The Environmental Impact of Toilet Paper
Tissue products such as toilet paper, paper towels, and facial tissue are cheap and convenient—but they cost the planet a great deal. The vast majority of the tissue products found in our homes are made from wood pulp, the use of which drives the degradation of forests around the world. Their everyday consumption facilitates a “tree-to-toilet pipeline,” whereby centuries-old trees are hewn from the ground, converted into tissue pulp, rolled into perforated sheets or stuffed into boxes, and flushed or thrown away. The consequences for Indigenous Peoples, treasured wildlife, and the global climate are devastating.
These impacts are compounded by the fact that the United States is a particularly voracious consumer of tissue products. The U.S. tissue market generates $31 billion in revenue every year, second only to China, and Americans, who make up just over 4 percent of the world’s population, account for over 20 percent of global tissue consumption.1,2 Much of the tissue pulp in the United States comes from the boreal forest of Canada. This vast landscape of coniferous, birch, and aspen trees contains some of the last of the world’s remaining intact forests, and is home to over 600 Indigenous communities, as well as boreal caribou, pine marten, and billions of songbirds. Yet, industrial logging claims more than a million acres of boreal forest every year, equivalent to seven National Hockey League rinks each minute, in part to meet demand for tissue products in the United States. This loss of intact boreal forest is impacting Indigenous Peoples’ ways of life. It is also driving the decline of species including boreal caribou, which, as an “indicator species,” serves as a barometer for the health of the boreal forest more broadly.
Maintaining an intact boreal forest, which acts as a massive storehouse for climate-altering carbon, is also vital to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Tissue products made from virgin fiber pulp, which comes from trees, are a clear threat to our climate. When the boreal and other forests are degraded, their capacity to absorb man-made greenhouse gas emissions declines. In addition, the carbon that had been safely stored in the forests’ soil and vegetation is released into the atmosphere, dramatically undermining international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.