Toilet Paper – Green Alternatives

Sometimes change is easy.

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).

Forest Degradation

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.

This short video from the Idaho Forest Products Commission provides a good overview of what happens at a plant that makes toilet paper from trees (the greenwashing is pretty mild).

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.

Toilet Paper Rolls Stacked in a Tower

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.

Recycled Paper

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.

Water

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.

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All Americans Should Visit a Landfill

There is no “away.”

I double dog dare you to visit your local landfill to see what happens to your garbage. Afterward, ask yourself how you can improve your own waste habits.

Think of touring a landfill as a cross between an interesting field trip and a civic duty. Add to the fun with a side trip to a materials recovery facility also called an MRF (pronounced “murf”).

Each week, you, I, and everyone else toss our solid waste into garbage, recycling, and green waste bins, perhaps without much thought about what goes where. Then, once a week, while we are at work, school, sleeping, running errands, or otherwise going about our day, the contents of these bins are magically whisked away.

U.S. Total Solid Waste Generation 2015 Pie Chart
Percentages of materials that made up U.S. municipal solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA

The problem is that there is no “away” and the environmental impact of landfills is enormous.

Environmental Impact of Landfills

Nowadays, at least in the U.S., landfills operate under more stringent regulations than in the past. Environmental issues vary widely depending on a number of factors including landfill size, location, design, contents, age, and how it is operated and managed.

U.S. Disposition of Solid Waste 2015 Pie Chart
Disposition of U.S. solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA
  • Landfills take up large amounts of land displacing plants, animals, and even people.
  • Slowly decomposing plant, animal and human waste produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2. According to the U.S. EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country.
  • Rainfall and moisture can cause toxic chemicals to leach into streams, lakes, and groundwater killing aquatic life and endangering drinking water.
  • Air pollution is created by trucks collecting and transporting garbage and by dust and other particulate matter churned up at the landfill.
  • When reusable and recyclable materials are buried in a landfill, the energy, resources, and people power that went into making them is wasted.

To me, the biggest environmental impact of landfills is that they enable and even encourage consumerism and wasteful practices. Our waste is conveniently tucked away out of our sight so we do not have to think about it.

The Trash Trifecta

I acknowledge that I might be a wee bit more fascinated by garbage than many people. For instance, one of my favorite nonfiction books is Garbology by Edward Humes. I have also written at least 35 posts that have some connection to waste.

So, you can probably imagine my excitement when, recently, I had the opportunity to visit a landfill, MRF, and an anaerobic digester all on the same day. I was in solid waste heaven.

Below, you will get a glimpse into what happens at a landfill and a materials recovery facility. We will take a look at the anaerobic digester in the next post.

I live in a small town on the Central California Coast in San Luis Obispo County, CA where the entire population is about 285,000 people. My household’s garbage goes to Cold Canyon Landfill the largest of the three landfills in the County. Based on the permitted capacities of the three landfills I estimate that Cold Canyon Landfill takes in 60-70% of the County’s solid waste.

Aerial View of Cold Canyon Landfill and Materials Recovery Facility
This is an aerial view of Cold Canyon Landfill in San Luis Obispo County, CA using Google Maps. The red rectangle shows the location of the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

Although landfills and MRFs operate in a similar manner across the U.S. there are differences and capabilities may vary considerably. For instance, some MRFs have equipment that enables them to process difficult to handle items like single-use plastic bags, but many like the one where I live, do not.

At the Landfill

At the Cold Canyon Landfill, my spouse and I joined students from the California Naturalist Program at Cuesta College. Our host was Mike di Milo. He is the owner of Science Discovery the company that runs education programs on behalf of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority.

After donning electric yellow safety vests, we bundled into several vehicles for a short trip into the landfill and stopped on a section of road that overlooked the day’s activities. Mike had us stand in a group while he shared facts about the landfill and talked about how it works.

Engineering

You may think a landfill is just a pit, but that is not the case, at least at Cold Canyon. The landfill is carefully engineered and monitored.

Cold Canyon Landfill Garbage Dumping Deck
As soon as we stopped on the side of the road, I jumped out and took this photo of the Cold Canyon Landfill garbage dumping deck.

The excavated area currently being used was lined with plastic, clay, and gravel before any garbage was put in it. A drainage system diverts stormwater runoff to a settling pond to keep sediment out of nearby Pismo Creek. The compacted garbage is arranged into layers about 15-20 feet high and then covered with about 2 feet of compacted soil. The top is seeded to grow plants and grasses to reduce erosion.

