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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Bulk Bin Buying – Bring Your Own Containers

You, too, can become a bulk bin fan.

What if you could easily reduce packaging waste while doing your grocery shopping? Buying from bulk bins and bringing your own containers is one way to do it. Once you try it, you may never go back to your old shopping habits again.

How many times have you walked by the bulk bin aisles in your favorite grocery market without a glance? Has it been hundreds of shopping trips? Buying from bulk bins was not part of my normal grocery shopping routine either, until about five years ago.

That is when my spouse and I joined the SLO Food Co-op because we wanted to buy organic food that was locally and regionally grown and produced. My spouse, our family’s main cook, was interested in the stuff in the bulk bins so I grudgingly went along with it.

Two things occurred that turned me into a bulk bin fan.

The first was that we could buy a lot of great things from the bulk bins. The second was that I realized we could hugely reduce the amount of throwaway packaging coming into our home if we brought our own reusable containers. I really liked that part.

Over the years, we have converted more and more of our food supplies to items from the bulk bins. I am certain we will continue to find more products to purchase either in bulk or from the bulk bins.

Chris Banuelos at SLO Natural Foods Co-op Checkout Counter

Chris Banuelos knows where everything is at the SLO Food Co-op and he always greets us with a smile.

Chris drew our name out of the hat for the bring-your-own-container contest. We were thrilled to win a $250 gift card. Guess what we bought with it?

Buying in Bulk versus Bulk Bin Buying

As far a grocery shopping goes the term bulk can have different meanings.

Buying in bulk usually refers to buying a large quantity of something such as a 25-pound bag of rice, a 3-pack of ketchup bottles, or a case of toilet paper rolls.

We buy some things in bulk like toilet paper, facial tissue, and coffee beans.

Bulk bin items include food, personal care, and household cleaning products that are dispensed, scooped, poured, grabbed, or pumped from a store supply container into a container you take home.

Some of the many items you can buy in the bulk bin aisles include flour, sugar, granola, olive oil, honey, nuts, balsamic vinegar, pasta, peanut butter, vanilla extract, rice, dried fruits, spices, coffee beans, tea, snacks, dried beans, and salt. Many stores offer personal care items such as shampoo and lotion as well as dish soap and laundry detergent.

How Does Buying from the Bulk Bins Work?

Buying from the bulk bins may be slightly different from what you are used to but it is simple.

Choose an item and fill up a bag or another container with the amount you want to buy. Write the bin number on a label and affix it to the bag or container.

Stores supply bags, containers, labels, twist ties, and pens for shoppers or you can bring your own containers from home.

Before you fill up a container for the first time, it needs to be weighed and marked with its tare (empty) weight. You can do this using a scale at the store or in some cases a store employee will do it for you. At the checkout counter, the tare weight is subtracted so you do not pay for the weight of the container.

Click here for a 1-minute video in which Alana Looser from the SLO Food Co-op demonstrates how to weigh and label a container.

Voilà you are ready for the bulk bin aisles.

Pros and Cons of Shopping in the Bulk Bin Aisles

Like many choices in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to shopping in the bulk bin aisles.

You are the person in the best position to determine what is important to you and what works for you and your family. I will give you some examples from my own experience and then you can decide if you want to give the bulk bins a try or not.

Generally, the pros and cons fall into four main categories: packaging, selection, cost, and quantity. A single item can have both advantages and disadvantages.

Packaging

For me, a minimalist trying to live happily with less stuff while trying to reduce waste of all types, less packaging is the main allure of bulk bins for me. However, shopping in the bulk bin aisles does not automatically reduce packaging.

You could easily cruise through the bulk bin aisles scooping dried cranberries and brown sugar into single-use plastic bags and wrapping them with throwaway twist ties, repeating the same process each time you shop. This is an improvement over many prepackaged items, but not much.

When you bring your own reusable containers, you are substantially reducing the amount of disposable packaging often associated with grocery shopping. If you are thinking “But I recycle.” please take a few minutes to read All Americans Should Visit a Landfill.

Selection

Sure, instead of 15 brands of macaroni shells to choose from you will only have one or two options. Chances are that for many items, the products on offer will satisfy your taste buds or product requirements.

As an example, for breakfast most mornings I eat almond butter on toasted multi-grain bread. In a search for one that did not contain palm oil, I had tried many brands. I found one that I liked but stirring it up required a substantial amount of arm strength and took at least five minutes.

Almond and Peanut Butter Machines, Olive Oil and Honey Dispensers at SLO Natural Foods Co-op
The machines on the left grind fresh nuts into almond butter and peanut butter and the dispensers on the right hold olive oil and honey at the SLO Food Co-op.

One day at the Co-op my spouse suggested I try the almond butter machine. I put my reusable jar underneath the machine and pressed the start button. Freshly ground organic almond butter oozed into the container. No stirring required, ever. I was an instant convert.

You can always choose to continue buying the prepackaged version that you like if you cannot find a suitable bulk bin alternative. That is what we do. As you will see my fondness for Kirkland salted cashews has contributed to our container stash.

Cost

I have not done an extensive cost analysis of bulk bin items versus their prepackaged counterparts. But, I do pay attention to prices and I think buying from the bulk bins is a good financial choice for our family. Even if I had done an in-depth study, it would not be pertinent for you and your family so I suggest you do your own comparisons.

The purchase price is not the only cost I consider when shopping.

The price you and I pay at the checkout counter does not reflect the cost associated with the environmental harm caused by growing, making, processing, packaging, transporting, storing, and disposing of the food and other products that we buy.

If the cost of environmental harm was factored in, something like a 12-pack of single-use plastic water bottles would cost a thousand dollars or more. We take our reusable water bottles everywhere and do not buy bottled water.

Quantity

One thing I really like about buying from the bulk bins is that you can purchase as much (within reason) or as little of an item as you want. If you do a lot of baking, you can stock up on flour, sugar, and salt. Or you can buy a teaspoon of a spice you need for a new recipe you want to try.

Earl Grey tea is my favorite but sometimes I want to try out other blends. At the Co-op’s bulk tea section, I can buy just enough loose tea to brew a few cups instead of buying a whole box of individual tea bags.

Bringing Your Own Containers

Bringing your own containers for bulk bin items is one way that you can reduce the amount of waste that gets generated so that you and your family can eat. This is a simple action that almost anyone can choose to do.

Stacked Filled Reusable Bulk Bin Containers with Funnel
This is our collection of reusable containers for shopping in the bulk bin aisles at the SLO Food Co-op. We use the funnel to refill the spice jars (not shown) that we reuse.

Rather than buying special containers to hold bulk bin items my spouse and I decided to redeploy containers that had previously held other foods.

For us, bringing reusable shopping and produce bags to the store was already part of our normal routine so transporting empty bulk bin item containers was not a big deal for us.

And it won’t be for you once you get the hang of it.

I hope you will consider giving buying from the bulk bins a try on your next grocery shopping trip. Bring a container from home and fill it up with an item of your choice. The next week try two items, then three, and so on. Before you know it, you will be a bulk bin fan, too.

Featured Image at Top: This is part of the pantry staples bulk bin section at the SLO Food Co-op.

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