During a climate crisis, industry continues to clear-cut the carbon-sequestering boreal forest in Canada to make toilet paper. We are literally wiping our butts with old growth and flushing the forest down the toilet. I don’t know if Johnathan Swift himself could have dreamt up satire more absurd.
Chopping down the boreal threatens the Indigenous Peoples who have lived there for millennia. Today, “more than 600 Indigenous communities rely on the forest for food, medicine, cultural tradition and economic prosperity.” Logging also devastates habitat for animals such as the endangered caribou and migratory birds that rely on the boreal, the “bird nursery of North America.” And of course, clear-cutting the boreal heats up the planet, which affects everyone and everything.
Plenty of alternatives exist. After all, we survived for millennia without Charmin. We’ll get to those solutions later in the post.
Forests absorb about 25 percent of human-generated carbon dioxide. The boreal forests, which stretch across Canada, Alaska and Russia, consist of deciduous trees and conifers, and the Canadian boreal holds more carbon in its vegetation and soils than any other forest in the world. Chopping down these forests not only eliminates their ability to sequester carbon, it also releases all of that stored carbon into the atmosphere.
Yearly, we lose about 1 million acres of boreal forest in Canada to clear-cutting, releasing emissions equivalent to 5.5 million cars. The US represents Canada’s biggest market for pulp and paper exports. According to the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) report on tissue products, The Issue with Tissue 2.0:
- The US accounted for 56 percent of Canada’s pulp and paper exports in 2018.
- From eight provinces in the boreal region, the US imported 70.6 percent of pulp and paper exports in 2018.
- About a third of the pulp that US tissue manufacturers use in their products comes from Canada’s boreal. For some products, this virgin pulp content is as high as 75 percent.
America’s bathrooms can function without virgin pulp
Recycled toilet paper does the job just as well as toilet paper made with pulp from trees in the boreal forest. The NRDC report found that tissue made of recycled paper reduces emissions by about a third compared to virgin pulp. Plus, products made of post-consumer recycled paper—the stuff we consumers put in the recycling bin—create a market for that paper.
Recyclables do not become new products if a market for the recyclable material does not exist. Tissue manufacturers can close the loop of our recycling efforts by buying this material. (Recycled paper contains scraps rendered by manufacturing processes. Before being recycled, these scraps had never reached the consumer market.)
Like recycled paper, alternative fibers also generate fewer emissions. Although not widely available yet, wheat straw generates lower emissions because it is merely a byproduct of harvesting wheat—it exists regardless of what we do with it. More widely available bamboo tissue also generates fewer emissions—as a rule. As the NRDC points out in its overview of the 2021 Issue with Tissue scorecard, some bamboo grows on land that has been deforested in order to make way for this fast-growing crop, which increases emissions.
How did using the loo get so complicated?!
Big business must stop chopping down the earth’s lungs for profit. But they won’t do it without pressure and policy. We individuals can keep up the pressure while also choosing more sustainable products.
Pressure big business
You can sign this petition from the NRDC to urge P&G—the worst offender—to stop destroying the forests, to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and to protect the habitat of caribou and other species that depend upon the Canadian boreal.
Next, sign this petition telling Costco to use at least 50 percent recycled material in its Kirkland Signature tissue products and to require the other brands it carries to do the same. Costco sells more bathroom tissue than anything else. Imagine the difference the company could make to the forests—and the planet—if every tissue product on Costco’s shelves contained 50 percent recycled paper.
You can also write to retailers, asking them to sell bathroom tissue made of recycled paper, wheat straw or bamboo.
Push for policy
If you live in Canada, write your politicians. The NRDC report states that since it released its first Issue With Tissue report, “Ontario has continued rolling back protections for boreal caribou, and Quebec has again delayed recovery planning.” Find Ontario MPPs here and Quebec MNAs here.
Do some homework before hitting the toilet paper aisle
Below, I’ve listed the NRDC’s 2021 grades for the best and worst bathroom tissue brands. View the full scorecard here, which includes paper towels and facial tissues as well. For each product, the NRDC examined recycled content; Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for virgin pulp; and bleaching processes. See the Appendix in the scorecard for the full methodology.
Toilet paper brands that earned As:
- Who Gives A Crap 100% Recycled (A+)
- Green Forest (A+)
- 365 Everyday Value, 100% recycled
- Natural Value
- Seventh Generation Unbleached Recycled Bath Tissue
- Trader Joe’s Bath Tissue
- Marcal 100% Recycled 2-ply
- Everspring by Target
- Seventh Generation Extra Soft & Strong
- GreenWise by Publix
- Scott Essential Standard Roll
Toilet paper brands that earned Fs:
- Scott 1000
- Cottonelle Ultra
- Scott ComfortPlus
- Charmin Ultra
- Kirkland by Costco
- Amazon Basics Ultra
- Quilted Northern Ultra Soft & Strong
- Walmart Great Value Ultra
- Angel Soft
- Quilted Northern Ultra Plush
- Target Up & Up Soft & Strong
Also, please note that some companies earned As for one variety of their bathroom tissue and Fs for another (Target and Scott, for example). You want to be sure you grab the A and not the F accidentally!
For the third year in a row, all of P&G’s tissue products received F grades. P&G continues to make Charmin, Bounty, and Puffs almost exclusively from virgin forest fiber. — NRDC
Consider alternatives to tissue products
Reducing our consumption of anything helps ensure we keep more of it—or its raw materials—around. These ideas won’t go over with everyone. But if you decide to try some of them, you’ll conserve not only paper but also your money.
