UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact - May, 2020

Eco-Friendly Flushes in the Time of COVID-19

As COVID-19 was just beginning to impact our lives in the SF Bay Area, I made a rare trip to Costco for a few staples. I have been using Seventh Generation toilet paper or Trader Joe’s Bath Tissue, both 100% recycled content, for years. Yet, as I was pushing my huge shopping cart around, a pallet of toilet paper appeared, and I got bit by the TP hoarding bug. I actually grabbed one of the Kirkland Bath Tissue packages (30 rolls!)—seemingly enough to supply our two-person household for a lifetime.

I texted a few friends that day. “I actually bought TP at Costco today. A new low L.” They responded, “Why is that a new low?” 

There’s an Issue with Tissue

You might not realize that Costco’s own Kirkland toilet paper comes from the boreal forest in Canada, the most carbon-dense forest in the world. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “It is being clear cut at a rate of one million acres a year to make lumber, paper, and, perhaps most egregiously, throwaway tissue products. U.S. companies like Costco drive a lot of this demand, fueling the loss of this globally important forest.” 

NRDC’s 2019 report, “The Issue with Tissue: How Americans are Flushing Forests Down the Toilet” is a buyer’s guide to the sustainability of at-home tissue products. It gave Costco’s Kirkland Toilet Paper an “F.” According to the report, the other brands that got “F” scores are: Charmin, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, and Up & Up Soft & Strong (Target’s in-house brand).  A key criterion for receiving a low grade is the use of virgin fibers from ancient forests, rather than the use of recycled fibers or sustainable alternative fibers.

Canada’s boreal forest provides essential wildlife habitat (including home to the boreal caribou—also known as reindeer), protects water quality, supports 600 indigenous communities, and holds the worst impacts of climate change at bay. The Paris Climate Agreement identified the world’s forests as vital tools for achieving climate goals. The boreal forest is a massive storehouse for carbon, and clearcutting reduces its capacity to absorb and store man-made greenhouse gas emissions. As the NRDC report stresses, “Forests are the lungs of the earth.” 

boreal forest
Canada’s boreal forest. Source: NRDC

Five Ways to Green Your Flushes

While we all struggle with our family’s health and economic survival, it is easy to get distracted (like I did) from living our green values. But today’s situation highlights the fact that we are all connected and that climate change, and the health of the planet, directly impacts our health. 

One silver lining from today’s situation is the possibility of finding a different way to tread on the Earth.  Hopefully over the next few weeks, as supplies become more available again, the following tips will help you green your flushes:

1. Buy 100% Recycled Content: UCSF uses 100% recycled content in all its janitorial supplies, including toilet paper and paper towels. Even in the time of COVID-19, as home consumers, we can make an impact with our purchases. We can protect the forests when we choose to buy the TP brands that got an “A” on NRDC’s scorecard: Green Forest, Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value, 100% Recycled, Earth First, Seventh Generation, and Trader Joe’s Bath Tissue. My tush has never complained about the 100% recycled bath tissues that I usually use. Unfortunately, with shortages, it might be harder to find these in stock. A few other options are outlined below.

2. Try Bamboo: There are other options to make your flushes more eco-friendly. Toilet paper made of bamboo, which grows quickly, is a green option. Brands made of bamboo include  Who Gives a Crap and  Tushy. As of writing this in late April, both sites are sold out, but you can check back and even get on a waitlist with Who Gives a Crap.

3. Bring Back the Bidet: According to a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “Experts agree that rinsing yourself with water is infinitely more sanitary and environmentally sound.” The top bidets are rated in New York Magazine. According to Jennifer Skene, Environmental Law Fellow at NRDC, bidets actually use less water when you take into account the water that is required to process toilet paper.

4. Use Reusable Cloth: I have one friend who cut up an old towel into small squares and is using them as wipes, which she then washes so they can be reused. You could use old t-shirts or leggings too. While this might be a tad too out there for some people, it is a creative solution to get through the current shortages—and use no paper at all!

5. Take Action: Companies with the largest market share, such as Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Costco, have the potential to make a difference for the future of the boreal forest. Watch a video of the environmental organization Stand.earth speaking at Costco’s annual general meeting. The following are two campaigns where you can take a stand and tell these companies that the planet can no longer afford toilet paper made from ancient trees and encourage them to source sustainable fibers:

SumofUS Costco Petition

NRDC’s Letter to P&G
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