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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Pam Clough & Rhonda Barker: How Washington farmers’ wheat straw can help solve a big environmental problem

By Pam Clough and Rhonda Barker

By Pam Clough and Rhonda Barker

We’re turning a lot of forests into toilet paper each year, but there are so many better ways to make the world’s most disposable product, some of which can be found right on our farms.

Toilet paper has had quite the year in 2020. Just when we thought we were past seeing jarring scenes of mass toilet paper hoarding, images of empty shelves and packed shopping carts have once again taken over our newsfeeds. But, as it turns out, hoarding isn’t the biggest problem when it comes to toilet paper.

In October, one of the biggest toilet paper makers in the U.S., Procter & Gamble, was called out by its shareholders for not doing enough to address how their products (including Charmin, Bounty and Puffs) are harming our forests. Procter & Gamble makes their famous Charmin toilet paper out of 100% virgin forest fiber, and consequently it is turning those trees into literally the most disposable product on the planet

Even worse, much of the pulp that they use to make their tissue products comes from the Canadian boreal forest, the largest intact forest ecosystem on Earth. The boreal, which spans the north of Canada, is home to an incredible array of animals – from lynx and endangered caribou to billions of migratory birds.

Simply put, this irreplaceable wild space is way too incredible to be cut down and turned into anything, least of all the stuff we use in the bathroom.

Thankfully, there is another option – right here in Washington – that doesn’t require making toilet paper out of majestic old-growth forests, or even out of trees at all. It’s called wheat straw and it’s an environmentally friendly method of making toilet paper and other disposable paper products.

Wheat straw is the leftover agricultural waste product from growing wheat. We already have a lot of leftover straw from U.S. wheat production each year, and most of it just goes to waste. In fact, without other options, farmers burn it, releasing pollution-causing smoke and climate-damaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Rhonda Barker and her husband Pat have farmed wheat in the state’s southeastern region for more than three decades. The area receives a large amount of annual rainfall, allowing for the cultivation of heavy wheat crops without the need for irrigation. Additional conservation methods used on our farm to reduce tillage and to prevent soil runoff, end up leaving a lot of straw leftover after the harvest.

As the leftover straw can impede the growing of the next crop, something must be done to get rid of it. Like many farmers in the area, the solution was to burn the leftover waste straw, which was contributing to poor air quality in the area.

An exciting option presented itself to the Barkers and our neighbors, a solution to the problem of leftover straw, while helping out the environment.

Columbia Pulp opened here in Washington last year as North America’s first “tree-free market pulp mill.” The pulp mill buys leftover straw from local wheat farmers like the Barkers and then turns it into pulp. Paper product companies then purchase this wheat pulp and turn it into paper, cardboard and tissues.

The company estimates that by getting producers to use less wood pulp, it is stopping around 70,000 trees from being logged each year and is preventing 133,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. And that’s just at one mill. The company has plans to expand out and build more mills, allowing for them to provide this opportunity to more farmers, and to increase the output of their pulp product.

The mill has also been a financial boon for wheat farmers like the Barkers’, as the mill pays for the leftover straw, giving them an income for a product that in the past wasn’t worth anything. The mill has plans to expand to allow for this option to be available for more farmers and to make a greater amount of our paper products out of a more sustainable material.

Washington produces nearly 150 million bushels (a bushel is about 60 pounds) of wheat each year. That is a lot of straw that could be going to a good use. Turning that wheat straw into pulp will give our farmers a better option for getting rid of their straw and would also help our state reduce our impact on the world and the climate. There will be less of a need to cut down old-growth boreal trees when we can get our pulp locally from our fields.

Companies must stop looking towards forests and start looking at our fields to make their disposable tissue products. Switching 50% of their tissue pulp to forest-free options like wheat straw would save a lot of boreal forest from being unnecessarily logged, protecting the habitat of the animals that live there.

As the acting director of Environment Washington, Pam Clough develops and runs campaigns to protect Washington’s air, water and special places.

In Europe, this move to wheat straw is already beginning. One major Swedish tissue maker, Essity, is looking at using it in their products and is building a wheat-pulp mill in Germany. The potential for wheat-pulp mills to become a significant option for not only farmers but also to reduce the amount of trees logged for tissue paper, is more viable than ever.

Wheat straw is an important reminder that we don’t need to destroy the home of the caribou and the birds for paper products that will be used for less than a minute. Our forests are the best solution we have to both remove excess carbon from our atmosphere and stave off the worst effects of climate change. We need to reduce the amount of trees that we log each year. We have fields and fields of material that we can and should be using instead. We do not need to destroy habitat to make toilet paper.

Pam Clough is the acting director of Environment Washington, a state-based environmental advocacy organization. Rhonda Barker is a wheat farmer in Dayton, Wash., and a supplier of the Columbia Mill. She and her husband, Pat, have farmed in southeastern Washington for 35 years.