Facial tissue substitutes
I first made handkerchiefs about 15 years ago and still use them. They don’t disintegrate upon nose-blowing the way throwaway tissues do and I can blow into them several times before I need a clean one. They also take up very little space in the washing machine. And they feel so much better on my nose than tissue. You may want to use handkerchiefs for this reason alone.
To make mine, I cut squares out of flannel and finish the edges quickly on my serger with a rolled hem. You can also simply cut up some t-shirt fabric and let the raw edge be—it won’t fray. These may not look as nice as flannel with a finished edge but you’re making handkerchiefs, not a prom dress. You can also simply buy handkerchiefs. They should last for years. I did a quick online search for handkerchiefs just now and even mainstream Target sells them.
Very occasionally, I do get some strange looks when I pull a handkerchief out in public and use it. I don’t know how these givers of weird looks think we managed to blow our noses before throwaway tissues hit the market. Eventually, we will normalize reusable handkerchiefs once again—and hopefully very soon!
Paper towels substitutes
In the bathroom
In the hopes that someone other than me will clean our bathroom, I store a jar of rags in the bathroom cupboard. And I often do see evidence of cleaning—a sparkling sink or tub and a wet rag hanging up to dry. I scrub surfaces with these rags, baking soda and either scrap vinegar or kombucha that has fermented to the point of very strong vinegar.
In addition to cleaning bathroom surfaces, sometimes you have to deal with substances in the bathroom that you’d rather not have to deal with—substances your child’s body violently brings forth at 2am, for example. If you use a rag to clean projectile vomit off the walls, on the upside, your trash won’t overflow with smelly paper towels. After you rinse out your rag, hang it somewhere to dry before putting it in the laundry (wet cloth in the laundry can develop mold) and wash your hands.
In the kitchen
I keep a few t-shirt rags in the kitchen to clean up small messes but for big spills, I clean up with a dish towel or unpaper towel, hang that up somewhere to dry (like outside over a chair or on the clothesline) and wash it later with the other towels.
I made the above unpaper towels using the same method as my handkerchiefs. The unpaper towel I stash in my bag at all times comes in so handy. In public restrooms—which I occasionally go to now that things have opened up!—I use my towel to dry my hands rather than throwaway paper towels or a deafeningly loud hand dryer.
These began as a flannel sheet that I had bought at the thrift shop. Once it had worn out, I made these. So I really stretched that $2.50 purchase. Or maybe I paid $1.50… I paid next to nothing for the sheet.
If you don’t sew, you can buy unpaper towels on Etsy. You’ll find lots of very cute options and by buying them there, you’ll support a small business.
“But what about fried food?”
When I mention ditching paper towels, people inevitably ask lots of questions about draining bacon and other fried foods without them. Here are some ideas:
- Keep one towel dedicated for draining fried foods. When you’re done, wash it by hand, not in the washing machine.
- Drain the fried food on a cooling rack sitting on a dish or cookie sheet. When the fat has hardened and cooled, remove it and set it aside. You could use it to season cast iron pans. Depending on the type of fat, you could also make birdseed fat cakes with it, something like these using a muffin tin for the mold.
- Drain the fried food on brown paper bags. While these also come from paper, most people have brown paper bags sitting around and you’ll reuse them at least. In some cities, you can put these in the green bin, yard waste bin or food scraps bin (different cities, different terminology, different rules).
- If you find yourself in a restaurant with unwanted paper napkins at your table, take them home and use them as your emergency fried food draining stash. Again, you still use paper tissue but the staff would have tossed it in the trash and perfect is not an option.
Substitutes for toilet paper
Like I said earlier, not everyone will go for these and that’s okay.
Install a bidet
In my experience, people who have installed bidets, love their bidets. “But they use water!” you may be saying. According to the NRDC, bidets use less water than the tissue-making process. Not sure where to start your search for a bidet? This helpful Treehugger article reviews eight different bidet attachments.
Use reusable wee wipes
Almost everyone owns a pile of old t-shirts they don’t wear. Cut those up and use your new wee wipes to dab yourself after urinating. Then toss them in the laundry, just like you do dirty underwear. Use rationed bathroom tissue or a bidet for everything else. I apologize for the TMI, but I use wee wipes and I love them. I likely conserve a couple of rolls of bathroom tissue every month.
If this really grosses you out, then don’t do it. When I cut up my first wee wipes (for myself), my daughter, a teenager at the time, looked down at the jar of clean cloths in my hand, looked back up at me and said, “I’m moving out.”
People urinated long before toilet paper became available. There are zero health concerns with this…people have urine on their underwear all the time.
ChouAmi has generously donated a prize for my next fundraiser—Solidarity Sauerkraut on March 30th! I’ll draw the winner’s name randomly from the list of registrants during the event. (The drama!)
- If the winner lives in the US, they will receive a ChouAmi Fermentation Bundle.
- If the winner lives outside the US, they will receive a $100 USD gift certificate to spend at ChouAmi’s online shop.
The fermentation bundle includes:
- One ChouAmi Fermentation Kit. The top is made from high-quality stainless steel, and fits onto a beautiful French-made Le Parfait glass jar. Ideal for at-home fermentation.
- One Maple Wood Sauerkraut Pounder. This is made in Vermont.
- One “Perfect Pickles” Spice Blend (Organic). This custom blend includes organic green tea, which keeps your homemade pickles crunchy!