Toilet Paper, Hummers, and Global Warming, oh my!

Peg Fong from the EcoGeek blog asks “Which is worse? Hummers or toilet paper?” She cites a February 25, 2009 New York Times article, Mr. Whipple Left It Out: Soft Is Rough on Forests. According to the Times’ article, “[F]luffiness comes at a price: millions of trees harvested in North America and in Latin American countries, including some percentage of trees from rare old-growth forests in Canada.” Adding, “Greenpeace, the international conservation organization, contends that Kimberly Clark, the maker of two popular brands, Cottonelle and Scott, has gotten as much as 22 percent of its pulp from producers who cut trees in Canadian boreal forests where some trees are 200 years old.”

EcoGeek says,

So how bad is our toilet paper habit, really? The product that we use for less than three seconds extracts a larger ecological consequence than driving Hummers, according to Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the NRDC. More than 98% of all toilet paper sold here comes from virgin wood. The NRDC’s position is that no forest of any kind should be used to make toilet paper and Hershkowitz wants to see toilet paper go the way of incandescent light bulbs — out of the mainstream.

“No forest of any kind should be used to make toilet paper,” said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and waste expert with the Natural Resource Defense Council. “People just don’t understand that softness equals ecological destruction.”

“Softness equals ecological destruction.” Great sound bite. Such statements give the impression that old-growth trees are being cut down willy-nilly and then masticated down to pulp. It’s not. “[M]illions of trees harvested…” Uh huh…there are trees and then there are trees. Millions of itty-bitty, eensy-beensy trees perhaps.

Co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, now of GreenSpirit points out where we get our wood for paper:

15 percent of the wood harvested is used to manufacture pulp and paper mainly for printing, packaging, and sanitary purposes. Fully half of this wood is derived from the wastes from the sawmills which produce the solid wood products for building. Most of the remaining supply is from tree plantations many of which are established on land that was previously cleared for agriculture. So even if we did stop using wood to make pulp and paper it would not have the effect of ‘saving’ many forests.

He further points out about Canada’s forests:

Canada retains 92 percent of its original forest and has more protected area and third-party certified forest than any country in the world. Only one-quarter of Canada’s forests are managed for commercial use, and only one-half of one percent are harvested annually, including the boreal.

Look, I’m for recycling paper, really, but do it because you want to save money, not to save the world.

If we want to lower CO2 emissions and deforestation, then we need to equip much of the Earth’s poor with propane or kerosene stoves. Burning carbon products produces carbon dioxide, a Green House Gas; dihydrous oxide, water; and assorted particulate and other stuff. Wood has 10 atoms carbons for 1 atom of hydrogen. Everyday 6.5 billion people get up and many of them start wood fires for cooking and/or heating. Oil (propane or kerosene) has 1 carbon for 2 hydrogen. By switching from wood to oil-based fuel cooking stoves, the amount of CO2 released drops.

Energy content of wood fuel (air dry, 20% moisture) = 15 GJ/t (6,400 Btu/lb) -approximate  source –
Energy content of gasoline = 43.5 GJ/t (LHV); 47.3 GJ/t (HHV)  source –

Therefore, gasoline seems to be 3-4 times as efficient as wood (oak has higher energy content per weight). So, on the face of it, if we were to change everyone over to gas fired from wood fires, we could put 1/40 the CO2  into the air from cooking. (and lower deforestation from wood poaching) It’s perhaps a 95% reduction. Not too shabby.

One more thing, trees (and their products) still sequester carbon after they are harvested. The wood studs in my house still have their carbon component. My wooden tables that are close to a century old still have the carbon they had the day the tree was cut. Paper is simply wood (carbon) with the lignons removed. The carbon doesn’t evaporate the moment a tree comes down.

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