Our daily choices and habits can have an impact on the environment. One area we often overlook is our consumption of toilet paper and its environmental impact.
Toilet paper is a 21st-century luxury that is convenient and gets the wiping job done. Yet, our traditional toilet paper is not sourced from trees, manufactured, and shipped for our sanitary needs without a high cost to our environment. The multibillion-dollar toilet paper industry contributes to environmental degradation, climate change, and pollution.
In this article, we will investigate the environmental impact of toilet paper. We will examine how manufacturers make toilet paper, its impact on the environment, and how traditional toilet paper is due an eco-friendly reboot.
People consume toilet paper every year in large quantities all over the world. Shockingly, people involved in the process of deforestation chop down around 27,000 trees every day to produce toilet paper.
The USA tops the charts as the largest consumer of toilet paper in the world, with billions of rolls sold every year. An average American uses 141 toilet rolls per year2.
Germany takes the second-highest consumer of toilet paper with an annual consumption of 134 rolls per person. In Germany, people consumed a total of 1.45 million tons of toilet paper in the year 2018. The UK follows closely with an average of 127 rolls of tissue paper per person3.
Most companies produce conventional toilet paper from virgin paper pulp, also known as virgin fiber. Some toilet paper companies also use materials like post-consumer recycled content, pre-consumer recycled content, and other alternatives like wheat straw and bamboo toilet paper.
Virgin fiber is the most common material manufacturers use in making toilet paper. It is also the most environmentally destructive. The virgin pulp comes from two types of trees: hardwood trees and softwood trees. The hardwood tree is deciduous (it sheds its leaves annually). Softwood trees are spruce trees and other coniferous trees (their leaves are evergreen).
We can find softwood in regions of the United States and the Canadian Boreal forest. Manufacturers produce the softest toilet paper from softwood trees. To make wood pulp, manufacturers chop wood logs and process them to remove natural adhesives like cellulose. Once achieved, the wood chips go through a bleaching process for whitening.
When toilet paper is made from virgin fiber releases three times as much carbon, contributing a higher carbon footprint than tissue paper made from other materials.
Some companies also make use of recycled content in making tissue paper. Manufacturers recycle post-consumer content that we would otherwise throw away to make new toilet paper. It has a smaller environmental footprint when compared to virgin fiber, as manufacturers don’t have to harvest wood from the forest. However, turning old into new still draws on our energy resources.
Manufacturers get pre-consumer recycled content from scraps of initially produced but unused paper materials. This also saves the forest and prevents deforestation.
Boreal forests, or Taiga, refer to coniferous forests mainly consisting of pine, spruce, and larch trees. Boreal forests cover more than 1 billion acres of landmass across countries like Canada, Russia, Alaska, and China.
The Boreal forests are home to indigenous communities that depend on the forest for survival and culture. The forest is also a habitat for wildlife animals.
This forest is a central ecosystem essential to fighting climate change. It stores more carbon dioxide than any other forest on earth, holding about 12% of carbon in its plant and soils.
The Canadian boreal region removes a massive amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to emissions from 24 million vehicles1.
However, this is threatened by logging and deforestation. The demand for virgin wood pulp has adverse effects on the boreal forest.
According to reports by the Natural Resources Defense Council, over 28 million acres of Boreal forest in Canada have been logged between 1996 and 2015.
The report also examines tissue brands, gauging the content of their tissue products using a sustainability scorecard.
However, the report reveals that toilet paper manufacturers like Procter & Gamble, Kimberly Clark, and Georgia Pacific still produce tissue papers using virgin pulp from Canadian forests. In an example of greenwashing, Georgia Pacific introduced Quilted Northern Eco comfort, a brand that uses no recycled content and has no FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification.
When the Boreal forest goes through deforestation, its capacity to remove carbon from the environment significantly reduces.
Reports also reveal that clear-cutting the forest releases an average of 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.
