Is Recycled Toilet Paper Sustainable?
Toilet paper just seems like one of those everyday things, doesn’t it?
You buy it without giving it too much thought. It’s there for you in the bathroom when you need it. And that’s that, really; no harm done. Right?
But the truth is that when it comes to toilet paper, there’s actually quite a substantial amount of harm done, which is why recycled toilet paper is a thing at all.
It might sound astonishing, but it’s estimated that around the world, 27,000 trees worth of toilet paper is used every single day! That amounts to nearly 10 million trees being wiped out each year so we, people of the earth, can comfortably wipe our bottoms!
On top of this, it is also estimated that the United States alone is responsible for over 20% of global toilet paper consumption. So it seems our choice of T.P. can actually have quite a significant effect on the environment, for better or worse.
So what about recycled toilet paper? Is it a more sustainable option than other types of rolls? Is it safe to use? What the heck is it made from? Is it clean?
Keep reading for all you need to know about this potentially planet-saving solution.
What is Recycled Toilet Paper?
A lot of people are interested in recycled toilet paper because they perceive it as a more eco-friendly option than a regular roll. But what exactly is it? Doesn’t the whole concept sound a little, icky? Does it contain old bathroom tissue that someone has already used to wipe their bottom!?
Fortunately, there’s no need to worry about that. It turns out that toilet tissue is the final possible use of the fiber used in paper products and is generally not recyclable. This means that recycled toilet paper does not actually contain any previously used toilet tissue, but is instead made from other recycled materials. These recycled materials will either be post-consumer materials or pre-consumer ones.
These are materials that are reused after serving their initial consumer-related purpose, as opposed to being thrown in the trash. Post-consumer materials commonly present in recycled toilet paper would include recycled paper products like books, newspapers, magazines, etc. So who knows, maybe recycled toilet paper can make us smarter!
Also referred to as manufacturing waste, pre-consumer recycled materials are leftover materials that have not yet been ‘consumed’ by an end-user. Pre-consumer materials present in recycled toilet paper might include trimmings and scraps from wood manufacturing, wood from landfills, or previously manufactured paper products that have gone unused.
If you’re browsing through different toilet paper brands at the grocery store, it’s likely you will find recycled toilet paper made entirely from post-consumer materials, entirely from pre-consumer materials, or even a mix of both. It’s also possible to find products that contain a mix of recycled fiber and virgin fiber, meaning they are only partially made from recycled materials.
The Brand of Toilet Paper Matters
Make sure to do your research and always purchase from a brand you trust. When you do, using recycled toilet paper is completely safe and sanitary. And although it may contain recycled materials that wouldn’t normally flush in their original state, recycled toilet paper is manufactured to make it completely toilet friendly, so there’s no need to worry about clogging up your toilet or ruining the septic.
It’s important to note that there have been some reports of recycled toilet paper containing traces of a potentially toxic chemical known as BPA, but as you’ll see later in this article, the risk here is incredibly low.
But what about the risk to the environment? Is recycled toilet paper actually kinder to the planet than non-recycled?
To answer that, we need to dig deeper into how it’s made.
How is Recycled Toilet Paper Made?
While manufacturing virgin toilet paper involves first cutting down trees, turning the logs into wood chips, and processing the wood chips into virgin wood pulp, the initial process of making recycled toilet paper is a tree-free one.
To make recycled toilet paper, instead of chopping up our precious trees and forests, pre-consumer or post-consumer paper materials are gathered up and put into a pulping machine or ‘pulper.’ This machine mixes the paper with detergents and warm water to turn it into a pulp, or a ‘slurry.’ This recycled pulp is then rinsed and screened to remove paper coatings and inks, and the pulp is usually then whitened and sanitized using oxygen, ozone, and hydrogen peroxide.
From this point on, the process of making recycled toilet paper is the same as that of virgin toilet paper production. At this stage, either the virgin pulp or the recycled pulp is mixed with water again to produce a paper stock, which is then sprayed, dried, and ‘creped’ to make it soft. The toilet paper is then rolled up, and packaged for our consumption!
Is Recycled Toilet Paper Environmentally-Friendly?
But which of these processes is the most environmentally sustainable? Well, according to extensive research conducted in the boreal forest of Canada by US-based not-for-profit National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), recycled toilet paper is much kinder to our planet than virgin toilet paper for a number of reasons. (The boreal forest of Canada is where much of the tissue pulp used to make toilet paper in the United States comes from.)
This NRDC report concluded that “using post-consumer recycled content in tissue products creates a significantly smaller environmental footprint than does virgin fiber because wood does not need to be harvested from a forest to be turned into pulp, and the chemicals used in its whitening process are far less toxic than those used to bleach virgin fiber pulp.”
Using pre-consumer recycled materials instead of virgin ones was also found to help alleviate pressure on forests, which can only be a good thing for biodiversity and animal welfare.
The report also found that producing recycled toilet paper requires roughly ½ the amount of water needed to make virgin paper while emitting only ⅓ of the greenhouse gases. Making recycled toilet paper also produces 40% less sulfur dioxide, the main cause of acid rain, and ½ the amount of hazardous air pollutants compared to virgin paper. Using recycled materials also helps to keep waste out of landfills, preventing further methane emissions and other pollutants from being released.
