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.

Related Posts

Resources

Your Individual Climate Actions Matter and this is Why

One action can lead to another.

Do your individual climate actions, mine, and everyone else’s matter? I strongly believe that they do—in more ways than you may think.

Yes, I have read many articles and blog posts followed social media threads and watched interviews of climate scientists and environmental experts declaring that our individual climate actions will not be enough to avert the worst of the climate crisis or to mitigate its effects.

Yet, here I am advocating for individual climate actions and averring that they do indeed matter.

“Is she in denial or just naively promoting wishful thinking?” are logical questions. Let me assure you that I do not inhabit a fantasy world or an alternate reality. However, I do reject the premise that what we do as individuals does not matter.

In this post, I will attempt to explain why I believe that our individual climate actions do matter. Perhaps my reasoning will resonate with you or perhaps not.

We Need Massive Structural and Social Change

Climate experts and many others keep repeating the mantra that the climate crisis requires massive structural and social change. Our energy, transportation, food, water, land use, justice, and economic systems—our very way of life—needs to be completely transformed if we (meaning people) are going to continue to be able to live on Earth now and in the future.

This is an undertaking like no other that has ever occurred in human history. It is going to take all of us changing our own lives and demanding that corporations and governments act like there is a climate crisis because there is one.

Who do you think is going to get that done?

It is going to be people, individual people. After all, it is individuals who make up families, neighborhoods, cities, corporations, nonprofit organizations, government bodies, and international climate movements.

You, I, and everyone else are the individuals that can collectively change the world. Our children, their children, and all the non-humans with which we share the planet are counting on us.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Barack Obama

That brings us back to individual climate actions and why they matter.

Action Begets Action

When faced with a mind-bogglingly complex and seemingly insurmountable situation, like the climate crisis, some people immediately step up and take action. I am humbled by and grateful to these people. But that does not describe me and maybe not you either.

Many, if not most people will feel overwhelmed. You are just one person. What could you possibly do that would make any positive difference? You may feel powerless and afraid. Freezing like a deer in the headlights you do nothing. You are in a state of inertia indisposed to motion, exertion, or change.

“Well, duh.” you may be thinking. “But, how am I supposed to get over feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and afraid?”

Do something, anything, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem.

Taking action breaks the cycle of inertia. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. A feeling like you can do something. One action can lead to another which leads to another and so on.

Lois Gibbs in Her Kitchen with Her Kids in 1978
Lois Gibbs with her kids in her kitchen making calls about the Love Canal toxic waste dump – photo Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

Then one day you will realize that you are one of the millions of other climate activists around the world who are all striving to live more lightly on Earth and in harmony with all the other living beings that share the planet.

Are you wondering what action you should take to get started? It is up to you. Consider choosing something that you actually want to do and that you feel confident you can accomplish. You can work on the harder stuff later.

Ideas and inspiration can come from almost anywhere. Talk with your family, friends, and coworkers, watch a film, go for walk, read a book, check out social media, attend an event, or read blogs posts here on Green Groundswell.

I am not suggesting that I am a paragon of anything or that I am a model climate activist. But I do know that my own journey began when I purchased a reusable water bottle and filled it up with water from my kitchen sink faucet.

Naysayers will suggest that we cannot wait for each person to find their inner climate activist. The thing is you cannot force another person to change. The only person that can change you is you.  

Water Drops and Ripples

Water Drop Creating a Ripple
Photo – Shutterstock/science photo

Let us say that you switch to reusable shopping bags, plant a pollinator-friendly garden, or install solar panels. Patting yourself on the back you feel that you have done your bit for the climate movement.

Is that enough?

Chances are that whatever climate actions you are doing, there are millions of other people around the world doing the same thing where they live and millions of other people are doing different climate actions.

Just as tiny drops of water will fill up a bucket all these actions add up to a significant positive impact.

Another benefit of taking action is that you are setting an example for other people that action is empowering. Your action could start a ripple of other actions.

Will incremental climate actions be enough to stave off the climate crisis? I do not think so.

However, as long as you, me, and everyone else is engaged in climate action at any level there is always the possibility that we will move beyond our comfort levels and do what is necessary to transform our society.

I will look for you along the journey.

Featured Image at Top: Newton’s Cradle perpetual motion device with one blue sphere – photo credit iStock/26ISO.

Related Posts

Resources