Updated: Jul 30, 2021
It is one of the hottest commodities of the year, the one that rivalled food and water on your shopping list at the supermarket, we are of course talking about toilet paper rolls.
As a fun starts, if another lockdown occurs and you are curious about how long you will last with your current stock, check on the How Much paper website for the answer.
Now for the gloomy story and what we can do as a daily sustainable choice to improve our fate.
From Tree-to-Toilet, the Flushing Forest
Toilet paper are the #1 single-use product as they are discarded within the second after its use.
It is made of wood pulp of cut down trees with usually a combination of 70% hardwood trees (oak, maple) and 30% of softwood trees (firs and pines).
If your current roll is made of virgin wood pulp, be sure that natural forest has been cut down, a huge amount of water and energy have been used as well as toxic chemicals like dioxins and furans during the bleaching process. Such process is use to strengthen, soften and of course make the paper as white as our teeth to attract our consumer's eyes. Why? Because our mind has been trained to think that white = clean.
All of these, just for a second of life purpose.
Curious about the whole process you can have a look at this 5 min video:
Did you know that even without COVID, Germans are the world #2 consumers of paper toilet with 134 rolls per person per year?
For the record, according to World Watch Magazine, having a lifestyle of using 2 rolls/week means the cut down of 27,000 trees per day.
Getting the silver medal, unfortunately is not a treat as choosing the wrong products can have drastic impact like deforestation and biodiversity issues. A study highlighted in 2017 by Greenpeace on the swedish Grand Northern Boreal Forest which represent nearly one-third of Earth’s remaining forest. In 2019, the same was observed by the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council/Stand.earth) on the canadian Boreal with more than 28 million acres of boreal forest logged between 1996 and 2015. When you know that 1/4th of humans carbon emissions are removed by our tree friends, making sure we use this resources sparingly and maintain their good state is paramount.
Unfortunately, the trend is not going greener. But on the very opposite way, according to an analysis directed by Ethical Consumer magazine. With the shift of consumer awareness towards plastic banned, major brands went back to their old ways with their manufacturing process using less and less recycled fibers. In 2011, just under 30% of the total fiber used was recycled, by 2017 the figure fell to 23.5%.
Recycled Fibers, which options?
Recycled toilet paper is made from either Pre-consumer content (wood from landfills or timber cuts which were not used in the paper industry) or post-consumer recycled content (or PCR), such as textbooks and office paper.
Save Tree: Using recycled paper means fewer trees are chopped down, leaving them standing to do their natural job keeping our air clean, providing homes for the fauna and protect soils to erode .
Save Energy: Choosing recycled toilet paper also saves energy, since the production of paper and cardboard products made from recycled paper uses 50% less energy.
Save Water: As already discussed, it saves water consumption by 90% than making them from virgin wood pulp.
Toxic Free: Recycled paper usually requires less bleach than virgin pulp. Some papers are even completely chlorine free, and use hydrogen peroxide as a whitening alternative agent, which generates no chlorinated organic compounds.
Many recycled toilet paper brands are on the market and you might be surprise how you might not be able to tell the difference between a traditional regular brand and a sustainable one.
Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on the planet and can grow up to 20 times faster than your usual trees. It has the ability to thrive in poor depleted soils.
Tissue products created from bamboo release around 30% fewer greenhouse gases than those made from virgin wood. However, they have to be shipped thousands kilometers off from Asia to end up in our shops. Plus you will have to watch out that the bamboo were sourced at certified sustainable location by displaying the FSC label otherwise it could have been from bamboos plantation after a deforestation endangering the regional biosphere.
So despite being greener than plain virgin wood pulp, bamboo-based products are not quite as low-impact as post-consumer recycled contents.
Hemp is the trend at the moment and can be used in so many sustainable application that toilet paper is no exception, if source sustainably. Hemp do not usually require the use of pesticides, herbicides, or irrigation. However, the plant is in needs of more fertilizers than its alternative counterparts and more chemical additives for its good processing.
Comparing to other alternative fibers, hemp has a stronger impact on climate change but nothing in comparison to tissue products made from virgin fibers.
Though under use at the moment, hemp could become a great alternative. However, very few hemp-based tissue brands are currently available on the market and even less coming with a sustainable label.
In the end, the best choice for fibers is to look for brands making rolls from post-consumer recycled materials. Then you have to watch for a controlled forest label.
The FSC Label
The Forest Stewardship Council is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 which has for aim to "promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world's forests". Its FSC stamp ensures then that the highest forest management quality practices have been followed for the said paper based product.
It exists three different FSC logos with clear differences:
FSC 100% - Wood from fully FSC-certified forests, 100% controlled forests.
FSC Recycled – All wood must be pre- or post-consumer materials.
FSC Mix – This is the one most frequently found on toilet paper. A mix of FSC virgin wood, recycled, and virgin wood from ‘controlled sources.’
Controlled sources means that the forests have not all been fully certified, but instead considered as low risk. It is the least stringent of the three labels.
Decision Recap in 3 Steps
It is Recycled paper - It is far more sustainable than virgin pulp. Choose this over other sustainable fibers as well.
It bears the FSC stamp - check out above for the different level of stringency.
If not possible, choose the ones made from alternative fibres - Fibres such as bamboo and agricultural waste, if responsibly sourced, are more sustainable than virgin pulp. Once selected, look for the FSC stamp.
Watch out for a recyclable packaging too
The oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish by 2050. Opt for unpackaged or one with biodegradable packaging.
Going Beyond - the Alternative to Paper
Around 70% of the world’s population are not using toilet rolls, of course sometimes due to lack of products and hygienic options which can lead to health catastrophes but it also highlights that there are lots of other hygienic and sustainable alternatives other than to using tissue products.
The most sustainable alternative - Bidet
Bidet (pronounced bi-day with a french accent) is the most sustainable alternative to using paper-based rolls. It requires in estimate less water per use (0.6 litres of water per visit) than the tissue-making process does (about 168 litres) for a nearly perfect efficiency.
Doctors have also noted the hygienic benefits of bidets and they are used in many parts of the world, especially in Japan as every tourist coming back from this country will tell you their first attempt onto the sophisticated machine. However, habits and traditional ways are hard to get over, and many people are of course very reluctant to stop using their tissue products.
Solutions exists made of portable bidet or easy to install device. If you combine it with reusable toilet roll sheets made out of organic cotton you got yourself the most sustainable way to do the deed.
For those, reluctant to swap from papers, the next best thing as you know already is to go for sustainable PCR products.