Tag Archives: sustainability

Trees and toilet paper: the bottom line on why our bottoms are costing the earth

One of the most basic things we take for granted in the Western world is toilet paper. According to the Toilet Paper Encyclopaedia (http://encyclopedia.toiletpaperworld.com/), 69% of people say that toilet paper is the largest convenience taken for granted; 49% would see it as a greater necessity than food on a desert island, and 72% prefer to hang toilet paper with the first sheet going over the roll. A standard toilet paper roll lasts around five days in the most used bathroom in the house. On average apparently, people use 8.6 sheets per trip – a total of 57 sheets per day, making an annual total of 20,805 sheets. That is 1.66million sheets per person in a lifetime, and equates to around 8300 toilet rolls.


That is an awful lot of toilet paper. You would be forgiven for thinking that it grows on trees. Hang on, it does grow on trees. Or at least, is made from trees. Around 270,000 trees everyday if the World Watch magazine (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6411) is to be believed. We either flush it or dump it in landfills every day. Even more disturbing is the fact that less than 10 percent of all paper production is for toilet paper, but it accounts for around 15% of deforestation. In other words, one out of every seven trees we cut down goes straight down the toilet

According to the article, “growing populations, adoption of Western lifestyles, and sanitation improvements in developing countries are driving the increased use of toilet paper. The result is that forests in both the global North and South are under assault by paper companies competing to fill consumer demand.”

And of course, we can always rely on Western companies to create consumer demand. Toilet paper is being promoted as a ‘civilized’ more sanitary way of dealing with life’s refuse. Countries where millions of people still use water for self-cleaning represents new marketing opportunities.  Apparently each year toilet paper sales grow around 4%, presenting an industry that looks like a good economic investment.

Part of the problem is advertisements that convince us we need the ‘ultimate in cushiony softness’ with ‘unique air-weave texture’, in order to attend to the daily business of our bottoms. In a time of climate change, when we need all the trees we can get, is it really necessary to them down to produce the ‘softest tissue’ impregnated with unicorn oil-soaked woven texture?

Trouble is, until quite recently, old growth forests were logged to provide that downy soft comfort for our rear ends. And while some brands spruik they are made of plantation wood, this solution often comes at the expense of more biologically diverse habitats, displacing native plant and animal life. Plantations also use large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and can require enormous quantities of water. This can’t be considered ecologically sustainable either.

It just doesn’t make sense that our delicate, sensitive and tender rear ends are causing more environmental devastation than the large 4WD cars we are so fond of in Australia.

I like the way the Earth Island Journal (http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/not_a_square_to_spare) puts it: “How can we meet the most basic of our needs without wrecking the planet? Or, in this case, how can we maintain our personal hygiene without wiping out virgin forests?”

One answer is to use toilet paper made from recycled paper. Tonnes of paper ends up in landfill when it could be used for purposes such as producing toilet paper. Recycled toilet paper also requires far less water to make, and many brands of recycled toilet paper also eschew chlorine bleach.

The Earth Island Journal states that it is time to draw the bottom line for our bottoms. They suggest that the time “has come to launch a Slow Toilet movement that can highlight the forest-to-flush chain of production and waste. By revealing the source of this seemingly indispensible product, we might get people to understand the environmental cost of the paper they use every day”.

Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defence Council states that “this is a product that we use for less than three seconds and the ecological consequences of manufacturing it from trees is enormous.”

“Future generations are going to look at the way we make toilet paper as one of the greatest excesses of our age. Making toilet paper from virgin wood is a lot worse than driving Hummers in terms of global warming pollution.” (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/feb/26/toilet-roll-america )

While he is talking about Americans, the same could be said for Australians. We are continuing to flush perfectly good trees down the toilet. So what can be done about it?

The first thing one might do is switch to recycled toilet paper. It takes far less water and energy to produce, and keeps paper out of landfill. Recycled paper preserves habitat, protects forests, and lessens chlorine type contaminants entering our water. One concern is that It also can contain very small amounts of BPA, from thermal paper being used in the recycling process. While this is probably not significant in terms of our health, if it concerns you consider going toilet paper free.

