Toilet paper is a single-use product we seemingly can’t get away from. American’s buy and use a lot of toilet paper, more than 76.8 billion rolls per year! Our love for toilet paper is strong, we use more than most western countries, and most can share in the frustration when they have to use single ply instead of the luxury, ultra-soft stuff.
When working towards a more eco-friendly lifestyle, we search through our lives for areas of improvement. The question of whether or not toilet paper is good for the environment is quite common. Especially when each American uses roughly 24 rolls per year.
To answer the question of whether or not toilet paper is bad for the environment, we need to start by understanding how the paper is made, and what resources are used to manufacture and transport it.
How it is manufactured
The manufacturing process starts by cutting down a tree and stripping the bark from it. The bark gets discarded and the tree goes through a wood chipper to cut the tree into manageable pieces to go through the digestion process.
The wood chips are cooked in a giant pressure cooker with chemicals to aid in breaking down the various materials of the wood (lignin, fibers, and cellulose). After cooking, a fibrous pulp is formed. The pulp is cleaned with massive amounts of bleach until all traces of the original color is gone. The strong bleach also removes any sticky lignin substance that once held the wood together.
This bleaching process is what helps turn the brown paper into a white color. The more bleach used, the softer the end result.
The newly formed pulp is mixed with a large amount of water and sprayed onto screens of mesh, allowing the water and chemicals to drain and thin pieces of pulp to lay flat. The remaining moisture is pressed and dried. Once dry, the now paper is peeled off the mesh screens and rolled into giant reels.
Machines cut these reels into long strips and perforate squares into the strips. Finally, the toilet paper logs are cut, packaged and prepped for stores.
During the manufacturing process, 37 gallons of water is used to produce a single roll, and according to National Geographic, 27,000 trees are consumed daily, just to make toilet paper! The paper industry has been offsetting the deforestation with planting new trees, but their monoculture plantations fail to provide an efficient biodiverse ecosystem, which requires further use of pesticides to get these ‘replacement’ trees to grow.
Once the toilet paper is manufactured, it is then shipped across the country to warehouses and stores. Once in the hands of consumers, it is used and discarded.
Is it better to flush it or throw it in the trash?
This question is still unclear to researchers. The organic waste and cellulose fibers can be decomposed via bacteria. This bacteria does not need oxygen, however, they do release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This natural process can be done while in sewage or sitting in a landfill.
When toilet paper is flushed, it eventually makes its way to a sewage treatment plant. If your sewage is connected to a city, this journey begins after flushing. If you have a septic system, this is done anytime your septic tank is pumped.
Once your toilet paper reaches a sewage treatment plant, the natural decomposing process is already well on its way. A sewage treatment plant may use chemicals to speed up the process and separate the raw waste from byproducts. Bacteria aided by chemicals decompose the toilet paper, but since this is happening faster in a moist environment, it is believed more methane could be released than if it were in a dry environment.
If toilet paper is thrown away, it relies on garbage eating bacteria to decompose it while it sits in a landfill. The problem overall with landfills is the release of methane into the atmosphere, which has been identified as being up to twenty times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately, we don’t really have a concise answer about whether it makes more sense to toss your toilet paper or flush it. What we do know, however, is both the manufacturing process requires a massive amount of resources to produce this single-use product, it contributes to deforestation, and is large in size, which makes the shipment process less efficient.
Toilet Paper’s Recyclable Alternatives
Toilet paper made from recycled paper (post-consumer recycled) material that was specifically used in homes and office is a viable option. The caveat here is, there is a good chance the recycled toilet paper your considering has BPA contents in it. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology found small traces of harmful BPA in recycled toilet paper made in the US. These small traces were enough to be absorbed through the skin on contact. I would like to also point out, the study stated these amounts were less than what is measured when there is exposure from your diet.
But let’s not discount recycled toilet paper altogether. The 2011 study found that certain brands of toilet paper made from recycled material had small traces of BPA, as did thermal receipt paper, food cartons, mailing envelopes, airline tickets, magazines, and paper towels. So if you are scared of using recycled toilet paper because of this studies findings, I recommend taking a step back and analyzing the research more carefully. For one, there is a handful of scientist that are not fully convinced BPA is as harmful as some say it is. Second, there were more traces of BPA in the plastic containers a lot your food comes in, so if you wanted to understand areas of reducing your bodies BPA exposure, it might make sense to consider the higher concentrated products first.
Using recycled materials is also an option, however, the practice is not entirely eco-friendly, rather a half-hearted approach to a severe issue.
Are wet-wipes an alternative?
Most wet wipes have been linked with causing havoc on sewer systems, they’re often made from plastic, and they created what I believe is the most disgusting word in the English language, fatbergs. Wet wipes clump together in sewer systems and create giant debris blocks.
While there are some companies combatting this issue by making decomposable wet wipes, the issue with this product is also the fact they are single use.
It Is Better to End Single-Use Products?
Recycled or not recycled toilet paper is still going to require major resources to produce, transport, and then decompose after you’ve discarded it. This is the greatest issue with toilet paper, along with other single-use products, like napkins, paper towels, disposable cutlery, disposable contact lenses, and anything else that has ‘disposable’ in the title.
The Bidet and Bathroom Hose
Bidets and bathroom hoses (bum guns) are popular alternatives to toilet paper in many countries. Washing after going to the bathroom with water instead of cleaning with paper sounds more sanitary, and quite frankly, it is.
The issue with this is largely a cultural one. American’s are grossed out by the idea of cleaning their nether regions with a jet of water when they’re so accustomed to wiping themselves with a square of paper.
Having lived in Asia, where a lot of the region use water instead of toilet paper, I can tell you it took me about three weeks to get hooked on the idea, and a year to decide this was a device I would install in any future home I lived in.
I’ll provide a more detailed article on the benefits of bidets and bum guns, but if this is something you are intrigued in, I recommend further reading on the matter, as it reduces toilet paper usage almost entirely.
Reusable Cloth Towels
Reusable cloth towels are another option and ideal due to the fact that they are not single use, but they too are difficult to overcome, and those who adopt them will need to first clean themselves with water.
I should add, it will also be a challenge to explain to your guests that is it okay for them to clean themselves with cloth towel instead of toilet paper, but if you plan on going down this road, I’m sure it will be just one of the many adjustments you’ll face.
So what is the conclusion here?
Yes, toilet paper is horrible for the environment, and what I believe is the best alternative is water. Start reading about bidets and toilet hoses so you can eventually make the move.