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Reflections: Trees turned to tissue

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Every few months I travel to Chicago to visit my kids and grands. While there, the very best nature fix available is only a few miles away at The Morton Arboretum, whose forests are splendid and consoling regardless of season. One mission of the arboretum is to propagate trees from around the globe to educate visitors about the habitats and histories of the specimens. They possess more than 100 varieties of oaks alone.

By contrast, our mountains, while glorious, display a scant fraction of that variety as altitude and latitude impose extremes of endurance for the few available hardy species. There is a similar lack of variety further North. But what it lacks in arboreal variety, the great boreal forest makes up for in abundance.

Named for Boreas, Greek god of the north wind, the boreal forest is home to caribou, lynx, pine marten, bear and billions of nesting migratory birds. These forests circle the globe across Canada, Alaska, the Scandinavian countries and Russia. Crucially, they comprise a vast carbon sink that holds 22 percent of the world’s land-based carbon. And in Canada, it is losing 78,000 trees per day so we can softly, strongly, absorbently wipe our counters, our noses and our … well, you know.

In the history of keeping various domestic and anatomical surfaces clean, tissue is a relatively new development. Toilet paper replaced mullein leaves, the Farmer’s Almanac, Sears catalogue and corncobs—not kidding—around the 1920s. Handkerchiefs did service for noses, while cloth towels and repeatedly washed rags mopped up kitchen spills.

Most Americans have replaced any or all of these utilitarian items with tree-sourced virgin pulp, meaning we consume 20 percent of the world’s tissues, though the American populace is only 4 percent of the global population. The cost: a huge carbon footprint.

To make those plump super-soft extra ply tissues, chlorine is added to break down the fiber content and whiten the product. We are merely a production process away from simply flushing trees down the toilet, into the treatment systems where more carbon is released as decomposition occurs.

There are replacements for virgin pulp such as recycled paper—no, not recycled TP—agricultural residue like wheat fiber or bamboo fiber. I’ve experimented with a company that offers both recycled paper and bamboo, and I like the bamboo. This company and at least one other use profits to establish toilets in impoverished villages around the world, demonstrating a social conscience as well as enterprise.

Without the demand for virgin pulp, the boreal forest might be preserved. The Forest Stewardship Council certifies sustainable practices like replanting trees, and some companies are seeking their endorsement as environmental activists exert pressure. But a single mature tree contains more carbon than thousands of seedlings, and will for decades. It is a sentinel of the wilderness, protector of bear cubs, and larder of squirrels and chickadees. As part of a vital carbon sink, and with its service to wildlife, it is much more valuable thriving in place than being pulped to wipe our … well, you know.

Kathy Bouchard is a member of the Rotary Club of Big Sky’s Sustainability Committee. She has been a Montana resident for 20 years and is inspired to work for sustainability on behalf of her grandchildren.

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