Wiping Out the Forests of the World
At an Earth Day festival in Madison, Wisconsin, I was privileged to hear Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speak profoundly on the impact of environmental problems on current and future societies. One message I walked away with was related to the amount of virgin forests, including Canada’s boreal forest, being destroyed by paper companies in order to produce triple-ply toilet paper. Unfortunately, although this northern forest comprises about one third of the world’s forested area and 23% of the world’s stored carbon, only 8% of boreal forest is protected, according to ForestEthics' reports.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, the drivers of the increased use of toilet paper and other throwaway paper products include growing populations, adoption of Western lifestyles and a higher value placed on sanitation and health throughout the world. China is poised to be the demand leader in paper products over the next ten years, followed by substantial growth in the rest of Asia, Russia and Latin America. What will the future impact be on the forests of the world?
What We Know
- Worldwide, the equivalent of almost 270,000 trees is either flushed or dumped in landfills every day thanks to throwaway paper products!
- Americans use more than 3.2 million tons of toilet paper annually; that's the equivalent of 54 million trees. The production of each roll requires an average of 37 gallons of water.
- 40% of landfill content is currently paper that could have been recycled.
- If every household in the U.S. bought just one roll of 100% recycled toilet paper, we would save over 400,000 trees!
- According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): “The pulp and paper industry consumes 42 percent of all wood harvested for industrial uses, contributing to the degradation of natural forest ecosystems around the world.” It is also the single largest industrial consumer and polluter of water and the third biggest emitter of global warming pollution in industrialized nations.
What is Being Done to Preserve Virgin Forests
- Tree Plantations
Industrial plantations are springing up in the southern U.S. and China as a way to grow replacement wood quickly. These plantations usually consist of wood like pine and eucalyptus that are planted in monoculture plantations. Particularly spreading throughout South America, Indonesia, Asia and Africa, the large plantations, however, are overtaking natural grasslands, encroaching on indigenous populations and wreaking havoc on the soil. While an inexpensive replacement, they obviously do not replace the bio-diverse forests that continue to be cleared.
Some countries are making saving their forests a priority. Canada is in the midst of a plan for the largest conservation initiative in history – protecting over 175 million acres of their boreal forest. Meanwhile, members of the Forest Products Association of Canada have agreed to a moratorium on logging in 71 million acres of the forest, which is prime caribou habitat.
- Forest Certification
Certification of wood and wood products by an objective and scientific organization, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), provides an opportunity to ensure that all projects using wood components come from sustainable forests. Where can you find these products? Check out the database of the FSC for distributors, and ask your local retailer what they offer. While there are other certifications out there, the FSC is the only one that complies with the ISEAL Code of Good Practice. Members of the ISEAL Alliance lead international standard-setting, certification and accreditation organizations that focus on social and environmental issues.
What Consumers Can Do to Help
- Educate yourselves!
Check out the NRDC’s Shopper’s Guide to see which companies use the most recycled content in their paper products. Here are three things to look for in paper products:
- Zero-use of chlorine bleach or other toxic chlorine compounds
- Replace throwaways with reusables
Use washable rags for cleaning instead of paper towels, and cloth napkins rather than paper napkins.
- Vote with your wallets
Use your spending power to persuade companies to be friendlier to the environment by only buying earth-friendly products. Reward the companies who are doing good things!
- Send a message to paper companies urging them to do the right thing by avoiding bleach in their products.
- Recycle all your paper so it can be reused.
- Use only Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood in your projects to ensure that virgin fibers are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
- Check out these innovations:
While some may consider this a radical alternative, check out what Japan is using to reduce toilet paper usage by 50-90%: the Washlet, a water-based personal cleansing system made by Toto – which is a little like an upside down shower with a blow-dryer! It is an innovation that merges function with art –á la Steve Jobs- even down to its simple lines and pure intentions. It is estimated that 70% of the homes in Japan use these devices. Imagine the trees that could be saved if the Americans could get over their angst about bidets!
What Businesses Can Do
Many businesses have gotten on board with Smart Paper programs that help conserve and recycle all types of paper. Green procurement programs are making headway in helping the environment, but also in saving money, reducing waste and improving business processes. These types of programs also qualify for LEED points in the Building Operation category.
The NRDC has put together a toolkit to help you get started. Businesses like Warner Bros. Studios and Random House have made great strides through their participation in Smart Paper programs – see their stories here.
It is clear that the future of our natural resources is in each of our hands – determined by the values we have, the choices we make, and the knowledge with which we arm ourselves. It is up to us to determine whether the earth's story will be one of destruction and collapse, or cooperation and resourcefulness.
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