Why Are Americans Flushing Old Growth Forests Down the Toilet?

Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls of toilet paper per person each year.

toilet paper in a bathroom
(Photo: Getty Images)

Written by Richard Kujawski

Remember when Sheryl Crow wanted everyone to use only one sheet of toilet paper at a time? Maybe she had a point.

Toilet paper has recently become a hot topic for environmentalists who claim that the manufacturing of “TP” creates more damage than gas-guzzling cars. That’s because the American preference to use plush, soft paper for our oh-so-delicate behinds is contributing to the loss of old growth forests.

Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per person each year. Not surprisingly, we consume more paper products than any other country—about three times more per person than the average European, and 100 times more than the average person in China.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace are campaigning globally to get manufacturers to change their ways. According to Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “No forest of any kind should be used to make toilet paper. Toilet paper made from trees should be phased out in the same way we’re phasing out the use of incandescent light bulbs.”

He explains that while toilet paper is a product we use for less than three seconds, the ecological consequences of manufacturing it is enormous. “There are more types of forests at risk from makers of toilet paper than you can imagine—ancient forests, old growth forests, virgin forests, second growth forests, natural forests, high conservation value forests, temperate forests, tropical and sub-tropical forests, boreal forests, are all at risk from manufacturers of toilet paper.”

TP is made by the pulp and paper industry, which has a long history of pollution and environmental damage. That industry, according to experts, is the third greatest industrial emitter of global warming pollution in industrialized countries (after the chemical and steel industries). Its CO2 emissions are projected to double by 2020. The manufacture of paper and paper products uses vast amounts of water, and releases highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants into our air, water, and landfills.

The industry is the greatest industrial cause of deforestation in the world, which causes more global warming pollution than all the combined emissions of cars, trucks, buses, airplanes and ships. Environmentalists say that besides the loss of trees, turning a tree to paper requires more water than turning paper back into fiber. In addition, tissue made from recycled paper eliminates waste that would otherwise go to a landfill.

In some European and South American countries, 40 percent or more of their toilet paper is made with recycled paper, which reduces chemical use and tree cutting. But in the U.S., tissue from 100 percent recycled fibers makes up less than 2 percent of sales for home use. Why do we insist on fluffy paper that is more environmentally damaging when it is only used for a few brief seconds before it is flushed down the toilet? Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per person each year. Not surprisingly, we consume more paper products than any other country—about three times more per person than the average European, and 100 times more than the average person in China. Only about a third of the paper products sold in America are from recycled sources. Most of our paper products come from virgin forests.

“I really do think it is overwhelmingly an American phenomenom,” said Hershkowitz. “People just don’t understand that softness equals ecological destruction.”

Although toilet tissue can be made at similar cost from recycled material, it is the virgin fiber from standing trees that gives it that plush feel. Customers “demand soft and comfortable,” said James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia Pacific, the maker of Quilted Northern. “Recycled fiber cannot do it.” The fibers in virgin wood are longer, making them easier to lay out and fluff up for a softer tissue.

“We have this myth in the U.S. that recycled is just so low quality, it’s like cardboard and is impossible to use,” said Lindsey Allen, the forestry campaigner of Greenpeace. That image may in part be due to the ad campaigns by the makers of toilet paper. Remember Mr. Whipple?

According to The New York Times, paper manufacturers, such as Kimberly-Clark, Proctor & Gamble, and others, are reporting a 40 percent rise in sales of luxury brands of toilet paper. The extra profit from these brands are desired during these economic times. To keep those sales high, Kimberly-Clark is planning to spend $25 million in one quarter to keep people from using cheaper brands on their bottoms. Apparently, the advertising works. Even that bear doing his business in the woods desires the soft squares.

Kimberly-Clark, which touts its green credentials on its website, rejects the idea that it is pushing destructive products on an unwitting American public. Dave Dixon, a company spokesman, said “For bath tissue, Americans in particular like the softness and strength that virgin fibers provide. It’s the quality and softness the consumers in America have come to expect.”

According to environmental groups, an estimated 25 to 50 percent of the pulp used to make toilet paper in the U.S. comes from tree farms in South America and the United States. The rest comes mainly from old forests that are important absorbers of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas linked to global warming. In fact, some of the pulp comes from the last virgin forests in North America, which are an irreplaceable habitat for a variety of endangered species.

Greenpeace claims that Kimberly-Clark gets as much as 22 percent of its pulp from the Canadian boreal forests, where some trees are 200 years old. But the company claims only 14 percent of its wood pulp comes from there.

A campaign by Greenpeace seeks to raise consciousness among Americans about the environmental costs of their toilet habits. They recently posted a guide on their website that ranks toilet paper products from an ecological perspective. NRDC also has a paper guide that rates paper products by the amount of recycled paper content.

Both groups hope that Americans will become as conscious of the environmental effects of their toilet tissue use as they are about light bulbs or other products. Increasingly, schools and office buildings are making the switch to recycled content TP because it costs less. But some switch to make a point. At the Academy Awards ceremony, the toilet tissue at the Kodak Theater’s restrooms was 100 percent recycled.

According to Hershkowitz, all toilet paper should be made from recovered, second-generation fibers. And no forest of any kind should be used to make toilet paper.

“Future generations are going to look at the way we make toilet paper as one of the greatest excesses of our age. Making toilet paper from virgin wood is a lot worse than driving Hummers in terms of global warming pollution.”

For the NRDC paper guide, go to nrdc.org/paper

For the Greenpeace guide, go to www.greenpeace.org

Do you and your family use one or two-ply toilet paper?

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