Toilet Paper’s Messy Situation

The issue with tissue

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News of the pandemic last year left people anxious and in a frenzy. Fearful of the disease, people channeled that energy into hoarding one of the most basic commodities in the household — toilet paper

By March 23, 2020, 70% of U.S. grocery stores were out of stock, and sales climbed over 845%. Butt we're not surprised by the numbers: Americans make up only 4% of the world's population, yet consume 20% of the world's toilet paper. 

Before modern toilet paper was invented, people wiped their bottoms with a variety of natural materials: snow, moss, seashells, corn cobs (don’t ask); wealthy folk used cloth, and some even went as far to create hygiene sticks with sponges.

From TP’ing to debating the right way to wipe or the right toilet paper orientation, toilet paper has become embedded in American culture. Also what’s up with bears being the face of so many TP brands?

Now take a seat so we can get to the bottom of this. 

At a Glance

This might come as a shock to many Americans, but most of the world doesn’t use toilet paper. Bathroom culture stems from what has commonly been available, with many other countries opting to rinse with water using a bidet or their left hand.

On the other hand, the U.S. started producing toilet paper in the 1850s, when marketing the health benefits around hygiene and femininity began to take off. Introduced as a source of luxury, Americans wanted to get that soft, strong, and absorbent paper to take care of their business.

Today, the average U.S. household uses about 409 rolls of TP per year. Across the U.S., this totals to over 12 billion rolls of TP per year, generating $31B yearly revenue. “Luxury” toilet paper continues to gain popularity, with customers looking for the softest four-ply and quilted toilet paper.

Unfortunately, producing paper leaves behind some crappy residue. Given that the majority uses each sheet just once, there continues to be a massive amount of wasted paper. Much indigenous land is being cut down for timber (just like we discussed in our palm oil issue) with many native animals losing their homes and becoming endangered.

Luckily, given COVID-19, there has been a conscious interest by many Americans to revisit this paper gold. 

Environmental Cost

Here’s a quick TLDR on how toilet paper is made:

  1. Centuries old trees are uprooted and crushed into wood chips.

  2. The wood chips are diluted in a harsh water, chemical, and energy intensive process to become tissue pulp.

  3. Tissue pulp then gets bleached white and rolled into sheets.

  4. These sheets are rolled up, stuffed into boxes and bags, and make it to your house before being flushed down the toilet.

As with every capitalistic commodity, this process takes a huge toll on forests, wildlife, and the climate. The TP industry is a major player in the logging industry, with many still stubbornly committed to making their toilet paper from 100% virgin forests

Brands like Charmin, Cottonelle, and Angel Soft are the main drivers for cutting down Canada’s boreal forest. This forest stores nearly twice the world’s recoverable oil reserves, meaning that when the forest is clearcut, a carbon bomb is released into the atmosphere, leaking tons of carbon dioxide that equals 24 million car emissions.

For the past 15 years, at least one million acres of the Canadian are wiped yearly, with over 28M lost. This leaves many Canadian wildlife, from billions of songbirds to the boreal caribou, losing their homes and making it on the endangered species list due to this rapid rate of habit loss. These trees are often also very old, taking between 20 to 50 years to regenerate.

As a single-use waste product that makes its way through sewers and landfills, each roll takes over 37 gallons of water, 1.5 pounds of wood and 1.3 kilowatt/hours of electricity to produce. One tree only produces around 1,000 rolls, and Americans flush down 27,000 trees down the drain per day. We'll let you do the math, but that is a lot of toilet paper and trees used.

This doesn’t even account for the 17 billion cardboard tube waste that’s tossed out yearly, accounting for 160 million pounds of trash. Over 253,000 tons of chlorinated bleach is also used to turn pulp white and become softer, severely polluting local water sources in the process.

The TP industry does try to help offset this by planting new trees, but these are often in monoculture plantations, made up of a single species of tree inadequate to substitute for the biodiverse forests.

Human Cost

Toilet paper is wiping more than just your bum. Much of the logging in the boreal forest occurs within hundreds of indigenous communities' traditional territories, threatening generations of culture, health, and relationships to the land. 

These people have international rights to the land and resources, but have little say in how their lands are used, leaving communities a fraction of their land and a significant shift in their lifestyle.

Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull, Cree Nation: "As Indigenous Peoples in the boreal forest, we live on the food from our land. The forest is our supermarket, with aisles of berries and meats and fish.  My hope is that, once people know that their choice of tissue will determine whether food will be there for us tomorrow, they will help protect our homelands by switching to recycled and responsibly sourced products."  

But there is hope! Indigenous communities are leading the fight for boreal forest protections and providing sustainable models for economic development, preserving traditional territories, and protecting Canada's most treasured wildlife. 

As we were researching people affected by the toilet paper industry, we also stumbled on the fact that not everyone in the world has access to basic sanitation, let alone toilet paper. 

60% of the world (around 4.5 billion people) don't have a toilet that manages human waste at home. People (mostly from third world countries) defecate in the open — fields, gutters, behind bushes, and in open water, which contaminates the water supply. 

Poor sanitation:

  • Leads to transmission of diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.

  • Increases the risk of sexual assault and lost educational opportunities (especially for women). Women and their children spend hours finding safe places to defecate outside, time that could be spent at school or work. 

  • Results in 297,000 preventable diarrhea related deaths of children under 5 every year (1 preventable death every 2 minutes 😔).

Thankfully, there are many global organizations (example: WHO, UNICEF) and rising toilet paper companies that are on a mission to provide equal access to sanitation.

TP Today and Tomorrow

While it may seem like the industry is currently behind the times, there has been a lot of behind the scenes work. Many environmentalists have been on the front lines advocating for TP change for a few decades, recommending Americans try three different approaches to replacing traditional TP.

