Tree Loss for Paper (2)

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Tree Loss for Paper (2)

Although a preexisting figure for the number of trees cut down daily in toilet paper production did not exist, the team did triangulate a figure estimating that roughly 57,600 trees are used each day in toilet paper production. Below are details about these and additional findings, as well as a detailed discussion on the research approach and why a preexisting number of trees cut down daily for toilet paper may not be available.

Additional Insights

  • Only 25-30% of the world’s population uses toilet tissue but more than 83 million rolls are produced every day.
  • “Utopia Mechanicus estimates that a 40-foot tall pine tree that's perfectly conical and has a diameter of 1.5 feet at ground level could produce 1,440 rolls” of toilet tissue. A triangulation shows that if 83 million tissue rolls are produced each day, that equates to roughly 57,638 trees used each day.
  • Virgin pulp, which is the key ingredient in toilet paper, accounts for 23% of Canada’s forest product exports and, since 1996, led to cutting down about 28 million acres of boreal forests (an area about the size of Pennsylvania).
  • Approximately 600 indigenous communities live in the boreal forest of Canada. These communities are forced to deal with the ecological impacts of logging with very little say in the matter as Canadian authorities consistently choose industry over culture, health, and relationship to the land.
  • According to Intelligent Living, “the average person wipes their behind with about 384 trees within their lifetime in the form of toilet paper.”
  • Americans use more toilet tissue than any other country; the US tissue market generates $31 billion each year.

Research Strategy

According to the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on preserving forests, protecting the climate and upholding human rights by challenging corporate power and systemic injustice, it’s impossible to get an accurate count of the number of trees cut down each year/day because “tree density in primary forests varies from 50,000-100,000 trees per square km, so the math would put this number at 3.5 billion to 7 billion trees cut down each year”; 37% of these trees are cleared for timber harvesting.

Simplified arithmetic provides a daily range by dividing this rough estimate by 365 (3.5 billion/365 and 7 billion/365) to get 9.58 million to 19.17 million trees per day; then, taking the rough estimate of 37% of these trees being used expressly for timber harvesting equates to upwards of 7 million trees cut down each day. However, the “impossibility” issue raised by RAN comes into play on how many of the harvested trees are used for toilet tissue and whether the other trees cleared for road construction, resource mining, or agricultural expansion were also used in the production of toilet paper.

Given these findings, the research team went back to the original research to find out if the authors had provided any updates in interviews or additional reports. Tracing the National Geographic source to its foundation, we found that the original source was no longer a working link. Further research revealed that, in fact, the original figure was cited as early as 2005, which makes the use of the 27,000 figure even more dubious.

A review of other environmental advocacy group reports, like the Environmental Paper Network’s State of the Global Paper Industry, did not go into trees cut down specifically for toilet tissue (they clumped all paper products together) or focused more on solutions (e.g., one supermarket chain made its toilet roll tube smaller and reduced its number of transportation journeys).

The research team also reviewed industry reports by major consultancy groups that inform manufacturing industries (e.g., Deloitte, EY, McKinsey, Accenture, Boston Consulting Group, etc.). A search and review for their in-depth reports did not specifically focus on environmental impact and were more angled towards industry assessments overall.

The team found that many of the recent industry and news reports publishing details about toilet tissue and its impact on the environment used the February 2019 report by the two major environmental advocacy groups, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Stand.earth, that was referenced in our initial research. This recent resource, however, referenced but didn’t report the “27,000 trees cut down” figure originally published in 2010. Common industry and news sources that used the NRDC/Stand.earth report include the Guardian, the National Post, Global News Canada, Reuters, CleanTechnica, PR Newswire, MarketWatch, Earth.com News, and Fast Company.

Because these news sources are reporting on major and relevant news regarding toilet tissue and trees, the absence of original, additional, or alternative figures effectively implies that an updated number for how many trees are cut down each day due to toilet tissue has not been published since 2010. This is especially likely considering that the NRDC report was exceptionally comprehensive and focused specifically on toilet tissue and its impact on the environment. Given the depth and breadth of that report—and even its referencing of the original 2010 source—it is unlikely that the 27,000 figure has been updated.

Of the news reports that discussed toilet tissue but did not directly reference the recent 2019 report—either due to being published prior to the NRDC report release or being focused on a different angle of toilet tissue and the environment—the team found that these reports focused on estimates for yearly trees cut down due to all paper (e.g., Thrive Global), used the same 2010 “27,000 trees cut down” figure, or focused on another angle altogether (like planting trees).
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