These results are backed up by research published in Management and Production Engineering Review on tissue paper products which proved that “the production process based on waste paper is more environmentally friendly than the one based on virgin pulp in all impact categories: human health, ecosystems, resources.”
This lower impact was attributed to a lower material and energy requirement across the entire life cycle of recycled tissue paper compared to virgin tissue paper.
Although recycled toilet paper isn’t completely zero waste, the process used to produce it is categorically better for human health, wildlife, and the planet itself when compared to virgin toilet paper.
But once the production process is complete, is recycled toilet paper actually safe for us to use?
Is Recycled Toilet Paper Safe and Sanitary?
Bought from a reputable brand, recycled toilet paper is usually of a similar quality to regular toilet paper and is completely safe and sanitary to use.
The only potential safety issue is the possibility that recycled toilet paper may contain traces of the chemical BPA.
BPA is an industrial chemical which in large amounts can affect fertility and has been linked to heart disease and other health problems. It is commonly found in plastic containers, canned foods, toiletries, household electronics, and various other products, but is also sometimes present in thermal receipts, lottery tickets, luggage tags, and shipping labels.
If any of these paper products are used to make recycled toilet paper, it is likely that the toilet paper will contain small traces of BPA.
However, the minuscule amount of BPA that recycled toilet paper may sometimes contain is very unlikely to cause you any health problems. In fact, you are likely to absorb much more BPA through touching receipts, drinking from plastic bottles, or eating canned foods than you are from using recycled toilet paper.
So all-in-all, recycled toilet paper is generally completely safe and sanitary to use, but it’s still always best to buy from a reliable manufacturer.
Or if you’re still not sold on recycled toilet paper, bamboo toilet paper is another potentially sustainable option you may have heard a lot about recently.
But which is the better option? Bamboo or recycled toilet paper?
Recycled Toilet Paper vs Bamboo Toilet Paper: Which is Better?
If you are conscious about the impact your toilet paper habit is having on the planet and you’re on the hunt for a more sustainable way to go to the bathroom, recycled toilet paper is not your only option.
In recent years, an increasing number of various non-wood alternative toilet papers have been hitting the market. These include toilet paper made from wheat straw or agricultural residue, toilet paper made from kenaf which is similar to cotton, toilet paper made from hemp, and of course, bamboo toilet paper.
The most popular of these to date has been bamboo toilet paper, but how does it compare to recycled toilet paper?
Which is Better for the Environment?
According to the NRDC, similar to recycled toilet paper, if bamboo is sustainably sourced it has only “a fraction of virgin fiber’s impact on forests and the climate,” as it requires less land degradation than virgin wood pulp. It can also grow more than 20 times faster than trees from northern forests. Incredibly, bamboo releases 30% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than tissue made from virgin wood. So it’s looking good so far!
However, there is a need for caution when it comes to bamboo. For starters, bamboo production often lacks rigorous supply chain monitoring, and bamboo is often grown in monocultures – meaning only bamboo is planted – on land that has recently been deforested. Since monocultures create problems for fungi, bacteria, insects, and other smaller animals who need a diverse ecosystem for survival, they are usually detrimental to biodiversity.
For this reason, it is essential that you always purchase bamboo products that you know for sure come from a sustainable source. The Public Goods range of tree-free bamboo toilet paper and other bamboo products like paper towels and wet wipes is a safe bet here. Because Public Goods tries to do everything they can to practice sustainability as much as possible, their bamboo products are only ever sourced from sustainable farms.
Once your bamboo toilet paper is coming from a confirmed sustainable source, it is definitely a more sustainable alternative to traditional toilet paper. But recycled toilet paper still has a sustainable edge.
The NRDC makes it clear that bamboo has greater land impacts than fibers from agricultural residue like wheat straw. While an excellent alternative, it’s not quite as low-impact as post-consumer recycled products.
What is Better for Comfort?
Casper Ohm, marine biologist and founder of UK-based water pollution resource Water Pollution, added that bamboo “can’t be near as sustainable as recycled paper which is sourced purely from waste.”
But he did say that bamboo toilet paper is generally softer and more comfortable for wiping than recycled toilet paper, so it is “better from the consumer’s perspective.”
It seems that the general consensus is: sustainably sourced bamboo toilet paper is better for the planet than regular toilet paper, but not quite as good for the planet as recycled toilet paper. Bamboo is, however, likely to be a softer, more comfortable option.
I suppose then, the whole recycled toilet paper vs bamboo toilet paper conundrum is really a bit of a trade-off between planet vs bottom! That said, once bought from a trusted brand, both options are more planet-friendly than regular toilet paper, and both are likely to be of perfectly acceptable quality.
But you know, if we really start to think outside the toilet-shaped box, there may well be other options out there as well!
How About No Toilet Paper At All?
You might be surprised to find out that 70-75% of the world’s population, about 6 billion people, don’t actually use toilet paper at all, and yet somehow they still find a way to live their lives. So although for many of us T.P. just seems like one of those everyday things, for many others, it isn’t a thing at all!
And as we have seen, even the most sustainable forms of toilet paper can still be harmful to the environment, so maybe it’s time we flushed the toilet paper for good and gave the bidet a go instead?
If that’s not for you, you could always have a look at these 5 sustainable swaps for a more eco-conscious bathroom.
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