Operations

Cold Canyon Landfill takes in about 1 million pounds (500 tons) of garbage a day six days a week. Our visit was during the morning before most of the municipal garbage trucks had come by to dump their loads so the pile of garbage was small.

We watched as pickup trucks pulled up alongside big garbage trucks at the edge of the garbage pile and dumped their loads. The bulldozer operator maneuvered nimbly around the trucks staying out of the way but constantly pushing the pile toward the pit. Another heavy equipment operator focused on getting the garbage compacted in a designated area.

On windy days, large litter screens are strategically placed to stop garbage from flying out of the landfill.

At the end of the day, the garbage is covered with tarps until the next day. This practice eliminates the need for a daily layer of dirt allowing the landfill to extend its useful life because there is room for more garbage.

Mike pointed out the above ground pipes running across the top of the covered landfill sections that capture and transport methane gas produced by the landfill. Burning the methane generates power for the landfill and the Arroyo Grande Oil Field in Price Canyon.

We learned that there is a section for collecting separated demolition and construction materials. Lower dumping (tipping) fees encourage contractors to do this, but it is not mandatory. There is also a place on site where residents can drop off their household hazardous waste like used motor oil, paint, and pesticides.

Environmentally Friendly Pest Control

After Mike filled us with information, we had the pleasure of meeting a falconer named Aaron and a magnificent Harris’s hawk.

Falconer Aaron with Harris's Hawk at Cold Canyon Landfill

Aaron cares for and works with this hawk and four other birds of prey. They keep the volume of seagulls flying around the open garbage pile in check. Swarming seagulls can make working conditions unsafe and present a health hazard when they pick up garbage, fly away with it, and leave it somewhere else.

After talking with Aaron and admiring the hawk, we got back in our vehicles to drive over to the MRF.

At the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)

As we drove up to the MRF, I spotted a truck pausing momentarily at a weigh station. Recycling and garbage tipping fees are based on weight. The truck is weighed again after it is empty.

Visitors are not allowed to go into the actual MRF so we gathered in the education center. This space has a large glass window where you can watch the action, interactive displays, and rows of chairs in front of a large movie screen.

Cold Canyon Landfill Materials Recovery Facility Education Center
Education Center at the Cold Canyon Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). The window on the left looks into the MRF. Photo – Science Discovery.

Mike lured us away from the window to watch live action feeds on the screen from various cameras mounted inside the MRF.

A heavy equipment operator used a big clunky grabber mounted at the end of an articulating arm to pick up materials from a huge pile and move them to the conveyor belt intake area. The operator also delicately selected unrecyclable materials like plastic bags, box strapping, and garden hoses and dropped them over a low wall into another pile. Later these materials would be picked up and transported to the landfill.

The facility was a maze of conveyor belts, machines, and bins. Materials were being separated by machines and people. Workers standing in small areas (kind of like waist high turrets) adjacent to the conveyor belts removed trash and recyclable materials and tossed them in nearby chutes or bins.

At the end of the process, separated materials enter a baler and come out as strapped cubes of materials like cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans. I did not see what happened to glass or paper.

The amount of garbage mixed in with recyclable materials was shocking. Mike said that as much as 25% or more of the materials that come into the MRF are not recyclable. In this facility, it was easy to see that it is not equipped to handle things like plastic bags or little bits of anything.

U.S. Recycling Percentages 1970-2015 Table
U.S. recycling percentages 1970-2015 – source U.S. EPA

The California Naturalists were on a tight schedule so we thanked Mike, carpooled back to the entrance, and dispersed.

My Takeaways

Seeing what actually happens to the contents of my garbage and recycling bins made a big impact on me. Faced with the reality I cannot hold on to my wishful thinking anymore. Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. The people who work at the landfill and MRF work in dirty, noisy, and smelly conditions and they know what they are doing.
  2. There is no one sorting through the garbage mound looking for and setting aside reusable or recyclable materials. Everything dumped on the landfill deck goes into the pit.
  3. The MRF is not a precision operation. Some recyclable materials end up accidentally going to the landfill. Some recyclable materials are contaminated by substances or materials that do not get separated out making them unusable and unsellable.

I came away committed to continuing to find ways to reduce the amount of solid waste our household produces and to sort it into the right bins.

It occurs to me, that every week, you, I, and everyone else have an opportunity to positively impact the environment when we take out the trash.

Featured Image at Top: A woman tossing trash over her shoulder is being followed by a wave of garbage – photo credit iStock/ pick-uppath.

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