Bathroom Tissue Wiping Away Boreal Forests

I stand in the paper products aisle pondering the most environmentally-friendly toilet tissue to purchase. How can I tell whether a particular brand is truly made with recycled content or bleached with a clean, safe process? Many products that are labeled as using recycled materials, I have learned, contain as little as 10% recycled content. Adding to my consternation is the fact that I have tried some of the earth-friendly brands before and was not satisfied with the quality. Perhaps it is not worth it.

Then I think about the Yellow-rumped Warbler that flitted around in the tree next to my driveway this past winter. Its bright yellow rump patch flashed as it darted from branch to branch. It is one of the first migrating birds to arrive at its nesting grounds in the northern Rockies and the western Canadian boreal forests, where it nests high in mature conifers. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is one of over 300 different species of birds that nest in the Boreal. While the Yellow-rumped Warbler also nests as far south as the southern Rockies, for a number of species, the Boreal is their only nesting place.

The Boreal ecosystem, named after Boreas the Greek god of the North wind, is spread across 2.3 million square miles of land that circles the northern portion of the globe. It includes forests, lakes, river valleys, wetlands, peat and tundra. North America’s portion of the Boreal Forest is one of the largest intact forest ecosystems remaining on earth.

However, the integrity of the Boreal Forest is at risk. Over 30% already has been designated for logging, energy and other development, resulting in millions of acres being clear-cut each year. Surely household tissue products are an insignificant part of this problem.

However, consider the following information provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council: If every household in the United States replaced just one box of facial tissue with 175 sheets and manufactured with virgin fiber, with a box manufactured with 100% recycled content, it would save 163,000 trees. If every household replaced just one 500 sheet roll of virgin fiber toilet issue with 100% recycled ones, it would save 423,900 trees. If every household replaced just one 70 sheet roll of virgin fiber paper towels with 100% recycled ones, we could save 544,000 trees. And if every household replaced just one 250 count package of virgin fiber napkins with 100% recycled ones, it would save 1 million trees.

The impact is even greater when we consider that although the population of the United States represents only seven percent of the world’s population, we consume 50% of the tissue paper products.

As I study the descriptions on the bathroom tissue packages, I become confused. What is post-consumer content? Contrary to what the label implies, it is not made from toilet tissue that has been recycled. The conservation group Conservatree responds to this myth as follows: “Are you kidding!? Think that one through for a minute. Where does used toilet paper go? Right…down the sewer to sewage plants, where it turns into sewage sludge.” The recycled content in tissue products comes from the types of paper we put in our recycling bins, e.g. newspaper, advertising flyers and copy paper. These products are washed and scrubbed several times before they are suitable to make tissue products.

I decide to purchase a package of each of the three brands available where I shop: Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly and 365 Whole Foods Brand) to compare their softness, durability and cost-effectiveness – and then asked two friends to join me in my research. They each had house guests during the test period that willingly completed my questionnaire, giving me a total of seven respondents besides myself. Each roll had a code marking, so the testers did not know the names of the brands.

Interestingly, the three men participants were the harshest critics and seemed the least likely to be willing to switch from their current product.

Seventh Generation (100% recycled paper, with a minimum of 80% post-consumer material) – 62% rated this brand as feeling as soft and strong as the product they currently used. Only one person indicated they used more sheets than with their current product.

365 (100% recycled paper, with 40% minimum post-consumer content) – No one rated this brand as soft as their current product. 50% rated it as strong, while almost 40% said they used more sheets.

Earth Friendly (100% recycled paper, with a minimum of 10-25% post-consumer content) – No one rated this brand as soft as their current product. One group of three summed up their feelings in this area by declaring it “sheer torture.” While two individuals indicated it was as strong as their current product, I found that it tended to disintegrate during use.

Most major consumer brands, e.g. Charmin, Angel Soft and Cottonnelle are made from 100% virgin fiber. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Kimberly-Clark, one of the world’s largest tissue paper producers, including the Cottonnelle and Scott brands, uses more than 1.1 million cubic meters of trees from Canada’s boreal forests each year, in addition to purchasing pulp from companies that harvest trees from the boreal forest.

While it is hard to think about spending premium dollars to purchase environmentally-friendly bathroom tissue, especially with the spiraling cost of consumer goods, I can’t help but be influenced by the following statement from the Great Law of The Iroquois Confederacy, which is printed on the wrapper of Seventh Generation bathroom tissue, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.

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