As icky as that might sound, that is what we have done in our household (we do have toilet paper for our guests if you intend to stay with us and are feeling squeamish)  and we have found it really easy to use and deal with. We could have got a bidet attachment, but in the interests of conserving our water we decided to go down the route of reusable toilet paper, often euphemistically known as “family cloth”. This involves keeping clean cloth squares beside the toilet and washing and reusing them every few days or so. No paper waste, no possible BPA contamination, and it saves us money.

Washing the used cloth is surprisingly easy to deal with. It is no different to washing cloth nappies, which all of us managed to do before becoming convinced disposable was the only way to go. And it is actually a lot less messy. During a conversation on this topic at a family gathering, among the predictable cries of ‘yuck’! my mother somewhat acerbically observed that she had raised four children using family cloth (reusable nappies) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

Our ‘family cloth’ was made by cutting up into squares three second hand soft cot sheets purchased at local op shops. I didn’t bother making them fancy or hemming them, I just cut them up with pinking shears so they wouldn’t fray. I wash them in hot water (from our solar hot water) and don’t put the washcloths or tea towels in with them. We have not contracted any nasty diseases and they are much nicer to use than toilet paper, which feels rather harsh now. The best article i have found on family cloth is at http://www.frugallivingnw.com/reusable-cloth-toilet-paper-faqs/ and you can read more there.


I am going to leave the last word to Aaron from Wipeout.org, (http://www.wipeitout.org/ever-wondered-how-much-toilet-paper-you-use-each-day/) a movement which bills itself as changing the world in the toilet. The founder states in his opinion that it is a crime to cut down 270,000 trees per day, to make toilet paper, “a crime that we are committing against our children”. I agree. The world our children will inherit is really going to be hit by the impact of our choices now, and it isn’t looking like being a pretty place.

As Aaron says, “Yes, it is only toilet paper. But, for the 57 sheets you will use today, every wipe counts. Spread the love. Change the world.”


Sustainable-Food-WordsI have long been interested in food. I like watching shows like Masterchef and Heston Blumenthal, and I used to read recipe books like novels. I enjoyed cooking up a storm with a variety of ingredients. But somewhere in the early noughties things began to look different. I grew concerned that farmers in Australia apparently could not sell their oranges, yet there was a clear demand for orange juice. It was being met by importing it from overseas. It didn’t make sense. I started to notice that fruit and vegetables in various greengrocers was from countries far away. There were debates raging about whether pesticides were ‘safe’, and whether organic produce was better. Despite this, I was still fairly oblivious to things like sustainability, and why organic really is better.

Things didn’t really change until I got energised enough to start growing food. As usual, I decided to read up about this, swapping cookbooks for gardening books. Inspired by the no-dig gardening method, we ordered raised beds (still something of a novelty at this time) and planted green leafy things, tomatoes, and zucchinis. We bought a fruit salad tree with nectarines, peaches and plums on it at the ABC Gardening Expo. I received a subscription to Organic Gardener magazine, and joined the Diggers Club. By this time, I had become a full convert to the sustainability cause.

Where food comes from, how it is grown or produced, and how this impacts ultimately on our communities has become a prominent consideration for those who wish to eat ethically and reduce the stress on our planet’s resources.

Many consumers now want to know where their food comes from, and the impact that it has had in both the developing and developed world. Stories of children working as slaves in cocoa farms, of tea pickers being poorly paid, of workers in terrible conditions churning out processed food in factories in China, and with the habitat of creatures like the orang-utan being threatened with destruction due to our appetite for palm oil, it was becoming clear not all food was created equal. The consumption of food in the Western world was having negative impacts on humans and beasts alike.

