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Will recycled fiber toilet paper become the next compact fluorescent light bulb?

Allen Hershkowitz

Posted February 27, 2009 in Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming

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Yesterday the New York Times published an article highlighting the ecological stupidity of making toilet paper from natural forests. Although toilet paper is a product that we use for less than three seconds, 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 (and other disposable paper products).

As I said in yesterday's Times, the bottom line is this: 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. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace are campaigning globally in behalf of that cause and the world should take note.

Given the enormous ecological impacts associated with the pulp and tissue industry, (global warming impacts, forestry impacts, water impacts, biodiversity impacts, hazardous waste production impacts, hazardous air emissions), "suffering" through two or three seconds of using less soft toilet paper is worth the ecological benefits, especially when we are talking about reducing the industry's global warming impacts and preserving ancient or tropical forests, which are both impacted by toilet paper manufacture.

Among all the causes of terrestrial biodiversity loss the destruction of forests is the most consequential. Moreover, deforestation causes more global warming pollution than all the combined emissions of cars, trucks, buses, airplanes and ships in the entire world. Deforestation causes more global warming pollution that that emitted from all sources in the entire USA. Can we really defend the use of forests for making toilet paper? Absolutely not. This excess has to end.

Toilet paper should be made from recovered, second generation fibers. There certainly are paper products that still have to be made from trees in order to achieve the quality needed. Toilet paper is NOT one of those products.

The Atlantic coastal forests of Brazil, a tropical forest that I just recently returned from and which is the second most biologically diverse region in Brazil, has been decimated-- literally millions of acres destroyed--by cutting and conversion for the manufacture of pulp made into toilet paper and other tissue products by Kimberly Clark and Proctor & Gamble. One of the giant pulp mills there--the second largest in the world--Veracel--exports all of its product to makers of tissue products, including Kimberly Clark & P&G.

The incredibly diverse Atlantic coastal forests, which used to host literally thousands of woody species per hectare, has during the past few decades been substantially converted to genetically modified and non-native Eucalyptus tree plantations, which are not forests, but industrial tree farms, not having the ecological structure or functions of forests. All to make toilet paper and other tissue products. Hence, pulp and paper industry claims of "reforestation", when they involve tree farms, are false. Tree farms host 95% fewer species than do natural forests. They process only about 40% the amount of water as does a natural forest.

Adding financial insult to this ecological injury is the fact that so much of the destruction caused by virgin timber manufacture of toilet paper is heavily subsidized by taxpayers around the world. Most toilet paper is manufactured from timber. Besides timber, the industry also relies on energy and minerals. Subsidy programs from the U.S. federal government alone that has supported the cutting of virgin timber, mineral extraction and energy industries, all of which substantially benefits the U.S. pulp and paper industry, including the toilet paper making industry, have averaged billions of dollars annually since the early 1990s. Tax breaks to promote timber harvesting; below cost timber sales from federal lands; Department of Agriculture research donated to the paper industry; write-offs for timber management and other subsidies have helped propped up this ecologically devastating industry for a century. (In fact, environmentally harmful subsidies to all industries worldwide total over $1 trillion annually, a staggering 4% of the world's total gross domestic product.)

Among the most ecologically damaging government subsidies is the road infrastructure our government has built and maintains in our National Forests. These roads allow timber companies that supply paper mills to economically acquire virgin trees from ecologically irreplaceable forested areas. Fragmenting national forest habitat has done irreparable biological harm. In fact, there are approximately 370,000 miles of roads in the U.S. National Forest System that have been cut and maintained by the U.S. government for the benefit of timber companies that have historically helped to feed paper mills. By contrast, there is less than 200,000 miles of interstate highways in the entire United States.

With funds collected from taxpayers the government performs much of the paper industry's research. The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory is essentially a government financed appendage of the forest products industry that helps subsidize the pulp and paper industry, allowing it to spend less than 1 percent of its revenues on research while other industries on average spend between 4 and 5 percent.

Subsidies to the pulp and paper industry have also historically included exemptions from environmental laws. Throughout the 20th century the U.S. paper industry was exempted from having to fully comply with virtually every air-, water-, and waste pollution law that most other industries had to comply with. Nor are these subsidies limited to the U.S: One large mill in northern Alberta, that produces pulp for toilet paper and other tissue products, gets ninety-nine percent of its wood for free, an ecologically damaging give-away of endangered boreal forestland, justified by the provincial government as a jobs program. Many of Canada's most ecologically damaging paper mills are subsidized as if they were public works projects.

