During the first few months of 2020, I’m not too proud to admit that I went on a little bit of a toilet paper craze. Much like the rest of the world, I went a little crazy with the coronavirus pandemic and ended up buying over 50 packages of Charmin Ultra Soft Toilet paper, most of which are still at my house.
This is where the question of sustainability arises. If last March’s shopping spree proved anything, it’s that a majority of consumers see toilet paper as a necessary good. Americans use more tissue paper than any other nation except China, which has more than four times its population.
Yet, according to a new poll released in March 2021, over 85% of consumers want toilet paper to be made of environmentally responsible materials instead of flushing their rainforest down the drain. Toilet paper manufacturers should listen to their customers and create products made from recycled or responsibly sourced materials.
Today, I’ll be covering Charmin, America’s leading toilet paper brand with a rocky reputation in terms of sustainability. Charmin perpetuates a highly destructive acceleration of the sustainable treadmill and tree-to-toilet pipeline by sending trees from forests to our bathroom.
Luckily, a few toilet paper brands managed to breach the sustainability barrier. I would highly recommend smaller name brands like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Natural Value if one is able to afford them. While expensive, these brands have a higher percentage of recyclable material in their toilet paper.
The average American uses 3 rolls of toilet paper/week, and much of it comes from the pulp of trees in the Canadian boreal forest. This really seems unacceptable to me; the idea that toilet paper, a product that is used for seconds is made from ancient, historic virgin wood pulp.
Instead of choosing to go the recycling route, Proctor and Gamble, the company that owns Charmin, shifts its sustainability strategy to be more well managed. About 40% of its product line comes from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit conservation group widely held to be the gold standard of sustainable forestry. Despite this reputation, it has come under criticism for not going far enough to protect indigenous rights.
FSC certification limits forest clear-cutting and ensures trees are re-planted at the same rate they are harvested. These standards also ensure that they are protecting wildlife and contributing to thriving local communities. In the last few years, P&G promised to increase the portion of FSC-certified fiber in its products to 75% from the current 40% within six years. On the one hand, this may seem like a good alternative. On the other hand, it also implies the allowance of destroying vast swaths of historic rainforest.
According to a news release, P&G offers a simple reason for not using recycled wood pulp: It doesn't make for good or comfortable toilet paper. As a consumer who used Trader Joe's Toilet Paper with a high recyclable percentage, I can understand this dilemma. As a consumer, I always appreciate the fact that Charmin’s toilet papers are very soft and comfortable to use. Nevertheless, it would seem wasteful to sacrifice decades of trees for five seconds of a cushy bum.
Aside from wood pulp and water, Charmin also uses conditioners to improve softness and strength and a water-based adhesive to hold the product together. For me, these last two ingredients from the Charmin website are a very generic term. What I can say, though, is that a lot of toilet paper, even recycled ones, contain BPA (or bisphenol), a chemical adhesive associated with all sorts of health issues and environmental effects, such as water pollution.
Still, not a lot goes into what exactly ‘adhesive’ or ‘conditioner’ means so I feel that Charmin isn’t transparent enough when it comes to describing this for consumers. It doesn't describe the environmental impact, the effects on consumers and is generally very ambiguous and lacking in detail.
There could be other chemicals in Charmin products, though. In a 2010 study, researchers concluded that toilet paper might be to blame for chronic irritation of the vulva in many women because formaldehyde was being used to improve the strength of the toilet paper.
Most toilet paper is made by combining wood pulp with water (and sometimes chemicals) to produce a kind of slurry, which can be cooked and carved into paper. While that might seem straightforward and innocuous, there are a few other things to consider when we talk about toilet paper. For starters, producing enough toilet paper to meet the needs of our bathrooms places a major strain on the environment.
As a 2019 report from the National Resources Defense Fund, an environmental and sustainability research think tank notes, “Industrial logging claims more than a million acres of virgin boreal forest every year, equivalent to seven National Hockey League rinks each minute, in part to meet the demand for tissue products in the United States.” Charmin doesn't actually use any recycled paper in its tissue product.
