The toilet paper crisis of 2020 will probably be remembered as a strange and humorous aside to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a new report from the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council says there's a different but more worrisome toilet paper crisis now looming in Canada, and it's driving global climate change.
The Issue with Tissue 2.0: How the tree-to-toilet pipeline fuels our climate crisis, claims a significant portion of virgin wood fibre from the one million acres of Canadian boreal forest clear-cut every year goes to large American toilet paper producers.
"With every roll of their unsustainable toilet paper, companies are pushing the world toward an unthinkable future, destroying ancient and irreplaceable Canadian boreal forest for something as short lived as a flush," said co-author Jennifer Skene.
The Forest Products Association of Canada says the report contains numerous false claims and accusations.
President and CEO Derek Nighbor says the characterization that Canadian forests are being cut down to make toilet paper is patently untrue, and that the report is an exercise in "wanton polarization."
"In Canada, we're not harvesting trees to make toilet paper, we're harvesting trees in a planned and sustainable way to produce lumber. And then at those sawmills, the leftover wood chips, sawdust and bark then go off to different facilities for further processing," he said.
"The wood fibre that ends up going to toilet paper is about one per cent of our overall wood fibre basket."
The report says clear-cutting for toilet paper and other short-term use products like facial tissues and paper towels, is putting 26 million metric tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year.
"This is releasing an enormous Pandora's box of previously locked up carbon from the forest vegetation and soils, reducing the forest's capacity to absorb more carbon and creating an insurmountable carbon deficit at current rates of logging," said Skene.
In the report, the NRDC takes aim at Proctor & Gamble, maker of Charmin, the best selling toilet paper brand in the U.S., criticizing it for continuing to use 100 per cent virgin forest fibre without any shift to recycled fibre or more sustainable wheat straw or bamboo fibre.
"We are … demanding that Charmin manufacturer Procter and Gamble and other tissue manufacturers change their recipe to reduce pressures on our boreal forests and push the Canadian government to protect the forest before it's too late," said Stand.earth's Tzeporah Berman.
3 times the climate impact
According to Skene, toilet paper made from virgin fibre has three times the climate impact as that made from recycled material.
In a statement to CBC, Proctor & Gamble said: "When you buy Charmin, you are making a responsible choice. Charmin is Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, sourced from responsibly-managed forests."
Nighbor says so far consumers have not shown much demand for toilet paper made with recycled fibre. Plus, he says, there is a limit to its use.
"I think you can recycle paper six times, so you're always going to need virgin fibre," he said.
"If you have lumber sawmills with chip piles piling up that they can't sell, that becomes a fire risk. So we view it as part of the circular economy. And if people, based on preference, want more recycled content, we would support that."
According to Nighbor, only 0.5 per cent of the harvestable Canadian forest is cut every year, with the vast majority used for lumber production.
The Canadian boreal forest stretches from Newfoundland and Labrador to the Yukon. According to Natural Resources Canada, it is not considered ancient because most of its trees are relatively young and regularly affected by forest fires, insects and other natural disturbances.
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