Tissue products, including toilet paper, facial tissues, and paper towels, are significant contributors to logging in the Boreal forests. Virgin pulp makes up 23% of Canadian forest export products.
Despite efforts to plant new trees and reduce the environmental issues caused by manufacturing paper, the ever-increasing tissue consumption still poses a threat to our environment.
The Boreal forest is not the only forest affected by unsustainable tissue paper manufacturing. Forests in the Southeastern United States have also declined due to deforestation, with more than half of its trees now less than 40 years old.
The manufacturing process of toilet paper also harms the environment. Manufacturers wash the paper pulp in bleach to whiten and strengthen the toilet paper. They also use other chemicals to soften wood fibers to produce soft toilet paper.
The dioxins do not degrade easily and can lead to health issues for both animals and humans.
Today, manufacturers use elemental chlorine-free processes for toilet paper manufacturing. They are less toxic; however, they still release elemental chlorine by-products that remain harmful to the environment.
Recycled paper products use fewer bleaching processes as the raw materials require less treatment.
Today, toilet paper alternatives can help solve the environmental issues caused by unsustainable toilet paper production and consumption.
Several brands now make sustainable toilet papers that use recycled paper content and are free of harmful bleaching chemicals. These toilet papers are effective while keeping the planet safe. They also come in environmentally friendly packaging. Some of these brands include Seventh Generation, Who Gives a Crap, Green Forest, amongst others.
We’ve collected 7 of the best eco-friendly toilet papers over here for options better for the environment.
Bidets are a great alternative to traditional toilet paper. A bidet is a fixture that comes in a basin shape. They usually come in some bathrooms, fixed close to the toilet seat. You can use a bidet to wash after using the bathroom. Modern bidets now come with their own water supply and drainage systems.
You can also convert your traditional toilet to function as a bidet with bidet converter kits. These come in a range of sizes and with various features; check out our list for the breakdown.
For some people, bidets might not be as convenient as tissue paper. However, they get the job done properly and are more hygienic.
Bidets are not only efficient but are environmentally friendly. The volume of water used is far less than the gallons of water used to produce a single roll of toilet paper.
Investing in a bidet comes with multiple benefits. You can do your part in saving the number of trees cut down every year. You can also conserve water, reduce energy consumption and save costs on buying toilet paper.
Bamboo toilet paper is an eco-friendly alternative to toilet paper made with virgin fibers. Bamboo is highly sustainable and versatile. The bamboo plant grows faster than trees in the boreal forest and grows in various climates. Bamboo toilet paper also uses less water during its manufacturing process. When buying bamboo toilet paper, look out for an FSC certification to ensure the brand sustainably sourced its bamboo.
Another way to protect the environment is to go for toilet paper made with recycled materials. As we explained earlier, recycled materials include post-consumer recycled content and pre-consumer recycled content.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency advises that consumers choose recycled toilet paper containing 20 - 60% post-consumer and 20 - 100% recovered fiber.
Wheat straws are agricultural residues after harvesting and deforestation. Instead of throwing them away, contributing to pollution, manufacturers now use them in the toilet paper industry. Wheat straw toilet paper is not widely available. However, companies like Tork are investing in this new technology.
People often market wet wipes as environmentally friendly alternatives to tissue paper. They also clean better than dry paper. However, wet wipes consist of plastics which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions causing environmental pollution. They also contribute to clogging sewage systems. Similarly to toilet paper, eco-friendly wet wipe alternatives are the way to go.
Taking care of your toilet business doesn’t have to cost the environment so much. Instead of using traditional toilet paper that contributes to deforestation and pollution, you can switch to more eco-friendly alternatives that are still effective.
Jennifer Skene, Shelley Vinyard (2019, February) The Issue With Tissue: How Americans Are Flushing Forests Down The Toilet (pdf)
Martin Armstrong (2018, October 5) The U.S. Leads the World in Toilet Paper Consumption Statista Consumer Market Outlook
M. Ridder (2021, April 21) Tissue consumption in Western Europe in 2018, by country Statista
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.