species, and the climate, we cannot afford to keep flushing our vital forest ecosystems away.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Individual standing in Hurricane Harvey flooding and damage. Jill Carlson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Allegra Kirkland, Jeremy Deaton, Molly Taft, Mina Lee and Josh Landis

Climate change is already here. It's not something that can simply be ignored by cable news or dismissed by sitting U.S. senators in a Twitter joke. Nor is it a fantastical scenario like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 that starts with a single crack in the Arctic ice shelf or earthquake tearing through Los Angeles, and results, a few weeks or years later, in the end of life on Earth as we know it.

Read More Show Less
A pregnant woman works out in front of the skyline of London. SHansche / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Air pollution particles that a pregnant woman inhales have the potential to travel through the lungs and breach the fetal side of the placenta, indicating that unborn babies are exposed to black carbon from motor vehicles and fuel burning, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Teen activist Greta Thunberg delivered a talking-to to members of Congress Tuesday during a meeting of the Senate Climate Change Task Force after politicians praised her and other youth activists for their efforts and asked their advice on how to fight climate change.

Read More Show Less
Ten feet of water flooded 20 percent of this Minot, North Dakota neighborhood in June 2011. DVIDSHUB / CC BY 2.0

By Jared Brey

When Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle last October, it killed at least 43 people, caused an estimated $25 billion in damage and destroyed thousands of homes.

Read More Show Less
A protestor holds up her hand covered with fake oil during a demonstration on the U.C. Berkeley campus in May 2010. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The University of California system will dump all of its investments from fossil fuels, as the Associated Press reported. The university system controls over $84 billion between its pension fund and its endowment. However, the announcement about its investments is not aimed to please activists.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Forest fire continues to blaze in Indonesesia on Sept. 18. WAHYUDI / AFP / Getty Images

Nearly 200 people have been arrested in Indonesia over their possible connections to the massive wildfires raging in the nation's forest, officials said this week.

Read More Show Less

By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

World leaders have a formidable task: setting a course to save our future. The extreme weather made more frequent and severe by climate change is here. This spring, devastating cyclones impacted 3 million people in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Record heatwaves are hitting Europe and other regions — this July was the hottest month in modern record globally. Much of India is again suffering severe drought.

Read More Show Less
Covering Climate Now / YouTube screenshot

By Mark Hertsgaard

The United Nations Secretary General says that he is counting on public pressure to compel governments to take much stronger action against what he calls the climate change "emergency."

Read More Show Less