Saturday, September 26, 2009

Plush Toilet Paper Flushes Old Forests

This post now on Fox Business and Google News.
Photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Pictured above, one of dozens of logging trucks I saw in Washington State, carrying what the locals called little "pecker poles" - because the available mature trees are gone.

American's insistence on soft thick toilet paper is an unnecessary threat to the world's old-growth forests, says a report published Thursday in the Washington Post.

What exactly constitutes a luxury toilet paper and why is it so costly to the environment?

A sheet of toilet paper (made of wood fibers) can be rated on 3 aspects of softness:
  • surface smoothness
  • bulky feel
  • "drapability" or lack of rigidity
As it turns out, very old trees have longer wood fibers which make a product higher in the 3 desirable qualities above.

Fibers from younger trees make a paper that feels somewhat rougher than the most luxurious brands like Cottonelle and Quilted Northern Ultra Plush.

But is it really that different? Not to me. My family buys either Seventh Generation toilet paper or Green Forest brand from Planet Inc., both of which are made entirely from recycled paper. I have a roll of Green Forest right here and it feels very soft to me. I can't imagine that any increase in softness would make a difference in comfort. Marcal Manufacturing, in New Jersey, makes toilet paper from recycled paper too, although I haven't seen it in stores around my town.

Pine plantations likened to a row of Walmart stores
Old-growth forests, and all native forests, are already in a world of trouble from the timber industry. International timber companies are going after every unprotected and accessible forest on the planet. In the southern United States, where I live, more than 32 million acres of mature forest have been clear-cut and replaced with sterile monoculture plantations of loblolly pine. These pine plantations (not native to the areas where they're planted) are devoid of animal life. They are managed chemically with pesticides, and competing undergrowth is generally removed, so that the insect life and spacial heterogeneity necessary to support an ecosystem are entirely missing. E.O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard ecologist, called pine plantations the ecological equivalent of a line of Walmart Stores. The U.S. Forest Service projects that by the year 2040, pine plantations will occupy 54-58 million acres of southern forests, almost a third of the south's total 200 million forested acres.

We all know what the timber industry has done to the Pacific Northwest
When I visited the Olympic peninsula of Washington State just a couple of years ago, I passed more loaded timber trucks than I did cars. A local told me that the trucks were all headed to the harbors of Seattle, where the timber will be shipped overseas.

Southeast Asia has hardly any remaining stands of old-growth forest left, which is one reason that the orangutan is seriously endangered. It has almost no remaining habitat.

In African rainforest, and in the Amazon, international timber and paper companies have created access roads into the most impenetrable forests - roads that provice access to those who would harvest the wildlife, access for settlers who will slash and burn forest trees to make cattle pastures. The roads also provide egress for previously sequestered pathogens, such as the Ebola virus and perhaps HIV.

True, toilet paper accounts for only 5% of the world's forest-products industry. Paper and cardboard packaging make up 26%, although more than half is from recycled products. Newspapers account for 3%.

Half the world uses no toilet paper
But 5% is far higher than it needs to be. In Africa, most bathrooms have no toilet paper. You might find a newspaper or a magazine you can tear lying in the outhouse....or you may find nothing. In Latin America, the toilet paper is thin yet adequate. But it must be thrown in the trash can; Latin American plumbing can't handle it. Why do Americans have to have everything deluxe? The rest of world is growing tired of our overconsumption. A growing number of Americans are getting impatient with it too.

Ask your grocer to stock Seventh Generation, which makes a variety of sustainable products.

For more information on the timber industry, check out the Dogwood Alliance website. It's a great nonprofit whose sole mission is to educate and lobby on behalf of sustainable forestry practices. They have a wealth of information on various campaigns to protect forests and stop destructive corporations.

Or read our last book, Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. We have a whole section on how to find and choose sustainably made paper and wood products.

Help protect our forests and wildlife habitat! Skip the ridiculous ultra plush and ask your grocer to stop carrying it.

Key words:: plush toilet paper industry timber industry forest products Dogwood Alliance Washington Post ebola virus southern forests clear cuttting pine plantations E.O. Wilson Going Green Sally Kneidel Sadie Kneidel wildlife harvesting forestry roads old growth forests

David Fahrenthold. Environmentalists Seek to Wipe Out Plush Toilet Paper. Washington Post. September 24, 2009

Dogwood Alliance, in particular Scot Quaranda of the Dogwood Alliance

Sally Kneidel, PhD, and Sadie Kneidel. Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. 2008. Fulcrum Publishing

See my previous post about the timber industry and the illegal trade in wildlife.

Scot Quaranda of the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable forestry practices


Sarah said...

I wonder how the generic Target brand toilet paper compares to the 'deluxe' brands?

Sally Kneidel, PhD said...

Look and see if it has any recycled paper content. The best brands are 100% recycled paper. If it's Target brand, it's probably better than Quilted Plush brands, like Northern and Cottenelle.