Every year, the toilet paper industry makes over $31 billion in the United States alone.
The pandemic has illuminated a fear that North Americans didn’t know they had: running out of toilet paper. In 2020, we saw big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart completely sell out of toilet paper. Aisle after aisle was empty, proving that we do indeed have a special affinity for toilet paper.
But how is toilet paper made? And how did it become so ubiquitous? For both personal hygiene and to prevent the spread of disease, the use of toilet paper has become a daily occurrence for a lot of people around the globe.
For a tree-free option (that isn’t made from recycled paper either) try out Public Goods’ Tree-Free Toilet Paper. Made from fast-growing bamboo and sugar cane pulp, this soft and sustainable option is the best of both worlds. Go totally tree-free with tissues and wet wipes made from bamboo, too!
The Two-Ply Truth: A Brief History of Toilet Paper
Before the invention of the single-use paper we use today, ancient people got by with innovative solutions for cleaning. Evidence dating to 111 BC in China shows that people on the Silk Road used hygiene sticks. Researchers have long speculated that the Silk Road contributed to the spread of disease between Europe and Asia. Evidence of parasitic eggs on preserved hygiene sticks showed that this hypothesis has some credibility.
The Romans used shared latrine sticks as well, which were in the form of a sponge on a stick, cleansed between uses in a shared pot of vinegar or saltwater.
The Chinese began using paper in the sixth century B.C. and by the 14th century, they were manufacturing 10 million packages of rice straw toilet paper just in Chekiang. In Europe, the French began using the bidet in the 1600s, which was thought to be a safer way to get clean after using the bathroom or chamber pot.
In the early United States, colonists used corncobs or newspaper to get clean throughout the 1700s and transitioned to the first “toilet tissue” in 1857. By 1890, Scott Paper Company (who you might recognize) began selling perforated toilet paper on rolls and became the largest distributor in the country. Since then, dozens of brands have erupted and toilet paper has been a staple in households everywhere.
What is Toilet Paper Made From?
Typically, toilet paper is made from “virgin paper”, which means it’s made from a concoction of softwood and hardwood trees. Each tree has different qualities that give various levels of strength and texture to the final product. For example, Douglas firs have long fibers that give toilet paper its strength, and hardwood trees like Maple have short fibers that make it soft.
Toilet paper manufacturers each adhere to a similar process for making toilet paper, but with varying ingredients like a different combination of trees or various chemical combinations.
Alternative brands use recycled paper or bamboo to make toilet paper. These practices reduce carbon emissions and keep trees in the ground where they can continue to provide our planet with clean air to breathe. Bamboo is a sustainable option because it grows exceptionally quickly and is much easier to replenish than fully grown trees.
How Is Toilet Paper Made?
The first step in making toilet paper is to gather the materials for the actual paper. You might be wondering at this point, where is toilet paper made? Most of the trees used for toilet paper in the United States are actually grown in Canada and shipped to paper mills in the U.S.
Two key processes turn the tree into useable material through heavy machinery. First, the trees are debarked. Then, they get chipped into smaller pieces.
The chips are mixed with chemicals in a digester to create a pulp, which is very energy-intensive. This makes the fibers useable for the final product.
The pulp is then cooked and washed to help remove some of the cooking chemicals. Next, the pulp undergoes a bleaching process to make the crisp white paper we recognize. Until the 1990s, chlorine bleach was used, which was very harmful to communities living downstream from paper mills. Now, toilet paper manufacturers use an elemental chlorine-free process that releases fewer detrimental chemicals into the environment but still harms local waterways and communities.
Alternatives to bleaching with harsh chemicals include the use of hydrogen peroxide or oxygen instead of chlorine.
Once all the color is removed from the pulp, it’s mixed with water to create a paper stock and strained. Next, it’s pressurized and dried with heat to remove any residual moisture. This dried paper is rolled onto massive reels and perforated before being cut into the rolls and packaged into what we see on the shelves.
Recycled Toilet Paper: How is it Different?
The primary difference in production for recycled toilet paper lies in the first couple of steps. First, recycled paper is gathered. This could be anything from newspapers to textbooks to receipts. Once the paper is compiled, it’s washed, bleached, and sanitized.
Recycled toilet paper diverts paper waste from landfills which produce methane and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, each ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees, which can absorb 250 pounds of carbon dioxide instead of contributing more to the atmosphere.
Recycled toilet paper is not as common as traditionally manufactured toilet paper. While it does save a staggering amount of trees, there are a few reasons the public is not so keen on recycled toilet paper. To start, some of the materials used to make recycled toilet paper might contain BPA, which is a known endocrine disruptor. Plus, recycled toilet paper might not be as soft, which is really up to personal preference since ultra soft toilet paper could clog pipes.
What Should You Look for When Shopping for Toilet Paper?
First, consider the origin of the paper itself. Is it made from recyclable paper? Or maybe it’s made from sustainable materials like bamboo. These products are less likely to directly impact climate change by eliminating the need for deforestation.
Certain brands are exceptionally transparent about their operations, so getting your toilet paper from a company that’s openly combating climate change, producing toilet paper through energy-efficient production, or is a Certified B Corporation is a much better option than supporting the big guys like Procter & Gamble.
Some companies purchase wood from loggers who are a part of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes conservation and biodiversity along with the consideration of indigenous communities. This is a program that is constantly enhancing, whereas the frequently marketed equivalent of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative is much weaker in its standards and actively promotes monocultural practices for tree growing. Be wary of certifications and when in doubt, choose FSC products.
The other component for mindful toilet paper purchasing is considering the added ingredients. While you might think there aren’t any obviously added ingredients, toilet paper does have that chemical slurry and bleaching process which can sometimes affect the final product.
Look for products without dyes, inks, or fragrances to protect your body, since those are often unnecessary and cause more harm than good.
Your Toilet Paper Purchases Matter
Now that you know how toilet paper is made, you can see how it’s come a long way throughout history. But, it’s no secret that the industrial manufacturing of toilet paper is harming the planet. Traditional practices are pretty detrimental to Indigenous Peoples, wildlife, biodiversity, and all of this negatively contributes to climate change, which we all suffer the effects of.
Next time you’re purchasing toilet paper, consider an eco-friendly alternative. As consumers, we have the power to support the brands that align with our own values through our purchases. If we all pause to purchase an ethical alternative to deforestation, the planet will quite actually breathe a little easier.
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