Greed Flushes the Earth’s Lungs Down the Toilet

empty toilet paper roll

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.

Forest services

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?!

Solutions

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
  • Presto
  • Solimo
  • Aria
  • Fiora

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.

Worn flannel sheets make very soft reusable handkerchiefs

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 a couple of handkerchiefs too

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.”

On deploying reusable toilet towels during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, Lauren F Streicher, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology, told The Guardian,

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!
REGISTER
Fermentation bundle from ChouAmi

12 Replies to “Greed Flushes the Earth’s Lungs Down the Toilet”

  1. Thank you for the valuable information, Anne 🌍😊

    1. My pleasure. I’m glad you found it useful 🙂

      1. Yes. You are welcome 😊🌍

  2. Jessica Baxter says: Reply

    I (finally) just subscribed to Who Gives a Crap toilet paper delivery after reading this! Also ordered my conservative MIL a set of their Dream Towels (also known as Swedish Dishcloths) as a way to (hopefully) get her to reduce her paper towel usage. She likes bought things…

    1. Hi Jessica,
      Great! I know several people who really love Who Gives a Crap. Good thinking with your MIL 😉

  3. Great article! I know I’m dating myself, but when I was growing up in rural New England, people rarely bought tissues, they used handkerchiefs. We always replenished my father’s at Christmastime, and most of the older ladies had pretty trimmed and embroidered ones tucked up their sleeves!
    Also, my mom always used brown paper to drain her fried foods, or she used a rack. We didn’t use paper towels either, and no one used plastic trash bags! Somehow, we survived.

    1. Thank you, Dorothy. I bet it took a while for the paper companies to convince people to make the switch (I don’t know, I’m just guessing). Embroidered handkerchiefs sound much more luxurious! We did survive and we will survive in the future without all this throwaway stuff!

  4. Hi there, thank you for this post. I have been using 100% recycled toilet paper for years. I have wanted to move to pee pads because we are on a septic system and why not reduce the amount of “stuff” going into that as the majority of what is sucked out when it requires a clean out is toilet paper leftovers.

    I have question about the apple scrap vinegar. I have made it and enjoy it for cooking. Is this vinegar in it’s cooking form, good for cleaning? Can I make a stronger vinegar and if so how?

  5. When I returned to BC in 2019, I began looking for tubeless toilet paper as soon as we arrived from the US x 22 years. We had been using tubeless toilet since I read a internet post that said, “Americans throw enough toilet paper rolls to stand up and down both Trade Towers every day”. I wish the Trade Towers were still standing now. Thus we used it for years, got it at Target. My kids were long past the toilet paper roll craft’s projects that were sent home from pre-school for Mother’s Day gifts. Pray, tell me why do we need toilet paper rolls?

    Here in BC, everyone: family, friends, salespeople, thought I had a screw loose when I asked people where to get it. Since my teenagers, who are all for sustainability and stopping climate change, can’t seem to put a empty toilet paper roll in the recycling bin 2′ from the bathroom, I soldiered on. I met a registrar at the local famer’s market who had heard of an acquaintance speaking of it, but did not have contact information. Living in the supposed mecca of pulp and paper companies, I started enquiring from the companies. Turns out only companies in Ontario made the raw stuff up to TP, 4,400 km away. I had endeavored to buy locally within 50 km of where we now live. One of the companies of 3, answered me: “No, Canadian companies do not make tubeless toilet paper, it is a manufacturing re-tooling issue”

    I then checked the Ontario companies that shipped to warehouses here, thus I would not be individually responsible for the entire carbon footprint. However, 2 companies I talked to “used recycled Canadian waste”. This at least made me feel better. Their toilet paper is not considered the most comfortable as per work colleagues in another office than mine, who use it as that is what the office manager buys as it is the most economical. The office is usually empty given the pandemic/remote working.

    In the meantime during my research, a British friend gifted me “Who gives a Crap” as she heard me going on about all the plastic that TP was enshrouded in here. She always ordered it the UK when she lived there. She extolled the profits $ that the company put into building 3rd world toilets. Then there was an mistake in the shipping, and we received 2 boxes! Discussed with the HO in Ausse, and they agreed, not worth it to send it back.

    So anticipating it’s arrival, I researched the company, who were most helpful, Australians usually are. Well, they considered themselves to have opened a Canadian branch. (BC and Ontario only). However, the supplies to BC and Ontario came “up” from the US, never could find out how far south or east in the US, certainly not Seattle. The waste used to make their TP is post consumer Chinese waste as “their waste” was cheaper than Australian waste. They make it there, and then ship all the way to the US, then ship it up to Canada. I was not thrilled. I feel a country should use it’s own waste, not someone else’s. I have heard that China’s rates for their waste is going up, and of course the supply chain crisis is driving shipping costs/waits up. I did not feel comfortable with that kind of carbon footprint, and all the shipping labor trade contracts that would have to be negotiated along the way. I also did not find their TP roll art work endearing as they advertise, how would I use that for wrapping (wrinkled form encasing the TP roll) paper of a gift (as the company suggests) for my 93 year old mother?. I thought as Wendy of Moral Fibers.co.uk did, why not donate $ to the charity companies that build toilets in the 3rd world directly? I checked, WTC not improving sanitation projects for Indigenous people in their native Australia, nor in the US, since opening business in the US, and had no plans for that in Canada.

    Yes, there were 400 sheets per roll. I had done all this research when the Vancouver Sun, Sept, 21, 2021, published it’s article, “What are we flushing down the drain?”, and the discussed the NRDC stats.

    However, in the pandemic lockdown, when we (my twins and myself) were literally hunkered down in an a 1968 built small “condo” dependent on a woodstove for heat nestled in the snowy mountains. Our only neighbours were a mama black bear and her twins wandering around the environs of the unit and constantly hanging out on the access road. The unit was usually inhabited by teenage boys so only towels, no facecloths, and the TP supply ran out fast were in the cabin. There was a washer and drier. I made it out to a store 1 1/2 away, but shelves were empty of TP. However, down the aisle silk bamboo facecloths were on sale: $6.00 for 5! So a lightbulb went on in my head. To me it was survival, but then I began to read that UK eco-blogs were talking about “the family cloth” since 2012! So I have converted, my teenagers daughters won’t consider it, but we still have the WTC TP from the Sept. gift. However, I know I am going to have to go on the warpath research again. However, since the land border has opened up and I need to go to Seattle to visit a friend, I will check Target for “tubeless TP”. I don’t remember the company that made it so if found, I will have to research the company. My kids are at least learning to live with no paper towel, they were shocked when I suggested the old tea towels we had.

  6. Anne-Marie,
    Thank you for the wealth of sustainable environmental issues in this newsletter! We are definitely signing the petitions you linked.
    In gratitude,
    Karen

  7. Thank you. I filled out both letter forms. My house does a mix of cloth, bidet, and WGC TP. I’m not asking visitors to use cloth just yet, but I have plans.
    I like the WGC toilet paper in terms of quality and that it ships right to me. I wish they did not individually wrap each roll in paper and (like another commenter stated) there are some issues with the miles the tp travels to get me. Reusable cloth is definitely where it’s at and I appreciate your commitment to our shared environment. Thank you so much for being an internet buddy in this crazy and beautiful world.

  8. Thank you for this post! I’ve been meaning to subscribe to WGAC and just did, thanks to your prompt! It’s a small change, but one I’ll feel good making! I’m currently reading the Outlander book series and the paper toilet perspective is one that makes me both laugh and cringe. How we went form treating paper like gold to wiping our…selves…with it is quite the turn. And yet here we are. Anyhow, thanks again! Have a great week!

Leave a Reply