Flushing forests: the pursuit of hygienic elimination is eliminating a lot of forest.

AuthorRobbins, Noelle

Over the ages human beings have employed various methods of personal cleansing following urination and defecation, including leaves, rags, seaweed, straw, grass, snow, sand, corncobs, coconut shells, newspapers, and catalog pages. Those with means enjoyed relative comfort and luxury: French royalty used lace, while hemp served upper class needs in many cultures and rosewater-infused wool was prized in ancient Rome. Defecating in running bodies of water was considered an efficient method of washing, and disposing of waste, and still is in some developing areas.


But increasingly the method of choice for many individuals worldwide is toilet paper. There is virtually nowhere on the planet where toilet paper is not used, at least occasionally. In 2005, according to the marketing analysis firm RISI, world per-capita consumption of toilet paper was 3.8 kilograms. But the range is wide--North American per-capita consumption was highest at 23 kilograms; the lowest reported was Africa, at 0.4 kilograms--and consumption growth could be closing the gap. In 2008, China and Western Europe saw toilet tissue growth rates of 5 percent, followed by Eastern Europe at 4 percent growth and Japan and Africa at 3 percent. North American consumption remained stable.

Many factors are driving the increased use of toilet paper: growing populations, adoption of Western lifestyles, and sanitation improvements in developing countries. And despite the economic downturn, global consumption is projected to hold steady or grow.

But what about the impacts? Worldwide, the equivalent of almost 270,000 trees is either flushed or dumped in landfills every day, according to Claude Martin of WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature). Roughly 10 percent of that total is attributable to toilet paper. The result is that forests in both the global North and South are under assault by paper companies competing to fill what they insist is an inexhaustible consumer demand for, among other paper products, soft, fluffy toilet paper. The expanding global demand for toilet paper and the accompanying environmental effects of raw material sourcing and manufacturing are intensifying the focus on the source and production of tissue: virgin pulp or recycled? Tree plantations or office wastebaskets? Luxury triple ply? Or, perhaps, no toilet paper at all?


China's experience, as with so many problematic economic trends, illustrates many of the dilemmas. In China, rates of toilet paper use indicate a robust consumer economy, expanding manufacturing sector, and an increasing share of the international market. Between 1990 and 2003, Chinese consumption of toilet paper grew by 11 percent. The Chinese Institute of Paper predicts that within the next 10 years China will become the fastest-growing consumer of all paper products, including toilet paper, and will lead the world in toilet paper production as well.

China, partly in an effort to promote its "green" credentials (or environmental policies), and partly in response to the rising demand for paper products with corresponding raw material requirements, has embarked on a vast reforestation project. In 1978, China launched the Great Green Wall initiative, scheduled for completion in 2050. The goal is tree coverage of about 42 percent of China's landmass.

Those trees will demand a lot of water in a country where water issues are already troublesome. Last year, Guardian Asian correspondent Jonathan Watts discussed one of the key problems with China's tree-planting endeavor: stresses on water supplies. With emphasis on planting saplings of fast-growing trees such as poplar, larch, and eucalyptus in plantations, the impact is significant. "Although tree coverage has increased from 12 percent to 18 percent of the nation's land area, many saplings are planted in semi-desert areas where they deplete water supplies," Watts says. Expansion of tree cover may assure Chinese toilet tissue manufacturers a steady source of wood fiber to feed an industry hungry for global market conquest, but at a cost.

More than market share is at stake, however. China also correlates increased use of toilet paper with advancements in sanitation and improved health outcomes. Other developing countries make this connection as well. South Africa, for example, is undergoing an entrepreneurial revolution in public toilet management and sanitation. Trevor Mulaudzi runs The Clean Shop and identifies himself as a toilet activist, educator, revolutionary, and businessman. The Clean Shop is particularly focused on the availability of clean toilets for schoolchildren. In the absence of toilet paper, children use newspapers and articles of clothing, or rags, which clog toilets and jeopardize the cleanliness of the facilities. Mulaudzi insists children bring toilet paper from home, an "admission ticket" to school restrooms.


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