Reasonably priced environmentally-friendly toilet paper not made from cut down trees is widely available. Anyone, meaning you and me, can choose to buy it.
Toilet paper has been on my mind recently. This is probably because I had been pondering and writing last week’s post about why your individual climate actions matter in which I suggested that even seemingly inconsequential actions are important.
Changing to an eco-friendly toilet paper or another option is one of those small choices that matter.
But if you had not thought about it, I understand.
Unless your roommate, kids, or spouse leave an empty cardboard tube or nothing on the toilet paper holder in the bathroom you probably do not give much thought to toilet paper and neither does anyone else. Chances are you buy the same brand of toilet paper you have been buying for years, the brand your parents bought when you were a kid, or perhaps whatever is on sale.
Are you thinking something like “So, what?” or “Why should I expend any mental energy thinking about toilet paper?”
The simple answer is that toilet paper made from trees (virgin wood) is contributing to the destruction of the world’s forests which are essential ecosystems that both people and non-humans rely on for life.
This post will provide a brief overview of toilet paper’s environmental impact and then we will discuss greener alternatives to virgin wood toilet paper.
Environmental Impact of Toilet Paper
Americans managed to get along without toilet paper until 1857 when Joseph Gayetty began selling boxes of individual toilet paper sheets. A major advancement occurred in the late 1870s when Seth Wheeler began making and marketing rolled toilet paper with perforated sheets.
150 years later we are still using basically the same product and cutting down trees to make it.
Forests are Important
Besides being beautiful trees absorb CO2, produce oxygen, influence rainfall, filter water, manage stormwater, keep soil intact and feed it, provide habitat, and give us food, medicine, and wood.
Trees are major constituents of the world’s forests which house about 80% of the biodiversity that exists on land. Hundreds of millions of people live in forests (including me).
Clear cutting trees degrade forests by leaving dead zones in the midst of them or along their edges. This wipes out what was once healthy, functioning forest ecosystems.
Technically, trees are considered a renewable resource meaning that one or more tree seedlings can be planted for every tree that is cut down. Even if that was being done, which it is not, trees are slow-growing taking decades to reach maturity.
Sometimes cleared forests are replaced with tree plantations consisting of rows and rows of a single species of tree, in other words, a monocrop. A plantation cannot replace a forest.
Making Toilet Paper
Toilet paper is made of lightweight paper called tissue paper. Other tissue paper products include facial tissues, napkins, paper towels, wipes, and hygiene products.
Converting a tree into wood pulp and then tissue paper products is an industrial process that uses an enormous amount of water. That is why paper mills are located beside lakes and rivers.
Fortunately, some manufacturers produce toilet paper made with recycled paper and other materials besides wood.
Our Toilet Paper Study
Back in early 2015, I set out to try to understand why so many Americans seem intent on buying toilet paper made from virgin wood even though toilet paper made from recycled paper is widely available. Was it because virgin wood toilet paper was less expensive or performed better or what?
I roped my spouse into participating in an informal test of virgin wood toilet paper versus toilet paper made from recycled paper. We tested the toilet papers shown below and rated attributes like tearability, flushability, cleanliness, softness, and purchase price.
Overall we found that all the toilet paper we tested performed adequately. Some of the virgin wood brands were the softest and most expensive.
I did not start the toilet paper post I had planned on writing because I learned that I had breast cancer. All my energy was diverted to surviving treatment. I am very grateful that I did survive.
Four years later, when I decided to take up the topic of toilet paper again, I discovered that a few additional products had come on the market and I realized that some of my data was outdated. However, the toilet paper industry remains relatively unchanged.
Toilet paper companies spend tens of millions of dollars each year trying to convince Americans that toilet paper must be bright white and pillowy soft.
Trees and water are cheap and the cost of environmental harm is not included in the price you pay at the checkout counter so many if not most major toilet paper manufacturers are just continuing with business as usual.
This is ridiculous.
Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper and Other Options
There are green alternatives to toilet paper made from virgin wood pulp. Let’s look at a few examples.
A somewhat better option than toilet paper made directly from a tree is toilet paper that is made with recycled paper that has performed another use since it was a tree. There are a number of brands of toilet paper made from 100% recycled paper (the higher the post-consumer content the better).
We buy Natural Value toilet paper made with 100% recycled paper (80% post-consumer) by the case from SLO Food Co-Op. Each cardboard box contains 12 plastic-wrapped 4-packs. I keep a small squirt bottle filled with water next to my toilet.
With so many reasonably priced, effective, and more environmentally-friendly options available in stores and online, I cannot imagine why any person would continue to buy toilet paper made from virgin wood pulp.
One option is to skip using toilet paper or to use very little of it by either installing a bidet in your bathroom, retrofitting your existing toilet with a bidet component, or attaching a specialized spray wand next to the toilet.
You use water to clean yourself and then dry off with a small amount of toilet paper or better yet a reusable washable towel (like after a shower).
Several years ago, during the height of the most recent California drought, we replaced our old toilets with new high-efficiency toilets. I did not even consider a bidet component because we were trying to reduce water usage in our home.
Now, I think that was short-sighted as the increase in water usage would have been slight and we could have hugely reduced the amount of toilet paper we use and maybe even eliminated it.
We are toying with the idea of installing a spray wand to try out.
Bamboo and Other Materials
Treeless toilet paper is possible.
Bamboo is a grass that can be harvested after five years and then will quickly grow again. It can be used in place of wood for many products and can be made into pulp for toilet paper and other tissue paper items. Toilet paper made from bamboo is readily available for a reasonable price.
The thing is, for those of us living in the United States, bamboo toilet paper comes from China or other countries overseas. Shipping rolls of toilet paper across the ocean on hugely polluting container ships detracts substantially from its eco-friendly attributes.
Other potential sources of fiber for treeless toilet paper include agricultural residues left after harvesting crops like sugarcane and wheat. I have yet to find a brand in any of our local stores but it may be available online (skip the 2-day shipping on an airplane).
The idea of treeless toilet paper appeals to me warranting further investigation of these options.
If you change, the toilet paper manufacturers will change, too.
Featured Image at Top: Toilet paper roll character pushing a shopping cart – photo credit iStock/Talaj.
Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.
- Are High-Efficiency Toilets Worth It?
- Are You an Aspirational Recycler?
- Composting can Change Our Culture
- Greening Your Laundry Habits
- Kitchen Trash Bags – Green Alternatives
- Paper Facial Tissue – Green Alternatives
- Paper Towels – Green Alternatives
- Paper vs. Cloth Table Napkins – Which are Greener?
- Paper versus Digital Media – Environmental Impact
- Stop Junk Mail and Get Off Catalog Mailing Lists
- Sustainable Forest Management and Certified Wood
- Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste
- Disruption has come for toilet paper – by Dan Nosowitz, Vox, 07/17/19
- Essity to try making pulp from wheat straw to stem rising costs – by Anna Ringstrom, Reuters, 05/24/19
- Forest and Landscape Restoration – by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Unasylva Vol. 66, 2015/3 (an interesting section about bamboo starts on page 91)
- How Toilet Paper is Made – Discovery Channel (video about making toilet paper from recycled paper)
- New Report Reveals Which Sustainable Toilet Paper Brands Are Actually Sustainable — And Which Aren’t – by Sophie Hirsh, Green Matters, 2019
- The Issue with Tissue: How Americans Are Flushing Forests Down the Toilet – by Jennifer Skene & Shelley Vinyard, NRDC, 02/20/19
- Who Gives a Crap Recycled or Bamboo Toilet Paper without Plastic – by Beth Terry, My Plastic Free Life, 09/26/17
- Why Paper is Made from Trees! – by Jeff Hix, 08/13/12 (video)