Collectively, these subsidies have helped finance an ecologically destructive paper manufacturing sector. The pulp and paper industry is the third greatest industrial emitter of global warming pollution in industrialized countries, and its CO2 emissions are projected to increase by roughly 100 percent by 2020. The industry is the single largest consumer of freshwater and paper production is the greatest industrial cause of deforestation globally.

There are various categories and characterizations of forests, defined (less technically) by their age, their biological value and their location. More technically, forests are distinguished by "structure", "ecological function" and "species composition" including genetic diversity.

All of these types of forests in all regions throughout the world are affected at least in part by the pulp and paper industry, with some of that pulp winding up in toilet paper. That has to stop.

Ed. note: For information on NRDC's work reforming the paper industry, visit

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Chris OFeb 27 2009 05:24 PM

In response to Allen Hershkowitz' ( senior scientist and waste expert at NRDC) comment that "No forest of any kind should be used to make toilet paper", I would have to respectfully disagree in part.

For those people with external hemorrhoids who rely on the softest toilet tissue possible to keep from being in constant pain, it is medically necessary to sacrifice some trees until such a point when or if recycled paper can be turned into super soft toilet tissue.

For the most part, I'm all for recycling, but there are some who cannot do without super soft toilet tissue.


Dr. VFeb 27 2009 06:56 PM

I do agree with you Chris! i cannot live without my nice, soft toilet paper! and i totally am for recycling!

Ed RoyFeb 27 2009 07:18 PM

As of 5 years ago there were more trees in the United States than there were 100 years ago. Since the moratoriums across the country on cutting old growth forests, what in the world is a virgin tree. Any tree that hasn't been cut qualifies as a virgin tree. Is the trees virginity being used to create concern for it's plight? If our sphinctors are too sensitive to use recycled, will we be chastised for useing too much water in a bidet? Get off our backs and our butts. Trees are the greatest renewable resource this country has, and we have been doing a rather good job of replanting and managing harvests. Practice your worldly science on the rest of the world, this country has recognized it's sins of the past against it's forests, and is doing far better than the rest of the world, managing it's renewable resources. Quit trying to be a one sheet crower.

Jeff StuckeyFeb 28 2009 12:34 PM

I am sure this comes under "Rude" behavior since it does not agree with you and calls you out for a lack of research.

The NRDC is either a complete scam trying to make money or you guys are simply too ignorant to be leaders in the fight for our precious ecology.

This Toilet Paper argument is a total red hering which will end up discrediting the enviromental protection cause.

Toilet paper is not made from virgin forest. Only an idiot thinks that or some one who has not taken the time to research it or worst yet some one just trying to profit off our enviroment exactly the way the Multi-Nationals do.

Toilet paper is made from wood grown in renewable tree plantations that are on the whole increasing the maintained forestation of the planet. I know this because my family owns several tree plantations where we took large tacks of previously clearcut land that was eroding and turned it into rotating Forrest of harvest able wood that is in fact pulped to make toilet paper.

If you are going to protect the environment try not to do more damage than good.

Why don't you people get off the couches you live on in these huge destructive mega cities nearly all of you live in and actually do something productive to change the way things are done instead of ignorant me-too activism.

Shame on you.

Jeff Stuckey

Dr. VFeb 28 2009 12:37 PM

For the most part, I do believe we should recylce, but without soft toilent paper, i can't go to the restroom. And we have been doing an okay job of saving trees to respond to Ed Roy. But I think we could do a better job, because in the last 8 years, Bush has cut down waaay too many trees.

Allen HershkowitzMar 1 2009 10:40 AM

Thank you very much for taking the time to comment on my blog. I'm happy
to say that this discussion about the ecological pressures caused by
making toilet paper from forests has spread literally around the world,
to Canada, the UK, Italy, Israel, and elsewhere.

Clearly, the absurdity of making toilet paper from forests resonates
with common sense globally. Indeed, I personally think that if there was
an antonym to the word "forest" it would be "toilet paper".

Responding to Mr. Stuckey, let me say this: Mr. Stuckey does indeed
manage tree plantations. I myself have visited some of his land and some
of his operations are very well regarded, and appropriately so.

However, his claim that toilet paper is not being made from virgin
forests is not correct.

As I wrote in my blog, many different types of forests are used to make
toilet paper.

While not all toilet paper is made from virgin forests, some of it
certainly is. And much of it is also being made from second generation,
natural forests as well.

The link I posted below will show photos taken during a research tour I
participated in of the boreal forest in northern Ontario. What we saw
and documented is that virgin, untouched boreal forest, an ecoregion
that had existed for thousands of years, was being cut down to make pulp
used in the manufacture of tissue products and, yes, toilet paper.

