Setting the Record Straight about Forests and Forest Products: It Takes a Village

By Carlton N. Owen
Tree Frog Editorial
July 28, 2023
Category: Opinion / EdiTOADial
Region: United States

Carlton Owen

The July 27th (2023) edition of Tree Frog contained a piece about “Reel Paper” – “the disruptive start-up creating tree-free toilet paper.”  The headline alone is puffy enough but go to Reel Paper’s website and you’ll find all kinds of misinformation or just “alternative facts.”

How is a small startup going to truly “disrupt” a global market that Fortune Business Insights notes was USD 26.14 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach USD 38.34 billion by 2027?  Simply stated “it ain’t gonna happen.”

That said, it doesn’t mean that the procurement of fiber and production of toilet paper can’t continue to make progress in being more environmentally friendly and sustainable. But that’s not the gist of this short piece. 

It’s the well-intentioned, but absurd misinformation foisted on consumers that want to feel better about the environmental footprint of their purchases.  Let us look at just a few of the assertions that Reel Paper states as facts in the “news story” most surely put out by its own paid PR source:

  • Every single day, a staggering 27,000 trees are cut down to produce conventional toilet paper, leading to significant deforestation and environmental harm!
    • I don’t know where they come by their number but in my estimation it’s likely incredibly low. The point is harvesting trees from sustainably managed forests “DOES NOT” lead to deforestation.  In fact, on the U.S. side of our continental border, one of the greatest threats driving deforestation is the lack of healthy markets that leads to conversion of forests to other uses.
  • Reel Paper uses 100% tree-free fibers, making it the most sustainable paper on the market. Their products are also packaged and shipped in eco-friendly materials and come wrapped in 100% recyclable paper.
    • You’ve got to love that bamboo-based Reel Paper comes wrapped in 100% recyclable paper. They don’t state whether that paper is made from bamboo or trees, but I’ll hold my nose and my words until I get to their fourth point, and I won’t even touch their claim to be the “most sustainable paper on the market” leaving that one for another day.
  • Trees are a renewable resource, but the rate at which they are being harvested far exceeds their natural replenishment, leading to resource depletion.
    • Rate of harvest is one thing, but it’s the growth-drain (rate of growth vs. rate of harvest) that matters. Most of North America’s forests are producing 2X or more the rate of harvest.  Oh, and what about the fact that much of the fiber for toilet paper comes either from recycled sources or residual chips from the production of lumber?
  • Products like toilet paper and paper towels are often single-use, resulting in wasteful consumption of trees.
    • Finally, the “hold the nose” point. Last time I checked no one, regardless of the source of fiber used to make the product, believes that toilet paper should be anything other than a single-use product!  Is Reel Paper suggesting that its buyers should reuse or recycle their product?  If not, even Reel Paper is still a single-use product.

I didn’t cherry-pick Reel Paper’s “facts;” rather, I just chose a few of their “above the fold” arguments to make my point.  Disinformation comes not just via social media.  It comes from a plethora of sources from far-left environmental groups and a wave of new producers that want their share of a market that continues to grow at nearly 5% every year regardless of the economy.  Anyone remember “toilet paper hoarding” of the COVID pandemic?

If we in the forest products sector wish to set the record straight it is imperative that ALL OF US engage in ongoing education and communication of our families, friends, neighbors, and anyone and everyone we come in contact with.  It’s not someone else’s job.

A few years back I sat on the Board of Directors of a business that invested New Market Tax Credits in rural areas of the U.S.  Among the projects that I looked at over my nine-years on that board was a proposed “disruptive entrant to the paper market” in Washington State that would make paper from wheat straw.  I knew that wheat straw could be used to make a good paper product.  I knew too that without markets wheat straw would all-too-often simply be burned in the fields after harvest adding to air pollution and global warming.  I didn’t oppose the investment; rather, I had two concerns that I shared and made sure if our credits were to be invested in the project had to be corrected first:  wheat straw-based paper wasn’t going to eliminate or replace the need for tree-based paper AND more importantly, it wasn’t going to stop deforestation.

Back to Reel Paper.  If one were to think we could replace toilet paper made from traditional wood-based sources how many millions of acres of valuable farmland would we convert from forests or food crops to achieve the goal? 

I’m not against wheat straw nor bamboo as a source of specialty paper products.  Rather, I’m incensed that their producers and promoters rather than touting the benefits of their products try to position their products against wood-fiber based products using character assignation and misinformation.  If we want to keep forests and keep them healthy, we need markets.  If we want healthy markets, we need them for both low-grade fiber (e.g., pulp and wood-energy pellets) as well as sawtimber outlets.

Let me end where I began.  With no apologies to Hillary Clinton, as the title of her book came from an African proverb, it truly does take a village not just to raise children (parents, teachers, coaches, and more).  Just as truly, if we want to sustain a robust wood products sector it’s all of our jobs – but especially those of us who do or have made our livings in the sector – to engage and promote the facts.  At the same time, we need to acknowledge that there is always room and need to improve our practices both in the forest and in the manufacturing process.

If some want to pay more for bamboo-based paper I’m all for them.  I just don’t want to let them fool themselves or others with alternative facts.

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