No. 1: Recycled Fibers

Recycled fibers are created with half the amount of water and far less toxic chemicals, while also producing half of the hazardous air pollutants that come from virgin paper. Other countries outside of America are far less picky about toilet tissue, with European and Latin American countries purchasing recycled TP more often.

Toilet paper in public restrooms now are often made of 60% of recycled paper, and groups like Major League Baseball and events like the Academy Awards are using 100% recycled TP.

Most recycled fibers, however, feel pretty sh*tty. Softer toilet paper comes from the bleaching. So while recycled fibers help environmentally, many Americans are still reluctant to change as it is the “fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel.”

No. 2: Alternative Fibers

  • Wheat Straw: An agricultural residue left behind after harvest. Also can help reduce CO2 emissions from farmers burning this residue.

  • Bamboo: Has a fraction of impact on rainforests and climate, growing 20x faster with less land degradation and releasing 30% less greenhouse gases.

  • Kenaf: Clothing fiber similar to cotton. Discussed in our denim article.

However, for all of these alternatives, it is crucial that companies are aware of the lack of a robust supply chain and potential unforeseen environmental risks.

No. 3: Bidet

Of course, we can’t talk about potential alternatives without talking about the bidet

The U.S. has been slow to adopt them, despite their popularity all across the world. Their minimal water use, and availability of non-electric, eco-mode settings make it easy to reduce your environmental cost.

Wet wipes might be presented as an alternative, but they are still a wasteful, single-use product that is non biodegradable as they are made from plastic. They also cause severe sewer problems when flushed down the toilet.

Big Brand vs. Startup

A red flag to call out is some big brands have actually slowed down and reversed some of the work they promised. 

Companies like Kimberly-Clark, Georgia-Pacific, and P&G are returning to using more virgin pulp again, with the proportion of recycled wood pulp falling from over 30% to 20% as of 2017. Discontinuations of recycled/bamboo TP’s have stopped production. A recent 2017 Greenpeace report warns that Sweden’s Great Northern Forest is in danger of demand for virgin wood again.

TP focused startups use this as a chance to disrupt the staunchly unchanged industry. They’re looking to use more sustainable materials and remove the plastic wrapping, while also making design improvements in TP texture and look. You can check out some of these brands below in our alternatives section.

The bottom line is that we can help make a bigger change with our money because large companies are starting to lose focus. The pandemic has brought toilet paper to the forefront, whether it be for buying gifts for for looking into sustainable startups, this is the time to take a stand.

Ingredients and Labels to Look Out For

For something as simple as toilet paper, we didn't think that there would be toxic ingredients 🙀. 

Here’s a few to watch out for:

  • Formaldehyde: Skin irritant and known cancer-causer (derivatives of formaldehyde start with quaternium-). Manufacturers use this to improve the strength of toilet paper.

  • BPA: Endocrine disrupter which can cause metabolic disorders. High levels have been found in recycled toilet paper. Be wary of recycled TP from printing paper.

  • Fragrance: An umbrella term for thousands of chemicals. There's no way to know what makes up fragrance. 

  • Chlorine: Used to bleach and soften toilet paper. It releases toxic dioxins which can damage reproductive, immune, and endocrine systems. Chlorine is hard to avoid, a less harsh element is chlorine dioxide. 

  • Sodium benzoate: Preservative that is also used in fireworks production.

  • Methylisothiazolinone: A chemical lethal to tissue neurons. Please help us pronounce this ingredient.

Some labels to understand:

  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Label: Could be 100% or MIX to indicate the amount of virgin wood material from FSC-certified forests.

  • Elemental Chlorine Free(ECF): Indicator that chlorine derivative like chlorine dioxide is used.

  • Process Chlorine Free (PCF): Product has not been re-bleached, mostly in recycled TP products.

  • Totally Chlorine Free(TCF): No chlorine or chlorine compounds were used to bleach.

  • Unbleached: Untreated, probably very rough to the touch.

  • "Ultra Strong": Hidden ingredient is formaldehyde.

  • "With Lotion": Hidden ingredient is petroleum based mineral oil.

Alternative Brands to Consider

Can’t find a toilet paper brand you like? We got your back(side). 

There are lots of toilet paper alternatives out there that are tree/bleach free, non toxic, and are sustainably made and packaged. Here are some of them:

Note: We are not sponsored to show any of these, but wanted to list a few that stood out from our research.

  • How We Roll | ~$0.93/roll | For every box sold a tree is planted, Womxn Founded | Buy online

  • No.2 | ~0.95/roll | Womxn Founded | Buy online 

  • Who Gives A Crap | ~$1/roll | 50% of profits donated towards water, hygiene, and sanitation causes, carbon neutral shipping, B Corp | Buy online

  • Cheeky Panda | ~$1.25/roll | Partnered with three organizations toward the UN Sustainability Goals | Buy online

  • Reel Paper Co | ~$1.25/roll | Supports organizations that provide access to clean toilets, Black Founded | Buy online 

  • Tushy | ~$1.90/roll | Portion of profits go towards building community toilets in India Carbon neutral shipping, Womxn Founded | Buy online 

What You Can Do

Let’s see how you can take a crack at this.

  • Consider buying a bidet! A one time purchase can save money ($50/year/person) and reduce your environmental footprint.

  • Audit the toilet paper you are currently using, and consider switching to a more sustainable brand

  • Look for a BPA-free, FSC label, Greenpeace approved toilet paper with high levels of recycled fiber.

  • We recommend reading this in-depth piece by the National Resources Defense Council that goes into way more depth about toilet paper.

  • Friends don't let friends buy crappy toilet paper — share this article with anyone who'd like this piece 🧻


Questions or comments on this piece? Suggestions on what we should cover next? Think we’re on a roll? Send us a note. ✉️