Trees and our toilet paper

First published March 2009, last updated November 2012

Do we *really* need that super soft, fragranced triple-ply white toilet paper with the floral print? 

The mind boggles at how many trees are cut down each year just so we can wipe our bums.

While toilet paper from recycled materials is quite common here in Australia and in many other countries, back in 2009 when I first published this article, tissue made from 100 percent recycled fibers was still under 2 percent of the USA’s domestic use market among conventional and premium brands. 

I haven’t been able to find any updated statistics, but I have noticed more “name” brands using recycled content, which is good to see.

Looking at a few corporate sites’ sustainability pages, it seems that 2009 saw quite a turnaround in the industry as the toilet paper issue received a fair amount of attention that year. However, even in brands that have seen the light, the level of recycled content is often still quite low.

Further improvements can definitely be made – not just in the USA, but in Australia and other nations too. I’d like to warmly encourage folks to please ignore the marketing that says you *need* the super-fluffy blinding white paper and to at least have a try of the 100% recycled content stuff.

It might not be quite as soft, but millions of people I’m sure would agree when I say that it’s not exactly sandpaper either. There’s certainly no pain involved, I assure you :).

Toilet paper made from recycled material does the job, does it comfortably, does it well – and really, isn’t this an area of our lives where we really don’t need over-pampering; particularly when otherwise what we’d be wiping our butts with was made from live trees?

Most of the paper for toilet tissue in the United States comes from tree farms and second growth forests – an area that has re-grown after a major disturbance; but some still also comes from virgin forests

One of the most commonly used type of tree can produce around 1,000 rolls of toilet paper. Given that Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per person per year, based on a population of 314,723,449 (estimated USA population at November 2012), that equates to 7,427,473,396 rolls of toilet paper annually – 7.4 billion. We’re talking many millions of trees – and even in the case of plantation timber, that could be put to better use.

Recycled content toilet paper traps
Buying toilet paper made from recycled materials is great but even this can present some challenges.
Recycled paper needs to be de-inked before it is pulped and processed. This de-inking process may involve chlorine to bleach the paper. Chlorine based chemicals can react with paper fibers to create toxic compounds such as dioxin and organochlorines.
Dioxins cause cancer, learning disorders, decreased immune response, diabetes and all sorts of other nasty problems in the wider environment. By the way, the same chlorine issue is prevalent when using virgin-fiber based toilet tissue too.
When shopping for earth friendly toilet paper look for statements such as “unbleached”, “processed chlorine-free” or “totally chlorine free”.

Also be sure to check the level of recycled content – it could be as low as 5%.
Toilet paper from recycled materials costs around the same. If you’re really in savings mode, you can also save on paper (and save yourself some cash) by opting for 1 ply paper. While a roll of 1 ply can be more expensive, there’s more usable paper and studies have shown that people tend not to use more of it. 1 ply also breaks down faster, which is particularly a good thing in septic systems. Less paper means less pumping out and less cost.
Choosing fully recycled chlorine-free paper is something we can all do. If your local supermarket doesn’t stock it, ask for it – the only way we’ll change the situation is through consumer demand.