Please Stop Wiping Your Butt With North America's Temperate Rainforests

Please Stop Wiping Your Butt With North America's Temperate Rainforests
Illustration: Jim Cooke / Gizmodo Media
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I want to talk about Oregon—how fun it is to hike through Siuslaw National Forest, where the trees creep up to the coastline and ghostly stumps of Sitka spruce poke up from the sand. Or about the ride along U.S. 101, through tunnels carved from dense forests of hemlock and red alder, draped in bright moss and permeated with fog. I want to talk about how magical it is to pass through Oregon’s microclimates, to visit a town where it seems to be raining only there, or to break through after a long patch of bad weather into a dissonantly balmy clearing.

But I can’t talk about any of these things without first addressing how lazy and short-sighted it is for Americans to allow the Pacific Northwest to be logged routinely for disposable paper products. You know what I mean: the paper cups many of us don’t even reuse over the course of a single barbecue, the quilted napkins we rest our phones on because we’re afraid of café tables, and yes, the toilet paper upon which we wipe our butts.

Lastly, I want to tell you to save up and buy a bidet.

The average American uses 23.6 rolls of toilet paper per year, according to research conducted in 2009 by RISI, an independent market analysis firm specializing in timber products. With nearly 330 million Americans (and assuming about 1000 rolls of toilet paper per tree, borrowing again from RISI’s calculations) that adds up to 7.7 million trees transformed each year into T.P. for our bungholes. Separate research conducted by Charmin estimates that we use 57 sheets of toilet tissue per day, or about 50 percent more than the global average. We are a nation of Cornholios and our demand is high.

Most of America’s toilet paper is made directly from fresh pulp, from tree farms and virgin forests, because the industrial process that makes each sheet soft enough for sensitive human posteriors requires long fibers that simply don’t survive recycling.That industrial process, incidentally, is called crêpeing—and, like the French pastry name implies, it involves heating a thin batter of wood-pulp on a metal cylinder and then sliding it off into delicate billowy sheets.

American customers “demand soft and comfortable,” as a spokesman for paper products company Georgia Pacific once put it to the New York Times, and “recycled fiber cannot do it.”

A view of Devils Churn through the trees of Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest, trees that are maybe a few bad generations or election cycles away from being flushed down the toilet.
A view of Devils Churn through the trees of Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest, trees that are maybe a few bad generations or election cycles away from being flushed down the toilet.
Photo: U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region

The fresh wood-pulp in toilet paper, of course, comes from all over the world, but plenty of it—especially in Georgia Pacific brands like Angel Soft® and Quilted Northern®—does indeed come from the same beatific landscape that Lewis and Clark explored in 1805, arriving in your bathroom to be befouled and consigned to a man-made swamp of underground filth.

Georgia Pacific currently owns three major facilities producing tissue paper in the Pacific Northwest, two in Oregon and one in Washington state. A spokesperson for Georgia Pacific told me that as a private company, it would not disclose key information about its operations in this part of the world. But back in 2005, the last year the firm was required to file a 10-K, Georgia Pacific reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission that its total paper production in Oregon, annually, was about 383,000 tons of primary tissue (i.e. freshly crêped paper) and approximately 437,600 tons of converted tissue (i.e. paper fully processed and packaged for sale to consumers). In Washington state those numbers were 137,000 tons of primary tissue and 207,600 tons of converted tissue. Conservatively, that means this one paper products company is turning tens of thousands of temperate rainforest trees into toilet paper each year.

According to Georgia Pacific’s official statement on sustainable forestry and certification, the company “takes steps to assure our customers and consumers that we are responsibly sourcing wood and fiber for our pulp, paper and wood products operations.”

The practice is murkier in reality. That’s because today’s major toilet paper brands have little direct involvement in the logging of private timber land, beyond their role as business-to-business consumers. According to Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystem analysis at the University of Washington, many private lands in the northwest are in the hands of faceless subcontractors like Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which operate their forests like short-rotation plantations, favoring investment liquidity over strategies that could strengthen local wildlife populations. As Franklin noted in a critique published in a forestry textbook earlier this year, forests managed as TIMOs or REITs are often cut down erratically based on fluctuations in the global commodities market.

John Mulcahy, Georgia Pacific’s vice president of sustainability and compliance, estimates that nationwide 15 percent of the company’s wood comes from industrial timberland, like those owned by REITs and TIMOs, and about five percent comes from government-owned land, like state and national forests. While he couldn’t say exactly what that breakdown looked like for the Pacific Northwest, he did note that the percentage of wood that comes from industrial lands out west is “higher than our average” across the country.

These privately-held timber lands include old growth rainforests. In fact, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, timber companies in the Pacific Northwest cleared about 13 percent of all the region’s privately owned old-growth and late-successional forests in little more than a decade, from about 1996 to 2006.

In Oregon, at least, once forests are cleared, timber companies are required to plant new trees and seeds in accordance with the The Oregon Forest Practices Act. Unfortunately, the statutory logic is more focused on economics than ecology and in practice, the industry prefers to plant only one of the over 50 native tree species indigenous to the region: Douglas-fir, which grows tall quickly, and can be harvested in regular rotations.

According to John Lennon Campbell, a forest ecologist at Oregon State University, the “intensive forest management” practices that logged landscapes see echo what’s seen in other factory-farming monocultures. Logging debris and dead trees are turned into profits before they can become vital parts of the food web through decomposition. Smaller plant species beneath the mighty Douglas-firs, and the animals that depend on them for nourishment, are forced out with herbicides. Bears and other mammals that might pose a threat to these lucrative saplings are trapped and killed.

Campbell sees the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest as resilient. The decline they’ve experienced at the hands of the timber industry is reversible, if only we could collectively start reducing demand somehow. One option might be to refrain from smearing fecal matter back into our skin with dry toilet tissue, counterproductively wedging particulate matter into our sensitive folds. A more sanitary option might be to buy a bidet.

Even by metrics you would not intuitively expect, bidets are more efficient and better for the environment than toilet tissue. The standard flow rate for a bidet is about 0.5 liters-per-minute of water (or about an eighth of a gallon) per use. Compare this to the best assessment of toilet paper’s water footprint, as calculated in the September 2017 edition of Advances in Water Resources: toilet paper manufacture requires a staggering 76 gallons of water per roll.

That number, according to one of the paper’s authors, Dutch environmental scientist Joep F. Schyns, does not yet include “grey water”—that is, water used in the dilution of chlorine compounds to bleach the wood pulp white, or from the fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate nearby bodies of water. (“It has not been estimated yet, but I assume it will be quite significant,” Schyns told me of the additional grey water used during these processes.)

Bidets aren’t just less wasteful for the planet; they’re also easier on your wallet. The going rate for a 24-pack of Georgia Pacific toilet paper (even their new environmentally-conscious Aria® brand toilet paper) is about $28.99. A decent, no-frills bidet can be as cheap as $40.00 USD. These dramatic cost savings could be yours for the rest of your natural life, as fast as you can overcome whatever personal anxiety prevents you from cleaning your butt crack with a stream of water, the same way you clean nearly every other inch of your body.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you don’t care about climate change and the role forest cover plays in absorbing carbon dioxide, or about preserving biodiversity, or any of the other ecosystem services that the majestic forests of the northwest provide. Let’s say you simply want America to be great again. A good place to start might be to refrain from taking one of the most awe-inspiring parts of our collective homeland and covering it in your own poop.

Buy a bidet.