Flushing our forests
We’re all stocking up on toilet paper — how many trees are in each roll?
Coming up to Earth Day on April 22, it may be helpful to examine what we have learned from the last few weeks in lock down due to a pandemic. Can we translate some of these temporary behavior modifications to lasting ones that will save the planet? For instance, can we drive less by making fewer trips to the supermarket? Can we use all the food we buy and can we use less resources? And last but not the least, can we use less of the ultimate single use product, toilet paper?
At the same time that retailers in the U.S. have begun limiting the number of toilet paper packs bought in a single trip, anxiety about extended home stays has people feeling pressure to stock up.
A couple things to consider before you organize a raid on your neighbor’s house for their precious rolls:
- An average U.S. household (2 to 3 people) uses about 410 rolls per year (over a 100 rolls per person per year), according to Georgia-Pacific, the company that makes Quilted Northern and Angel Soft. A company spokesperson said “therefore, to last approximately 2 weeks, a 2-person household would need ~9 double rolls, or ~5 mega rolls. A 4-person household would need ~17 double rolls, or~ 9 mega rolls to last approximately 2 weeks.”
- CNN has an online toilet paper calculator for you to see how long your supply will last — “About 2 million people have used the tool and the average user has a whopping 500 percent more toilet paper than they need for quarantine.”
Georgia-Pacific has acknowledged that staying home 24x7 may alter the math somewhat with an increase in daily use so the company shipped 20 percent more than its normal capacity to retailers. Kimberly-Clark, which makes Scott and Cottonelle, also says it is doing what it can to provide products to customers by accelerating production and reallocating inventory. The average daily production of toilet paper is more than 83 million rolls per day.
Scientific American reports indicate that making a single roll of toilet paper is a wasteful and ecologically damaging process: it requires 37 gallons (140 liters) of water, 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and some 1.5 pounds of wood. Using the average daily production figure above, that becomes nearly 125 million pounds of wood per day.
So — standing forests to be cut down, vast quantities of water to clean and soften the wood pulp, toxic chlorine bleach to whiten the paper, and vital energy consumed to manufacture and transport the product to shelves near us. What about this process feels right to us?
Even though toilet paper is advantageous and agreeable, even the finished product, soft and fluffy though it may be, has huge downsides — it clogs pipes, adds a significant load to city sewer systems/water treatment plants, and the equivalent of almost 27,000 trees is flushed every day.
Toilet paper, made from a combination of approximately 30 percent softwood and 70 percent hardwood, accounts for 15 percent of deforestation worldwide. Softwood trees such as Southern pines and Douglas firs have long fibers that wrap around each other which give strength to paper and standing hardwood trees like gum, maple and oak have shorter fibers that make a softer paper.
While the toilet paper industry has its own plantations for an ongoing supply of virgin pulp, these monocultures often displace diverse indigenous plant and animal life. They also require tremendous amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and soak up large quantities of water. Even then, a large portion of U.S. wood pulp originates in Canada’s extensive boreal forest — that’s unacceptable for the 600 native species. There are also significant climate implications, as the boreal forest stores carbon and helps absorb greenhouse gas emissions.
Historically, mass manufacturing of modern toilet paper only began when Joseph C. Gayetty created the first commercially packaged toilet paper in 1857, sold in flat packs rather than rolls. Before that, in Ancient Rome, a sponge soaked in water placed on the end of a stick was used. Eskimos may have used tundra moss in the summer and handfuls of snow in the winter and those in tropical locations used coconut fibers or mollusk shells, which may or may not have been painful. American Indians favored corn husks or leaves and in Asia, people pour water from a small pot for washing. So it is easy to see how toilet paper was a welcome invention but it isn’t the only option — presently, about 70–75 percent of the world’s population uses alternatives to toilet paper.
The U.S. however leads the world in consumption of toilet paper, creating what is being called a ‘tree to toilet pipeline’ and the U.S. toilet paper market is presently worth approximately $32 billion. It is projected to grow by 1.9 percent annually, according to Statista.
How do we break this behemoth pipeline?
The mantra is “reduce, reuse, recycle.” The middle one is a non-starter for this product but we can reduce and recycle on a meaningful scale, if we try. While we should work on reducing our use, we can take a look at recycled, or eco-friendly toilet paper. If every household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of standard toilet paper with a roll of an eco-friendly one, the industry could save nearly half a million trees. As it is, estimates say that 35–40 percent of total landfilled mass is paper and manufacturing toilet paper that makes use of this otherwise wasted material would save significant resources.
Kimberly-Clark used to incorporate pulp from recycled paper but the amount has dwindled over the years. They recycled less than 30 percent of the total fiber in 2011, and only 23.5 percent by 2017. Georgia-Pacific also told MarketWatch that the choice of raw materials used in the company’s products was “driven by the product quality and performance characteristics demanded by our consumers.”
If consumers make a statement with their dollars to demand that companies shift from their reliance on virgin-fiber pulp to recycled material, we can make a difference. A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) awarded an “A” grade to 100 percent recycled toilet-paper brands like Green Forest, Natural Value and Trader Joe’s, while it doled out a “D” or “F” to brands like Charmin Ultra, Angel Soft and Cottonelle Ultra.
The report also suggests another alternative is bamboo toilet paper, which when sourced responsibly is more sustainable than virgin wood pulp. While it does sound like a good idea on paper (no pun intended) it does present challenges if your retailer has to import it, which adds to the carbon footprint.
The most planet friendly solution is washing rather than wiping. Rather than the 140 liters of water used in the manufacture of one roll of toilet paper, you’d only be using about 500ml of water from the bidet, named after a small horse or pony in French, because using one is like straddling a pony. Bidets have been around for over 300 years — the first known bidet appeared in France in the 1700s, invented as a convenience by the aristocracy. 60 percent of Japanese households today have high-tech bidets, some 90 percent of Venezuelan homes have bidets and almost all of Asia washes instead of wiping.
When you think about it, if you stepped in dog poop or something similarly yucky, would you wipe it off with paper? No, you’d wash it off — so why doesn’t this apply to our bodies? Washing leads to fewer instances of rashes, hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, and other medical issues.
Bidet seats are reasonably priced though expensive ones will also dry you off. However, most people transition from paper to water quite well with a square or two to dry off after the wash. A bidet-type feature on an existing toilet is an easy and inexpensive alternative to shower your bottom area and can be tied right into your home water supply and hooked to the edge of your toilet.
If going from wiping to washing seems like too big of a change, you could always just use the eco-friendly paper — even if it’s not as comfy.