A British filmmaker living in Finland called John Webster made a fantastic film in 2008 called the “Ingredients of Disaster” (Katastrofin aineksia) about how a family can reduce their carbon footprint by consuming better or less. Among many other great points, he objected to using toilet paper, “In India they use their left hand… What is the logic behind toilet paper? If our hands get dirty we don’t use a piece of paper, we use water and soap… and yet the dirtiest part of our body we clean with paper…”
Naturally developed countries have invented the bidet, and we do know how to use it safely to stay clean and fresh down below, but still mountains of toilet paper are used every day by millions and millions of people. That gobbles huge tracts of forests that took 50 to 60 years to grow. You cannot recycle toilet paper. It just disappears down the pipes and ends up somewhere… We are strange beings here in our urban communities.
One tree produces about 800 rolls or 180 kg of toilet paper and about 83 million rolls are produced per day meaning that global toilet paper production consumes 27,000 trees daily.
Three of Finland’s largest companies, the three big forestry companies, (UPM, Metsä and StoraEnso), are proclaiming that the amount of wood they cut and remove from our forests is sustainable and promotes bio-diversity.
However, most of the wood they harvest ends up either as packaging material, toilet paper and paper towels – three products that cannot be described as very sustainable. You cannot blame the forest companies for wanting to make profits just now when consumer demand is strong after suffering many years of weak profits as demand for newsprint and wood products declined. The production capacity of paper has be significantly reduced closed while planned wood procurement has been increased to concentrate on maximising making pulp that is either exported, or further produced into low-value products like packaging and soft tissue materials.
To their credit the same companies are also developing new types of materials based on wood that can replace fossil-fuel based plastics and other materials. However these represent just a tiny percentage of their total wood consumption.
The Minister in charge of this sector, a wealthy farmer and forest owner himself, agrees with the companies claims, even though many leading forest-sector scientists claim that present and planned wood harvesting is not sustainable and reduces significantly forest bio-diversity – this is also the EU’s position.
The big forest companies in Finland and Sweden have lobbied hard to stop the EU from “interfering in national forest management policy” because they know that it will hit their profits. Profits go ahead of bio-diversity and sustainability in their opinion. Independent scientists agree with the EU, who state that the present and planned procurement of wood from our forests for massive exports of low-value pulp, packaging and soft tissue products reduce the carbon sink of the forests and thus increase greenhouse gases.
The companies say that they must match increased demand, and they seek to manage the wood reserves as efficiently as possible with “clear cutting” as their main policy, rather than “selective management”. The former clears most trees from large tracts of land and then the ground is often ploughed and then new saplings are planted quickly with genetically similar tree types using combinations of three main tree groups – spruce, pine and birch. Selective management, the method recommended by the EU and conservationists, concentrates on cutting only individual or small groups of trees in a healthy natural forest at periodic intervals, such as every 10 years. The former policy destroys bio-diversity and the latter enhances and maintains it.
Many studies show that carbon sinks from forests only work effectively if the trees are allowed to grow in diverse woodlands, and if the wood is used in products that will last for decades, like wood in buildings and furniture. Timber has not been used much in home and office construction here in Finland and wood working skills have largely been lost. Concrete and steel are still the preferred materials for mass production of homes in urban centres, except for the small-scale production of wood element-based homes, log homes and cabins.
Wood is treated like crude oil by the forest industry, to be pulverised quickly by huge machines and pressed into low value-added products that can be shipped quickly in containers to the far corners of the world to wipe bums, or package cheaply produced shoes, clothes and electronics in Asia that return back to consumers in Europe and North America where the stuff once used is dumped in landfills or burnt for energy. Only a small volume is recycled…
Wood would be better used massively in construction of new buildings and in other products that have long lives that are measured in decades and not in days… using virgin wood for the above products, fuel and oils is not a sustainable solution.