Boreal forest Canada

Canada clearcuts one million acres of boreal forest every year … a lot of it for toilet paper

It's the International Day of Forests, the perfect time to talk about flushing vital forests and caribou habitat down the drain

The Canadian boreal forest is part of our country’s cultural identity.

Often called the “Amazon of the North,” the boreal is the lungs of the northern hemisphere, helping store carbon and regulate the effects of climate change. This vast landscape is breeding ground for billions of North America’s songbirds and critical habitat for the threatened boreal woodland caribou. It is the traditional territory and holds cultural significance for many First Nations, whose treaty rights to hunt and fish are under threat.

Despite this, our federal and provincial governments have failed for decades to protect the boreal from destruction. But today, on this International Day of Forests, Canadians are waking up to the fact that we desperately need to do more.

Canary in the Coal Mine

Canada cuts down its forests at a truly alarming rate — among the highest in the world.

Every year, Canada clearcuts a million acres of boreal forest, or seven NHL hockey rinks per minute. From 2001 to 2017, Canada lost nearly 40 million hectares of forest — releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere equivalent to the annual emissions of nearly 321 million cars.

This scale of logging contributes to climate change, and the protection of these ancient forests is crucial for protecting the water we drink and the air we breathe, and ensuring a stable climate.

Few species have been more impacted by the logging of Canada’s forests than the boreal caribou. Boreal caribou once inhabited more than half of Canada, but now their original habitat has been cut in half. Only 14 of 51 herds are considered self-sustaining, and another third of the remaining boreal caribou could disappear in the next 15 years.

In my home province of British Columbia, for example, the province has tripled the rate of approved cutblocks in endangered caribou habitat in the last five months. Boreal caribou are disappearing across Canada, and scientists point to their decline as the “canary in the coal mine” that is warning us of greater ecosystem collapse.

Tree-to-Toilet Pipeline

In February, released a report co-authored with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that shines a spotlight on the crisis unfolding in the Canadian boreal forest. The report, called The Issue with Tissue, details how Americans are flushing forests down the toilet.

Although the United States is just 4 per cent of the global population, Americans consume 20 per cent of the world’s toilet paper for an average of about three rolls per week. To make their toilet paper, many brands rely on fibre from the Canadian boreal. Shockingly, about 30 per cent of that fibre comes from whole trees from clearcut forests.

But for some reason, most major at-home toilet paper brands in the U.S. refuse to incorporate recycled or alternative fibres into their products. This is despite the fact that in a poll released today, two-thirds of Americans revealed they are concerned their toilet paper is made from clear-cutting vital forests like the boreal, and 85 per cent want toilet paper companies to use more environmentally responsible materials.

Issue with the Tissue poll

Snapshot of responses to and NRDC’s toilet paper use poll.

The “Issue with Tissue” clearly connects the dots between toilet paper consumption and threats to the boreal.

Thanks to the report, U.S. toilet paper manufacturers that refuse to make products with recycled and alternative fibres are finally being called out for destroying Canada’s boreal forest.

Government complacency

Over a decade ago, government, industry and environmental groups announced we would work together to protect the dwindling caribou and ensure more responsible logging practices in the boreal.

But once the cameras turned off and customers were reassured, logging companies such as Resolute and others went back to logging in caribou habitat, and governments failed to put in place caribou recovery plans that protect critical habitat, which is required under the law.

Industry associations like the Forest Products Association of Canada — which once acknowledged the science that requires greater protection of critical forest areas — turned their attention to changing their public relations image instead of changing their members’ forest practices.

This crisis unfolding in the boreal is wholly due to decades of government complacency. Although the boreal caribou were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) nearly two decades ago, Canada’s policymakers have failed to enforce this foundational environmental safeguard, and no provinces have thus far implemented caribou recovery plans.

Real solutions

Canadians want the Trudeau government to enforce its forest protection laws and protect the threatened boreal caribou. But it’s been fairly easy for federal and provincial governments to maintain a status quo of inaction. They can turn a blind eye simply because the demand for trees clearcut from the Canadian boreal is driven largely by the United States, and in recent years there has been little pressure to change, especially from U.S. brands that rely upon the boreal to make their products.

But no longer. The “Issue with Tissue” report shines a spotlight on these challenges, and it’s time to demand real solutions.

It’s time for large toilet paper manufacturers like Procter & Gamble to start making toilet paper from recycled and alternative fibres to reduce pressure on Canada’s boreal forest, and it’s time for the Canadian government to protect the boreal forest and threatened boreal caribou — before it’s too late.

As Canada and the rest of the world confront the necessity of rapidly innovating across industries in order to tackle the most threatening challenge of our lifetime — climate change — we simply can’t keep flushing forests down the toilet.

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