Skip to main content

Your favourite brand of toilet paper may be cut from an important Canadian forest

Share

A U.S.-based non-profit advocacy group is pushing toilet paper manufacturers to stop using Canada's boreal forest as a resource.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a report on manufacturers that it says are using what it calls virgin forests -- previously untouched forests (sometimes called old-growth forests) -- as a resource for toilet paper.

CTVNews.ca reached out to the toilet paper manufacturers mentioned in the report to understand sustainability goals and how the industry is adapting to the changing climate. But experts say these big companies need to do more by shifting toilet paper away from forests to more sustainable options.

In the 2022 report titled the "Issue with Tissue", the NRDC ranked popular toilet paper brands based on sustainability and eco-friendly ingredients.

The group claims the majority of popular brands in Canada and the U.S. are using wood fibre and pulp from the Canadian boreal forest, alleging that this practice leads to the destruction of ecosystems and decreases the carbon-capturing power of trees. Wood pulp and fibre is a co-product of the logging industry which harvests trees from Canada's boreal forest.

The boreal forest covers 270 million hectares of which Spruce, Fir, Pine and Tamarack trees are most common. Canada's boreal forest is 28 per cent of the world's boreal zone and it is integral to the health of the planet by purifying the air and regulating the climate.

The NRDC alleges Canada uses one method to harvest trees called clear-cutting, which is the practice of removing a large area of forest at one time.

"Canada has the third highest intact forest loss of any country on the planet," Shelly Vinyard, boreal corporate campaign manager with NRDC, told CTVNews.ca in an interview. "Every single year more than 400,000 hectares of boreal forests are clear-cut, and that's roughly the size of a small city block every minute."

According to the National Forestry Database, Canada harvested 143.1 million cubic metres of trees in 2020. CTVNews.ca reached out to the Ministry of Natural Resources to understand how it balances the need for wood and manages forests sustainably.

"There are many different harvesting systems in Canada – clear cut is only one of those systems," a spokesperson from the ministry told CTVNews.ca in an email. "All forest harvesting systems in Canada have been designed to emulate natural disturbances (e.g. wind, fire, etc). When we refer to harvesting trees, this does not always mean the clear-cut system, which is part of even-aged management."

The ministry said that clearcutting is used in certain forest types in specific conditions.

The NRDC says by understanding how toilet paper could be hurting Canadian forests, consumers can make better decisions. It also hopes the report will encourage mass manufacturers to shift away from virgin forests and towards sustainable alternatives. Virgin forests are untouched trees also known as old-growth forests.

Forests store carbon at their roots and the older the tree is the more CO2 it captures and stores. Virgin forests are older trees because they have not been touched and are left to grow. By shifting practices away from virgin forests, NRDC says the impacts on the environment would decrease lowering carbon emissions released into the atmosphere.

"It's really (manufacturers') responsibility … they shouldn't be making us complicit in the destruction of the boreal forest and other forests on the planet," Vinyard said. "They have an opportunity here to really take full accountability of the impact of their source decisions right now. And to offer much more sustainable alternatives by using recycled content and minimizing their impact on intact forests."

According to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Canadian trees are subjected to sustainable forest management practices, liming natural disturbances.

"Retaining old-growth trees to provide critical habitat for plants, wildlife and other organisms is a key principle of sustainable forest management. In many jurisdictions, harvesting guidelines call for a certain proportion of old-growth or veteran trees to be retained," the email read.

HOW SUSTAINABLE ARE CURRENT BRANDS?

The NRDC report looked at toilet paper brands on the market in July 2022. It took data from websites, product packaging and company communications to evaluate the ecological footprint of the products.

Using variables from A to F, the scorecard gave the highest points to brands made from 100 per cent recycled content. According to the NRDC, recycled fibre has "enormous benefits" for forests and the global climate.

"Recycled content has one-third the carbon emissions of tissue fibre made from virgin wood," according to the Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator 4.0.

Toilet paper is made using wood pulp and fibre, which is what Vinyard says is a "co-product" of the larger logging industry.

"The forest is clear cut and then the wood is used for multiple different products like solid wood and toilet paper… the pulp used to make toilet paper is a co-product for the logging industry helping to make it more economically viable to clear cut these essential forests," she said.

According to the government, Canada is committed to finding "sustainable" forest practices and decides each year which trees are harvested.

"Provinces and territories manage their public forest resources over long-term planning horizons (some 100-200 years), determining the annual volume of commercial tree species that is allowed to be cut each year," a ministry spokesperson said in the email. "Overall, the country harvests only about 0.2 per cent of the total amount of forested land every year in Canada."

