Will recycled fiber toilet paper become the next compact fluorescent light bulb?
Posted February 27, 2009
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 http://www.nrdc.org/paper
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