Toilet paper is an expensive product. Not just for our pocketbooks, but for the planet. Toilet paper is - you guessed it – made from trees! Sometimes hemp is used in the toilet paper manufacturing process, but the big manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble seem to use trees as the source for their TP. From my reading, I learned that most of the paper used to make toilet paper in this country comes from the forests of Canada. I saw a lot of different numbers for the quantity of trees felled for this purpose. My conclusion is – IT’S A LOT OF TREES!!! These are trees that can be hundreds of years old. The trees are usually replanted, but with monoculture plantations that do not replicate the natural forest from which the original trees were harvested. (I just finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers which, although it is a novel, gives the best explanation for the environmental complexity of the forest ecosystem I have seen. You might want to check it out). I used to think that if you cut down a tree, you just plant another one and it’s all good. This is not the truth. Personally, I really like our neighbors to the north and I don’t want to be responsible for deforesting their amazing country!
And there’s more to the toilet paper story. Lots of water is used in the manufacture of toilet paper. And many chemicals are used to process the paper, including chlorine bleach which breaks down into Dioxins. Dioxins are considered serious and persistent environmental toxins. All of this water and these chemicals need to go somewhere, but interestingly I had a really hard time finding out what happens to the waste products of toilet paper manufacture. I have a feeling it’s nowhere good.
What about recycled toilet paper? Fewer trees are felled to make this product – that’s a win! The paper that is used would have gone to a landfill – another win! But the water use and bleaching process in making the toilet paper are still issues. Note also that recycled toilet paper isn’t as soft on the tushie; you need fibers from newly felled trees to get that soft feeling. Some say that the ink in recycled paper may contain BPA (bisphenol A) - a potent endocrine disruptor. It is true that thermal paper like that found in store receipts may contain BPA. In the past newspaper ink contained many toxic chemicals, but more recently soy-based inks are used that are felt to be safe.
Another option is toilet paper made from bamboo. Bamboo is an amazing plant! It can grow 3 feet in one day! Promotors of bamboo toilet paper claim that this plant requires no fertilizer or pesticides and very little water. Other sources I looked at didn’t agree with these claims. Currently, most bamboo toilet paper is made in China – that’s where most bamboo plantations are. There are more and more companies manufacturing bamboo toilet paper; here is an on-line article that talks about several of them: www.mindbodygreen.com. We are trying a brand at home called Who Gives a Crap, an Australian company that donates 50% of their profits to charities that are providing improved sanitation to communities in need. It is not as soft as the more expensive toilet papers, but not as flimsy or scratchy as the cheap ones. I would call it an “intermediate comfort” toilet paper. The one thing I don’t like is that the bamboo toilet paper is shipped from China. The company we are trying out ships by boat – that’s better than flying it here, but still it seems wasteful. China is a LONG way away!!
In the meantime, I am thinking about starting a bamboo farm! But wait – I’m too late!! In Alabama, bamboo farms are already up and running. It takes 7 to 10 years for the bamboo to be ready for harvest, so it will take some time, but it seems that in the not-too-distant future bamboo will no longer need to be imported. And that would make bamboo toilet paper a better choice, especially from a carbon footprint perspective!
So are there other solutions? Well, what about a bidet or a bidet seat for your toilet? This seems to me to be an environmentally cleaner – and more hygienic - option than standard toilet paper. The prices vary, and all will use more water than just using a toilet. But while your water use at home may increase slightly, the overall water use is much less when you factor in the water cost of making toilet paper. Some bidet toilet seat models require no electricity; instead, they use the water pressure in your plumbing system to generate water flow (I’m thinking this could be mighty cold, but it would sure wake you up in the morning!). There is still an environmental cost to making the bidet, but overall it seems like a more eco-friendly option than one-time-only use of a paper product.
For right now, we are using the bamboo toilet paper (because I bought enough for a cholera epidemic) or recycled toilet paper at our house. But a bidet seat is a strong contender for the near future! The important point here is to THINK about what you are buying when you make this necessary purchase and do what makes the most sense for you.