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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Composting Can Change Our Culture

Composting can change our culture and the way we view waste. Before you scoff or laugh, hear me out.

Egrets Standing on Garbage in a Landfill

I was as unlikely a composter as they come. I wear rubber gloves to handle food scraps and spoiled food, do not like creepy crawly things at all, and have a low tolerance for yuckiness. Yet I am in my third year of composting and I actually enjoy it. The weird thing is, composting fruit and vegetable scraps led to other unexpected changes.

In part one of this 2-part post, find out how composting can fundamentally shift the way you view waste, not just food waste, and how that influences what you eat, how you shop, and what you buy or don’t buy. Then in part two, learn how easy it is to compost.

Composting Experiment

It all started with a birthday card from my parents in which they generously enclosed a $100 bill. I had been searching for a green project, a way for us to reduce our footprint on the planet. I decided to undertake a food composting experiment and used my birthday money to buy the necessary equipment. My family was highly skeptical of this undertaking.

Composting appealed to me for two reasons. One, grinding food scraps up in the garbage disposal using potable water or tossing them in the garbage seemed, well, wasteful. Two, I wanted to challenge myself by doing something way outside my comfort zone and that would require a lifestyle change.

I chronicled my composting experiment in three posts: Composting Part 1 – You’re Going to Do What?, Composting Part 2 – Doing It, and Composting Part 3 – Lessons Learned.

Tales from the Unlikely Composter

The composting experiment began with fruit and vegetable skins, peels, pits, scraps, and spoiled pieces, coffee grounds and filters, and peanut and pistachio shells. Because of the wild critters in the area, we opted not to include meat scraps or bones.

We collect composter food in a one-gallon stainless steel bucket with a lid and I dump it in the composter outside when it gets full or at least every few days.

Strategic Fruit and Vegetable Shopping

The first change I noticed was my reluctance to put spoiled whole fruits or vegetables in the compost pail. I used to toss overripe avocados and wilted lettuce in the trash or garbage disposal, so I should feel good about composting them instead. Right? Well not exactly, now it felt wrong to let produce go bad. It was, uhm, wasteful.

Instead of buying whatever produce looked fresh and tasty without paying much attention to quantity or shelf life, we began to shop more carefully. Now we purchase only what we think we can and will actually eat and then made a point of eating it.

China Plate with Fresh FruitFor instance, I might walk into the kitchen with the idea of grabbing an apple, but if a banana smells like it is getting close to the only-good-for-banana-bread stage, I’ll eat that instead. My spouse, our main cook, chooses or creates recipes that use the produce we have on hand.

As a welcome side benefit, we save money by not wasting food we pay for.

Food Packaging Reduction Challenge

Next, I became intrigued and disturbed by the large volume of packaging that came with our food: wrappings, boxes, jars, bags, cans, cartons, pouches, and bottles. Sure, some of it was recyclable like cardboard cereal boxes and glass pasta sauce jars, but plastic wrappings, safety seals, and containers made of multi-layer materials were not.

Plastic Crate with Plastic and Paper PackagingRecycling is a good habit, but transporting, sorting, and processing recyclables still consumes energy, water, and resources, and generates waste and pollution.

Having less stuff to recycle became a desirable goal. To accomplish this we needed to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of packaging coming into the house.

We began filling up reusable bags with items like coffee beans, pasta, and pistachio nuts from the bulk bins. As we purchased more whole foods and fewer packaged items we brought less packaging home and vacant space appeared in our small pantry. We found farmer’s market vendors were receptive to us returning fruit boxes, egg cartons, and olive oil bottles and some even offered rebates for them.

Personal Care Product Make Over

Non-food items seemed to offer another packaging reduction opportunity so more recently I turned to personal care items.

I discovered I could refill my shampoo and conditioner bottles at a co-op we tried out. Better yet, it was the California-made brand I switched to several months ago.

Refillable Shampoo, Conditioner, Lotion Containers and Soap Dish with Bar of SoapA local shop, within walking distance of our house, makes and bottles rich moisturizing lotions with lovely scents. I’d bought a few bottles over the years and enjoyed them, so one day I walked into the shop and asked the proprietor if I could bring my own lotion dispenser. She said, “Sure.” Now I have a bottle of delightful plumeria-scented lotion on my bathroom counter. I also purchased a bar of glycerin soap they make in-house with natural ingredients I can actually pronounce and that does not come in a cardboard box.

The Waste Frontier

Plastic Garbage Can and Recycle Bin in front of Trash CompactorDuring a typical week, our 2-person household fills up the 21-gallon garbage can in the photo about 1/2 to 3/4 full. The one with the lid is our decades old, much patched, recycle bin. It’s usually full or almost full by trash day. Notice the trash compactor in the background (apparently, they were all the rage when our house was built in the 1980’s). We keep our garbage can in it.

Nowadays, I find myself looking at an item before putting it in a garbage can or recycling bin and posing questions to myself.

“Can cotton swabs be composted?”
“Is this blister pack containing 12 packs of dental floss recyclable?”
“Which beverage container is greener: plastic, glass, or aluminum?”

My inner waste monitor follows me to the store and the websites of my favorite online retailers.

“I want this lavender t-shirt.”
“You already have several t-shirts in your closet and you don’t need it.”
“I know, but I don’t have one like this.”
“Really.”
“Fine, I won’t buy it.”

The Bottom Line

If we hadn’t begun composting, we might still be buying pistachios in the bulk aisle, shopping with reusable bags, and refilling shampoo containers, but I believe composting gave us a fresh perspective on waste and nudged us in a new direction.

We’ve discovered new and interesting places to shop, met some of the people who grow our food, and found some great locally made products. It’s fun and feels good to support local businesses. Except momentarily, I don’t miss the stuff I didn’t buy, and it won’t require composting, recycling, or landfilling.

As I spread the compost around the Monterey Pine trees and native plants in our yard, I feel a sense of accomplishment and connection to the natural world. In nature, waste equals food—it’s a good model that humans should follow.

In the next post, pick up a few tips and learn how to make composting easy.

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