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Flushing Forests

Member Story

Flushing Forests

Picture of Noelle  Robbins

In an effort to promote awareness of the relationship between healthy forests, healthy people and healthy economies, The UN has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. Just three years ago, the UN declared 2008 the International Year of Sanitation, estimating that 42,000 people die every week in part from diseases related to the absence of adequate sanitation. One, often overlooked, reality links healthy forests, healthy people and improved global sanitation – the production and use of toilet paper - from forest to flush.

[See the full photo pdf version at: "Flushing Forests"]

My cover story for World Watch Magazine May/June 2010 – "Flushing Forests: The pursuit of hygienic elimination is eliminating a lot of forest." - addresses this reality.

There are statistics correlating the use of toilet paper with access to improved sanitation in developing countries. There are statistics correlating the use of toilet paper derived from virgin wood pulp to the degradation and destruction of the world's oldest forests, and the proliferation of mono-culture tree plantations. No one can question the need for higher standards of global sanitation for the world's people. But increased consumption of virgin pulp toilet paper is cause for concern. My story illustrates the complicated system of resource use and manufacturing that plagues a planet beset by diminishing raw materials, pressing human health needs, and growing climate change challenges.

My article is solution oriented, highlighting alternatives to meet the needs of both people and planet.

My personal obsession with toilet paper, coupled with participation in a focus group not so subtly designed to steer consumer preference toward soft, fluffy toilet paper, prompted the reporting of this story; a process, which – from research and writing to editing – took almost six months.

My work utilized extensive internet resources ranging from toilet paper manufacturers' websites, to global public health organizations focused on efforts to improve access to sanitation in developing countries. My investigation also included market research reports on global toilet paper sales and consumption; lumber industry reports; environmental non-profit studies of logging practices in old-growth forests; and impacts of tree plantations on local community health and well-being; as well as, alternatives to virgin pulp toilet paper, recycled toilet paper production, and use of water for personal cleansing.

I conducted a wide range of interviews of sources around the globe including Rose George, author The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste; Trevor Mulaudzi, The Clean Shop – a public toilet entrepreneur in Africa; Chris Lang, international expert on tree plantations; the CEO of Tjebok Health Care – Tjebbi Portable Personal Washing Systems; the founder of the World Toilet Association; and key representatives of major toilet paper manufacturers and recycled product companies.

The development of this story was unique in its range of resources used spanning time zones, language differences, varying perspectives on forest resource use, and sanitation issues, posing an interesting challenge when it came time to present a thorough, reader friendly, exposure to an extraordinarily complex subject.

In addition to being referenced or posted in its entirety on a variety of national and international websites – including Tissue World (toilet paper trade publication) and the National Geographic blog – my article generated an interview on Radio New Zealand, and was included in U.S. Embassy InfoAlert postings to numerous diplomatic missions around the world.

The consumption of toilet paper – whatever the source of materials used in manufacturing - will be a continuing need as population growth adds to the over 2 billion world citizens currently estimated to be lacking access to sanitation. My article encourages readers to seriously consider this urgent, yet often ignored, global public and environmental health issue, which impacts millions of people and acres of forest around the world every day

Flushing Forests
The pursuit of hygienic elimination is eliminating a lot of forest.
World Watch Magazine
Tuesday, June 1, 2010