The photos you will see of the cut areas speak for themselves. The
timber harvested from those areas was being sent to the Terrace Bay pulp
mill, a supplier of pulp to Kimberly Clark, which converted the boreal
forest pulp into tissue and toilet paper.

The photos you will also see in the link below of the then-uncut
forested regions were of areas in the boreal on the tissue industry's
five year harvesting map, slated to be cut, converted into pulp and made
into toilet paper.

In addition to the Canadian boreal forest being cut for toilet paper, a
recent research tour that I took to Brazil's Atlantic coastal forests
also revealed that nothing less than hundreds of thousands, perhaps
millions of acres of original tropical forests have been cut over the
past few decades, converted into biologically compromised monoculture
trees farms, comprised of non-native Eucalyptus trees.

Trees farm are not forests. They do not have the biological structure of
forests and do not provide the ecological services that forests provide.
No less a biologist than E.O. Wilson has estimated that, on average,
tree farms host 95% fewer species than natural forests, and process 40%
less water.

Moreover, in tropical regions, such as Brazil, each acre of forest emits
between 100 and 150 tons of carbon when it is cut, which is one reason
why deforestation is such a substantial contributor to global warming

These photos in the link below were taken by J Henry Fair when he and I
were up in the boreal looking at forestry impacts related to toilet

As for others who responded to my blog, Chris O. and others with medical
conditions requiring soft tissue and soft toilet paper, NRDC's position
is this: People with special needs should get whatever is medically

However, that doesn't apply to most people, who should default to
recycled content toilet paper.

Moreover, there's "as soft as possible" vs "soft enough". For most
people, "soft enough" can be obtained from recycled product. And if the
tissue manufacturers put more R&D into it, I bet they could make even
softer recycled tissue. After all, it's already softer than it was 10
years ago.

All the best

Allen Hershkowitz

You can find the Boreal forest toilet paper impacts images at

Dr. VMar 2 2009 10:29 AM

Excuse me, but to reply to Mr. "Stucky" i do not think that you should be calling anyone "idiots" becasue that is just not right. so please stop.

O. JacksonMar 2 2009 02:23 PM

Of all the different kinds of toilet paper ideas I have seen, the most unique was the torn-up scraps of the Madrid newspaper hung up on a nail in the communal bathroom of the "Hostal Pension."

They ask you to throw it in the scrapbasket, but some inconsiderate tourists flushed it. The newspaper is also made of trees, but toilet paper is "biodegradable" that means it can disolve in the sewer (if there is one).

Carol MooreMar 3 2009 09:48 AM

How about HEMP TOILET PAPER?? Grows on crappy soil without a lot of water. Why do we have to import it from Canada??? And you can't smoke it. (Though smokeable should be legal too.)

Allen HershkowitzMar 4 2009 04:55 PM

Correction: In an early and widely circulated edition of an article published in the Guardian last week on the ecological impacts of toilet paper manufacture, a statement attributed to me was incorrectly reported. The early edition of the article quoted me as saying that 98 percent of toilet paper bought in the US comes from “virgin forests.” That is not my position and that is not correct. What I said and what is correct is that according to Kimberly Clark, 98.4% of the non-private label toilet paper bought in the US is not made from recycled fiber, but is instead made from trees. Some of those trees, but certainly not 98 percent of them, are located in virgin forests, like the boreal.

Louise PMar 6 2009 02:07 PM

I agree with several others comments that there are people who will need a softer toilet paper. As our population ages, you will likely see that percentage increase. To legislate that toilet paper can only be made with recycled fiber would be foolish. I think we need to have some freedom in our choices. I personally hate that I am being forced to use compact fluorescent bulbs. If I'd known that some of the bulbs I purchased were going to be phased out, I would have stock piled! In my home, they are not cost effective and they still have that irritating buzz, despite all the commercials that tell me they don't buzz. I am not against saving our environment, but I want products that work and do not irritate me. I have essentially stopped using paper plates in my home so let me keep my soft toilet paper!

Lou GrinzoMar 12 2009 10:35 AM


You've been quoted in online publications as saying, "making toilet paper from virgin wood is a lot worse than driving Hummers in terms of global warming pollution." Can you provide me your analysis behind that statement?

Please note that I'm NOT disagreeing with the conclusion, and I've already said online that I'm sure you have your facts straight. I would like to see the assumptions, data, and calculations that went into that analysis, as I think it would make for an interesting post on my site (The Cost of Energy), as well as a case study in a book project I'm just beginning to develop.

Feel free to contact me directly via the e-mail address I've provided to make this post.

Comments are closed for this post.


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