Virgin fiber toilet paper is terrible for the climate. Toilet paper made entirely from virgin fiber creates 3 times the carbon emissions as toilet paper made with 100% recycled content. Furthermore, Virgin toilet paper requires a bleaching process that pollutes the atmosphere and our waterways, generating twice as many hazardous air pollutants and 40 percent more sulfur dioxide as recycled tissue. These toxins can cause respiratory problems, acid rain, smog, eye and nose irritation, and possibly cancer.
These fibers are mostly sourced from ancient trees from the Canadian rainforest, a large swath of virgin forest that rings the Arctic Circle and acts as a critical check on climate change, and are home to tons of wildlife and several tribes of indigenous communities. All this means that, in pursuit of those high-quality feelings, the rainforest is sacrificed.
The Canadian boreal forest, which is often called the “Amazon of the North,” stores nearly two times as much carbon as all the world’s recoverable oil reserves combined but is being clearcut at a rate of a million acres per year.
Charmin itself is protected by the Rainforest and Allied Certificate meaning its raw materials and paper products are grown and harvested on farms and forests that follow sustainable practices. The fact that this certification allows for unsustainable forest extraction and harvesting makes me doubt the strength of such accreditation.
Another certification system in use is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which, while not perfect, has the most stringent sustainability requirements by all measures. However, while Charmin includes the FSC logo on its packaging, it has a less robust form of FSC certification, called FSC-Mix certification. This is a far more relaxed standard than full FSC certification, failing to guarantee the sustainability of boreal caribou populations, the protection of intact forests, or that the wood is obtained with the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples.
Procter & Gamble also supports certification systems including SFI (Sustainable Forest Initiative) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) that contain glaring loopholes and are a long way from guaranteeing forests are being harvested sustainably, showing certification does not guarantee sustainability or responsible sourcing
The company that owns Charmin, Procter and Gamble, is one of the three largest players in the industry which makes their actions worse. Procter and Gamble have the innovation, the resources, and the capital to bring Charmin into the 21st Century of Sustainability. Yet it does not do so.
On the one hand, it has already begun making strides. As part of its commitment to the Forest Stewardship Council, Charmin partners with organizations like the Arbor Day Foundation to fund forest replenishment in areas devastated by natural disasters like wildfires. It also has achieved many of its 2020 environmental sustainability goals such as reducing absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 16% since 2010, reducing water use in manufacturing facilities by 27% since 2010. Nevertheless, this seems like small steps for a company as big as P&G, with five billion global consumers, which is why I don't think it’s doing as much as it could to be a force for growth and sustainability.
Furthermore, there are issues with their claims. On their website, one claims that they replant every tree that they cut. It’s a common misconception that replanting trees fully fix the environmental impact of cutting down trees in the first place. The fact of the matter is that clearcutting does permanent damage to forests that replanting does not fix — scarring the landscape and changing the fragile balance of organisms and microorganisms in the soil, which reverberates all the way up the food chain. Furthermore, boreal trees grow very slowly, and it takes decades for newly replanted trees to capture the carbon than mature trees do. Much of the boreal efforts to replant are not proving successful at replicating forests that resemble the biodiverse, carbon-rich ancient forests that were clearcut.
Another claim on their website is that Charmin and P&G do not participate in deforestation. Another common misconception the Canadian government touts is that “deforestation” is the only bad logging practice. But "deforestation" is a very narrowly defined term encompassing only the conversion of a forest into something else like a road. This means a forest can be clearcut and not technically be considered deforested! As a result, Charmin’s statement about deforestation has a very narrow meaning.
In the last five years, more than 150 groups have pushed Procter and Gamble to use recycled materials in its production. The question is whether the company will sacrifice its resources and cost in the short term to create sustainable products using recycled materials. If P&G would replace just half of its raw virgin pulp with recycled content for its toilet paper, it would most likely dwarf any other sustainability commitment. Frankly, there are a lot of companies, much smaller in size than P&G that have moved in the direction of using recycled fiber paper and I have a hard time believing that they are not capable of doing the same.