Virtual toilet paper ... not so charmin'

In adopting a new trend, Charmin has found a new way to undermine our efforts to combat climate change

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Ellen Montgomery
Director, Public Lands Campaign

Author: Ellen Montgomery

Director, Public Lands Campaign

Started on staff: 2001
B.A., Oberlin College

Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.

For those not in the know, the latest digital asset trending for people with too much disposable income is the NFT or Non-fungible token. NFTs are pieces of digital media with a unique receipt. For my fellow Generation X members, it's like a Cabbage Patch Kid (™) birth certificate. But anybody with a digital platform can create one and authenticate it themselves. NFTs are being auctioned off for millions of dollars (recently one sold for $69 million) so you can see why artists and companies are eager to get in on the action.

But NFTs often come with a massive carbon footprint. Environmentally conscious artists are swearing off NFTs as they learn more about the amount of energy required to produce the unique receipt. 

So I was disappointed to see that Charmin had unveiled its own NFTP (non-fungible virtual toilet paper). Charmin's fungible toilet paper is known for its softness that unfortunately comes from processing wood pulp from Canada’s boreal forest. The boreal, sometimes called the “lungs of the Earth,” absorbs and holds carbon dioxide, helping in our efforts to stop the worst effects of climate change. Charmin and its parent company, Procter & Gamble, should be putting the creative effort it used to develop and market its virtual toilet paper into finding a different way to make super-soft tissue, one that doesn’t involve logging our best natural defense against climate change.

Adrian Pforzheimer of Frontier Group published a blog outlining the environmental cost of the NFT fad. I have included excerpts of his blog below, he starts by explaining blockchain, its relationship to NFTs and why that means a sky high carbon footprint.

Without delving too deeply into the inner workings of blockchain, at its core it’s essentially a database system that allows for secure transactions on the Internet. What powers this technology is a very long, complex and public ledger of transactions. A wide network of computers is constantly at work, checking to make sure the chain stays the same and that the only additions are authorized new blocks of data.

Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, use blockchain to keep track of who owns coins and who can buy and sell them. Spending a bitcoin requires confirming the whole chain, which is relatively straightforward for a computer. Creating, or “mining,” a bitcoin out of thin air requires many advanced computers working fiendishly hard to quickly solve unimaginably hard math problems. It’s difficult and energy-intensive — on purpose.

NFTs are minted on the Ethereum blockchain, the second most popular cryptocurrency after Bitcoin. One analysis found the energy footprint of the average transaction on this network is roughly 35 kilowatt hours (kWh) — about the same as powering a refrigerator for a month. But NFT transactions also involve minting, bidding, selling and transferring a digital token. All these actions are costly, adding up to an average of 369 kWh — more than 10 times as much energy. One researcher calculated that a certain artist selling two pieces of artwork used more than 175 megawatt hours (MWh), creating the greenhouse gas emissions of 21 years of a U.S. household’s electricity (calculated based on EPA GHG equivalency of energy use; 176,773 mWh figure via Joanie Lemercier on Twitter.)

The energy cost of an NFT depends on the number of transactions rather than its selling price. An NFT sold for $1 million has a considerably lower impact than 100 NFTs that sell for $15 each. But as more artists join growing marketplaces, the low-cost, high-volume strategy is gaining popularity, which could lead to devastating environmental consequences. The danger is that NFTs become the key to a new market of digital collectables, thereby resulting in an inexcusable amount of wasted energy.

Ellen Montgomery
Director, Public Lands Campaign

Author: Ellen Montgomery

Director, Public Lands Campaign

Started on staff: 2001
B.A., Oberlin College

Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.