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Flushing resources away? The effects of toilet paper on the environment

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The dense forests of Sumatra are the only place in the world where tigers, elephants, rhino and orangutans coexist.

But this haven of biodiversity is under threat like never before, having 'lost more than half of its forest cover since 1985'. As a result of this devastating deforestation, there are now only 400 Sumatran tigers, fewer than 2,800 Sumatran elephants, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos, and just over 14,000 of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans left in the wild.

The culprit? Toilet paper.

toilet paper

Image Credit: Robert- Owen- Wahl on Pixabay 

Many of us know all about how palm oil has led to deforestation in Sumatra, with multiple campaigns calling for consumers to boycott it, and high-profile adverts from the likes of Iceland drawing attention to this issue.

Whilst palm oil production is responsible for a large percentage of deforestation, the single largest deforesters in Sumatra are not palm oil companies: they are the toilet paper brands, Paseo and Livi.

These are American companies, usually sold as ‘away from home’ brands to restaurants, hotels, and other public restroom facilities. These brands – Paseo and Livi – are made with paper from Asia and Pulp Paper (APP). Both of these brands are sold mostly in America, and a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sheds light on the unexpected environmental effects of toilet paper – something which we all use and cannot avoid using.

But what are the effects of toilet paper on the environment?

deforestation

Image Credit: Free-Photos on Pixabay

More Deforestation

It’s not just Sumatra that’s affected by toilet paper use. 15% of all deforestation is due to toilet paper production. The boreal forest in Canada – covering over 60% of the country – is drastically affected by toilet paper use. Every two minutes, we produce enough toilet paper to wrap around the planet. That’s enough toilet paper to go to the 'sun and back, every ten days'.

What are the effects of this? Well, with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last year, we know that we have 12 years to get to carbon neutrality – or better – before the effects of global warming become ‘devastating’. These forests we are depleting so willingly are massive carbon sinks, with the peat in the Sumatran forest estimated to hold 19 gigatons of carbon.

To put that in perspective, that is just over half of the global emissions of carbon by fossil fuels in 2014, which was 35.9 gigatons. One forest in Sumatra holds the equivalent of half of the carbon emissions due to fossil fuels, worldwide. This is not a resource we can afford to lose.

Conservation

The Sumatran forest is the only place on the planet where tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans co-exist. All of these species are now critically endangered. And, on WWF’s reasons for the population decline of these animals, there is one common thread: deforestation.

Sumatran Tiger

Image Credit: Andrew Pescod on Flickr

With increasing deforestation, these animals' habitats are in critical danger. This means that these animals often have to travel through human settlements. This has seen an increased human-animal conflict when the animals pass through farmland and towns.

Chemical Pollution 

The process used to make soft toilet paper – Chemo-Thermo-Chemical pumping – runs sulphur-based chemicals through the hard wood, before steaming it to create the soft toilet paper so many of us use. However, the chemicals from the wood and from the sulphur compounds are often dumped into oceans. To make matters worse, toilet paper bleaching causes 235,000 tonnes of chlorine to run off into water supplies – which can result in multiple health problems for the surrounding populations.

What can we do?

It’s extremely easy to feel powerless when presented with these facts: toilet paper is something we use every day, without exception. So, how can we possibly reduce our environmental impact when something so unavoidable is at the root of a plethora of environmental problems?

Recycled toilet paper is one option: this decreases deforestation and, by extension, reduces the threat posed to critically endangered animals. However, many recycled toilet papers are high in BPA, a dangerous compound found in many plastics. As such, they may be harmful for your body. However, if this is an option you want to consider, Who Gives a Crap is an excellent recycled toilet paper brand, which use its profits to build toilets for those who need them.

Many choose the bidet as the answer to our toilet paper-related woes – they’re a far more environmentally friendly option than toilet paper. However, upgrading to a bidet is something that many cannot afford. If you can afford this option, or want to be aware of it as a future option, click here for more information about the bidet.

For the majority of us, toilet paper is something that we cannot stop using, for the time being. In their report, the WWF states that we should begin asking retailers and restaurants if they know the forest-source of the toilet paper they stock. Consider switching to environmentally friendly, recycled, alternatives yourself. Speak to your university: find out if they know where their toilet paper is sourced from, and if that source is sustainable.

Slash and burn- so deforestation- damn!

Image Credit: shankar. s on Flickr

This issue is complex, and the solutions to it are not easy or completely clear. As consumers, it’s very easy to simply say that you do not have a choice in these matters. However, we cannot change this issue if we simply ignore it: it is imperative to continue to promote the discourse around unsustainable practices in toilet paper production, if we are ever to see the change that this planet so desperately needs.

Lead Image: shankar. s on Flickr and Elya from Wikimedia Commons




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