Toilet paper can also be made up of post-consumer fibres, which are scraps of paper people would throw in a recycling bin.

The NRDC says post-consumer, also known as recycled paper, aids the recycling industry by creating a "circular economy," which supports jobs and alternatives from sending paper waste to landfills.

Some credit was given to companies using virgin forest fibre that sources wood sustainably with a Forest Stewardship Council certification, which the NRDC says is the only certification system that minimizes logging impacts and has safeguards for protecting Indigenous Peoples' rights. Some companies have mixed certifications.

CTVNews.ca went through the list and noted which brands on the scorecard are available in Canada.

The majority of toilet paper brands in Canada, according to the NRDC's report, are using wood from old-growth trees.

Kruger Inc., a Montreal-based manufacturer told CTVNews.ca in an email that in 2011, it was the first Canadian tissue company to earn an FCS certification.

"One-hundred per cent of our fibre (recycled and virgin) is third-party certified by either FSC or Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), assuring that the virgin fibre in our products come from sustainably managed forests," Francois Paroyan, general counsel and corporate secretary of Kruger, said in the email.

After trees are harvested the pulp fibre is used to make toilet paper and other products. The pulp is gray in colour and not white like the final product.

To be white, toilet paper manufacturers sometimes use elemental chlorine-free (ECF) bleach. Several Canadian brands lost points for use of the bleach the report states, due to the impacts the chlorine gas has on water communities.

The highest-scoring Canadian toilet paper brand for sustainability is Scott Essential Standard Roll, manufactured by Kimberly-Clark. The brand received a B+ for being 100 per cent recycled toilet paper, using 20 per cent post-consumer fibres and using no chlorine bleach in its product. But the brand lost points for not having a forestry certificate which ensures the pulp and fibre is from sustainable sources.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a report on manufacturers that it says are using what it calls virgin forests -- previously untouched forests (sometimes called old-growth forests) -- as a resource for toilet paper. (Natasha O'Neill/ CTVNews.ca via The Issue with Tissue report)

The highest ranking bamboo toilet paper scored a B. True Earth Paper Corp., which makes Silk'n Soft Oh Natural Unbleached toilet paper, uses bamboo and is not bleached. According to the report, the company does not have a Forest Stewardship Council certification.

"The sourcing of bamboo is maintained by our factories in Asia, the bamboo comes from natural mountain-grown bamboo in areas such as Jiangxi and Zhejiang and is not a threat to pandas. In some cases bamboo is harvested from plantations," Brad Kornelson, spokesperson for Truth Earth Paper Corporation, told CTVNews.ca in an email. "Our factories undergo a third party audit and they must pass the audit and must be FSC certified before we elect to enter into a manufacturing agreement."

The NRDC also analyzed the company's Silk'n Soft White toilet paper, which is also made with 100 per cent bamboo but is bleached using ECF, and lowered its grade to a C.

"Our current focus is to change our packaging," Kornelson said. "We are working with our factory to not only replace our plastic wrapper with cardboard (but) we are working to have the wrapper made from bamboo fibre as well as the cardboard tube and the shipping case as well."

Other bamboo toilet paper from TUSHY scored a C from the report due to using chlorine bleach to whiten.

"The bamboo grows naturally, with no fertilizer (and has a) FSC certificate," a spokesperson for TUSHY told CTVNews.ca in an email. "TUSHY is first and foremost a bidet company that strives to cut down toilet paper use by over 80 per cent and save trees and thus the planet one flush at a time."

A bidet is a water pressure attachment to the toilet which sprays a person clean after use. According to TUSHY, bidets cut down on toilet paper usage by using one-eighth of a gallon per use unlike the 37 gallons needed to create a single roll of traditional paper.

The lowest-scoring Canadian toilet paper brand was Great Value Ultra, sold by Walmart, which received an F.

A spokesperson from Walmart Canada told CTVNews.ca in an email "the products mentioned in the report are not products that are available in Canada."

Great Value Ultra toilet paper sold in Canada is made domestically.

Walmart Canada's spokesperson pointed to a portion of its website where it says "By 2025, Walmart’s goal is that private brand products made of pulp, paper, and timber will be sourced deforestation and conversion-free."

According to an article published in The Daily Memphian, an independent local paper in Memphis, Tenn., toilet paper brands Great Value and HDX are manufactured at a Kruger plant in the city.