As understanding of climate change grows, many of us also want to reduce our carbon footprint and tread as lightly as possible on our fragile planet. What we choose to eat is a very basic decision, yet it has huge implications – for the sustainability of species, for the quality of the environment, for both human and animal rights and for the world’s climate. If we take the time to scrutinise what we put on our  table and where it comes from, it becomes clear that not all food is equal.

I was also increasingly concerned about eating animals and animal produce. I was a vegetarian for a while, and having read up in veganism, I decided that was beyond my abilities and lifestyle to manage. I instead found the Free Range Butcher in Sydney. His shop had four signs, which I have produced below.

Provenance (the place of origin)

Traceability (the ability to follow the history of something)

Sustainability (the capacity to continue operating perpetually by avoiding adverse effects on the natural environment and depletion of natural resources)

Ethical (a food produced under conditions which do not involve mistreatment of people or animals, or misuse of the environment)

I was very struck by these signs, enough to write them down. I hadn’t thought before of just how important it was to know the history of our food. Did I really know what had happened to that chicken or lamb chop on its journey from paddock to plate? How was the animal treated? Where was that vegetable harvested? Was it sprayed? How far did it travel from its source to arrive in my kitchen as dinner?

I looked up sustainability. I learnt that sustainable sourcing ensures there is only a limited negative impact on the source communities that produce the food and their ecosystems. Growing food sustainably means it can be supported environmentally in the long term. I also discovered it meant that we should eat food produced locally and food in season, in order to limit food miles, forced ripening, hothouse production and genetically engineered crops.

On average, apparently, food travels between 1,500 to 2,500 miles (4,000 km) every time that it is delivered to the consumer. This seems like an awful long way to me, but I have discovered that food miles are as hotly debated as climate science. Mental note to self to come back to this topic.

‘Ethical’ added a further dimension. I learnt that we should not purchase food that is produced to the detriment of indigenous and local communities, or to the animals involved in food production. I also decided to add not supporting large monolithic food chains to the ‘ethical’ list. The Colesworth duopoly in Australia routinely crushes local producers, they insist on hybrid, long life produce, and they also fly food many miles around the world. When we used to shop at Colesworth, despite both of them claiming their fresh food was really fresh, I found, for example, green veg wilted and sogged within 2 days of purchase, sometimes sooner. If nothing else, ‘food miles’ to me means ‘less than fresh produce’. It stayed crisp long enough to beguile the consumer into buying it, then immediately wilted on arrival home as an act of protest against its removal from the supermarket shelves. Within two weeks I gave up, as it was a complete waste of money unless I was eating it that day.

By contrast, tomatoes remained firm enough to play cricket with. Pale, hard and pretty tasteless, they were bred presumably to withstand trucking and cold storage. Once we had discovered home grown black krims, that ended our relationship with the supermarket tomato. Seriously, I would rather not eat a tomato if the only choice I have is a supermarket one.

There is also the matter of how workers who grow and pick the produce are treated, what chemicals are used, and whether the environment is being affected adversely. And I would rather not eat eggs or chicken or bacon if the animals are caged or confined.

It is a sad truth that in our modern, civilised world, we have changed natural farming practice to intensive farming practice, we have allowed synthetic created chemicals to poison our air and our waterways, we have destroyed natural habitats so animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, indigenous peoples have been driven off their land to satisfy large corporations requiring mono crops, and we have allowed the over-fishing of many species. With the increase of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, we have changed the climate of our planet, threatening the homelands of many. Greed has enabled giant business corporations to turn food into an industry that threatens the home of indigenous peoples, the holdings of smaller primary producers, and the health of many nations.

So right now and throughout our lifetime, the reasons to live sustainably are good ones. Climate change, energy costs and problems of supply, personal happiness and contentedness, species extinction, disastrous environmental destruction, our family’s health and safety, adaptability, food and water supply issues, waste, a fair go for those who grow our food … the reasons are many, and I am sure you could no doubt add several more to this list.

Our lifestyle is the one thing over which we have some control, and the choices we make can affect the lifestyle of others. If we all lived sustainably, our world and our future would hopefu.lly be assured.