Canada's ancient forests are being turned into toilet paper

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An old-growth forest in Oregon. Image: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

More than 352 forest defenders have now been arrested at the Fairy Creek blockades in B.C. since mid-May, when police began enforcing an injunction obtained by logging company Teal-Jones.

Forest defenders are asking for a moratorium on the logging of the province's remaining old-growth forests, much of which are now gone. As activist Vicky Husband has written, these ancient forests are "groundwater regulators, carbon holders, medicine makers, water filters, biodiversity bankers, fungal communicators, salmon guardians and rainmakers."

People in other provinces looking for ways to act in solidarity with the protesters should take note of a shocking revelation in a recent article in Focus On Victoria.

David Broadland wrote:

"About one-half of the ancient forest Teal cuts in [tree farm license] 46, trucks to its log sort at Duke Point, and then booms across the Salish Sea and up the Fraser River to its mill in Surrey, spends time as a pile of sawdust and wood chips on its way to a pulp mill [where it's] turned into short-lived products like newsprint, toilet paper, or garden mulch."

Last year, Derek Nighbor, the president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada told the CBC that "consumers have not shown much demand for toilet paper made with recycled fibre."

The realization that ancient forests are being turned into toilet paper is so obscene that it just might galvanize Canadians to start buying toilet paper made from recycled paper.

Tree-to-toilet pipeline

Nighbor's comment was made after the release of a new report by U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council titled "The Issue with Tissue 2.0: How the tree-to-toilet pipeline fuels our climate crisis."

It's not just old-growth trees of Fairy Creek in B.C. that are being turned into toilet paper. It's happening right across Canada as our boreal forests are being clear-cut and turned into pulp for large toilet paper producers such as Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia Pacific.

Co-author of the report Jennifer Skene told CBC:

"With every roll of their unsustainable toilet paper, companies are pushing the world towards an unthinkable future, destroying ancient and irreplaceable Canadian boreal forest for something as short-lived as a flush."

In contrast, Nighbor told CBC:

"In Canada, we're not harvesting trees to make toilet paper, we're harvesting trees in a planned and sustainable way to produce lumber. And then at those sawmills, the leftover wood chips, sawdust and bark then go off to different facilities for further processing."

He added that the "wood fibre that ends up going to toilet paper is about one per cent of our overall wood fibre basket."

One year later, however, Focus On Victoria found that as much as one-half of timber "harvesting" is turned into sawdust and wood chips for pulp.

Broadland reported: "According to data published by the BC Ministry of Forests, approximately 52 percent of the logs removed from BC forests become wood chips or sawdust. Teal's mill is no different."

The Natural Resources Defense Council report surveyed other provinces in the boreal and stated that more than 70 per cent of the pulp and paper exports from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland went to U.S. companies in 2018. Procter & Gamble is the largest purchaser of boreal tissue pulp for its popular brands Charmin toilet paper, Bounty paper towels, and Puffs facial tissues.

The 2020 report stated:

"Tissue also continues to be the fastest-growing sector in the paper industry, which means we are likely to see even more investment in turning Canadian boreal forest fiber into throwaway tissue products in the coming years."

In a horrible irony, this is happening at the same time that paper for recycling is piling up across Canada from blue bins. According to the recycling company Blue Planet (using Environment Canada figures):

"Paper and paper products account for more than one-third of all Canada's waste: 6 million tonnes of paper and paperboard annually. Only one-quarter of Canada's waste paper and paperboard is recycled."

Strategic review panel

According to Husband, the situation in B.C. has now become obvious.

"Last year the Old Growth Strategic Review Panel gave the government an urgent message -- defer logging on [the] province's last old-growth forests or risk losing the province's remaining ecosystem health and diversity. But [Premier John] Horgan didn't listen." 

More recently, the co-author of that strategic review provided some disturbing information to the Victoria Times-Colonist. As reported by Roxanne Egan Elliott on June 13:

"Forestry companies on the coast are dependent on old-growth logging for at least the next decade because second-growth trees aren't yet big enough to be harvested, says the co-author of an old-growth strategic review. Registered professional forester Garry Merkel said forest companies told him and co-author Al Gorley while working on the review that they all have long-term plans to phase out dependence on old-growth in roughly 10 to 20 years. Until then, they're dependent on old growth forestry for survival, he said."

But in 10 to 20 years, there won't be any old-growth forests remaining, given the rate at which companies are clear-cutting.

Of course, this raises basic questions, like why can't provincial governments mandate that forestry companies must take recycled paper to make their pulp?

Sustainability

For its part, Procter & Gamble continues to find "sustainable" reasons for clear-cutting old-growth for toilet paper.

As the Natural Resources Defense Council 2020 report stated, "One of P&G's most egregious sustainability claims is that it is better to cut old trees before they die and begin to release carbon and methane," thereby parroting "a flawed argument made by the logging industry and many provincial governments."

However, in 2014, the journal Nature published an important study, conducted by 38 scientists from 16 countries, which underlined the importance of old-growth forests to the larger ecosystem. By studying 400 species of trees on six continents, these scientists found that not only do ancient trees keep adding extraordinary growth annually, they also are much better than younger trees at absorbing carbon.

"Old trees can die and lose carbon back into the atmosphere as they decompose," co-author Adrian Das told The Guardian.

"But our findings do suggest that while they are alive, large old trees play a disproportionately important role in a forest's carbon dynamics. It is as if the star players on your favourite sports team were a bunch of 90-year-olds."

All of us can do our part to stop the tree-to-toilet pipeline and to act in solidarity with Fairy Creek forest defenders. There are several good brands of toilet paper made from recycled materials that are readily available, including Seventh Generation and Compliments' Green Care. A switch of brands is not too much to ask.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be contacted via www.joycenelson.ca

Image: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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