Initially, CTVNews.ca received a response saying none of Kruger's brands were represented in the report. When asked specifically about The Daily Memphian article Kruger responded by saying it doesn't comment on specific brands it produces.

The "Issue with Tissue" report says Great Value toilet paper uses non-recycled paper from Canada's boreal forest and is bleached using chlorine, and its manufacturers do not have a forest certificate.

When asked about the low score and the allegations in the report, Kruger's counsel Paroyan told CTV News in an email only that "large retail customers often use multiple suppliers in the tissue category to supply their consumer demands, and we do not comment on our private label customers."

According to Paroyan, the "majority" of fibre used by Kruger in Canada is sourced from Canada. He added about 25 per cent of the total Canadian fibre used is recycled content.

"We are always interested in advancements in the tissue industry, and regularly explore the use of alternative fibres," Paroyan said. "Our decisions are guided by our stringent fibre procurement policy. Alternatives to traditional wood fibres are on our radar and we are weighing their positives and negatives including efficacy challenges, environmental impact (emissions associated with lifecycle of the product) and detractions, and consumer expectations."

Other Canadian toilet paper brands found in stores scored low on the NRDC's ranking due to using the majority of pulp from virgin forests, bleach to whiten the paper and not having a forestry certificate.

Scott 1000, Cottonelle Ultra and Scott Comfort Plus, manufactured by Kimberly-Clark, were given Fs by the NRDC.

The Cottonelle Professional brand, by 35 per cent recycled fibres, 20 per cent of which is from post-consumer materials.

The rest of the paper is from virgin forests and is bleached using a mix of ECF, the NRDC said, giving this brand a C.

Manufacturer Procter & Gamble had one Canadian toilet paper brand on the list, Charmin, which was given an F for being made of 95 per cent virgin forest fibres. The other five per cent was recycled materials, according to the NRDC.

The company has a mixed forest certificate and uses ECF bleach, the report details.

"Recycled toilet paper…has one-third the carbon footprint of products like Charmin, which are made from 95 per cent virgin fibre," Vinyard said.

The Kirkland brand, by Costco, received an F as well. It is made 100 per cent out of virgin forests and is bleached using ECF, the report reads.

CTVNews.ca reached out to Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Costco for a comment but did not hear back before publication.

VIRGIN FOREST IMPORTANCE IN CANADA

Canada's forests stretch 347 million hectares and are under increasing pressure from insects, natural disasters and humans, according to a report by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA).

Hundreds of tonnes of carbon are captured through photosynthesis and stored in the roots of trees. When a tree is no longer living or uprooted, that carbon seeps back into the atmosphere.

The CCA report says, 65 per cent of forests in Canada are being used for harvesting. They are storing 208 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

The Ministry of Natural Resources records forest carbon release when a tree is harvested.

"Over the long term, a strategy that aims to maximize the carbon absorption and storage in the forest, while also storing carbon in long-lived wood products (and ensuring maximum value and use for anything harvested) will generate the best benefits," a ministry spokesperson said. "That means balancing sustainable harvesting with conservation."

In March 2022, 90 scientists from around the world wrote a letter urging the federal government to ensure old-growth forests are protected in the country's climate action plan.

Advocacy groups argue any harvesting of old-growth forests is not sustainable, saying the benefits old trees have cannot be replaced with new saplings. The scientists said old-growth forests contain 30 to 50 per cent more carbon than replanted trees, and newer trees cannot absorb carbon at the same rapid rate as older trees.

"We are deeply concerned by the evidence of continued deforestation and degradation of primary forests globally and in Canada because of the resulting impact on greenhouse gas emissions and the biodiversity crisis,” they wrote in the open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

According to the ministry, some products can "lock away" carbon after being processed. If Canada harvests sustainably by creating products that can be used multiple times while also using all parts of the tree – "in other words doing more with less"-- the logging industry can provide valuable resources while also protecting forests.

But advocates like NDRC believe single-use wood products, like toilet paper continue to harm Canadian forests.

"Most consumers don't even understand the impact or the cost of their toilet paper and tissue choices," Vinyard said.

Correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Canada. 

CTVNews.ca Top Stories

Local Spotlight

'It was surreal': Ontario mother gives birth to son on day of solar eclipse

For many, Monday's total solar eclipse will become a distant memory or collection of photos to scroll through in the years to come. But for Alannah Duarte and her family, they'll be reminded of the rare celestial event every year they celebrate their youngest son's birthday, as he was born on the day of the momentous occasion.