When the federal and provincial governments started to announce pandemic-related shutdowns in March, the first things that crossed my mind were the safety of my aging parents, and whetherI could keep my job, work from home and provide childcare at the same time. It was shocking to watch how many news reports and Facebook postswere dedicated to… toilet paper. To be frank, as an avid outdoors person, I’ve never considered toilet paper to be in my top 10 survival needs. However, as someone who is committed to reducing consumption and waste and interested in what motivates people to make these changes, I was struck by the absolute panic that running out of toilet paper caused for so many people.
I admit toilet paper has actually been on my mind for a long time. I’ve been very concerned about what single use / disposable paper products mean for our forests and the wildlife that inhabit those forests. We know that industrial logging disrupts many species, including vulnerable and declining species, and that single use products increase our carbon footprint.
To be clear, I think toilet paper should be disposable, but for as long as I can remember, I have always bought 100% recycled options. As an advocate for the protection of forest habitats, I can’t imagine logging previously undeveloped forests to wipe my behind. However, I was stumped trying to source recycled toilet paper that was not also wrapped in plastic packaging. After some investigation, I did find a local Thunder Bay provider that sells bulk rolls of toilet paper distributed in large, cardboard boxes. But when I asked if I could purchase “recycled” toilet paper this way, I was told that would be “unsanitary”. We shared a good laugh when I explained that recycled toilet paper isn’t actually made from previously used toilet paper, but it did drive home the need for increasing awareness. If toilet paper providers aren’t informed about the options, how can we expect consumers to be?
Tissue, including toilet paper, is the fastest-growing area of production in the paper industry. Between 2010 and 2015, tissue production increased by 3.5% annually, and is expect to grow by almost 6% per year in the coming years. In 2018, global tissue consumption reached 38.7 million tonnes and is approaching the benchmark of 40 million tonnes this year. For reference, in 1993, the market was only 15.5 million tonnes. Per capita, Canadians and Americans are huge consumers when compared to the rest of the world (see graph below).
Given the deluge of toilet paper advertisements that promote soft, fluffy kittens or joyful, friendly bears, we have clearly been convinced to put a premium on having “only the best” for our bottoms. One industry webpage goes as far as to warn of “poor performance” and “malfunctions” happening with recycled toilet paper leading to “an unpleasant restroom experience” that could “pose a threat to individuals such as young children”. To spare us those horrors, most tissue relies on so-called “virgin” wood fiber, whereby a harvested tree is the typical source, and consumer demand for recycled options has been stifled.
I can assure readers that I have experienced nothing but normal bathroom encounters and my recycled toilet paper is “performing” just fine. Yet many of the leading tissue companies in the United States stubbornly continue to support industrial logging in primary forests for their flagship at-home tissue products. While some have made advances in their away-from-home tissue brands that are sold to businesses, airports, and other establishments, the three companies with the largest market shares in the tissue sector, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific, still rely almost exclusively on virgin pulp for their U.S. tissue brands. A significant portion of that pulp is logged in Ontario forests.
At a time when we are facing dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, we need to shift our consumption to more recycled products.
Join us in asking Procter & Gamble to commit to using post-consumer recycled content in tissue products to create a significantly smaller environmental footprint, and to help us to protect the forests we love and rely on.
Julee Boan is Ontario Nature’s Boreal Program Manager. Based in our Thunder Bay office, she works collaboratively with local conservation groups, First Nations, and industry to seek environmentally responsible approaches to economic development in northern Ontario. She has a Ph.D. in forest sciences with research focused on mitigating the impact of industrial logging on woodland caribou.