The 411 on Toilet Paper

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George Costanza of Seinfeld once said that toilet paper hasn’t changed in his lifetime and probably wouldn’t change in the next 50,000 years. While it’s that true toilet paper as we know it today hasn’t changed much, our consumption may have. In fact, the average U.S. consumer uses more than 20,805 sheets annually, contributing to a $5.7 billion industry for bathroom tissue.

When you think of producers of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and resource depletion, toilet paper probably doesn’t join the list of products and industries that come to mind. But the natural resources that go into toilet paper should be taken into account. According to some estimates, approximately 7 million trees are used each year to make up the U.S.’s toilet paper supply.


The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that if every household replaced just one 500-sheet roll of virgin fiber toilet paper with a 100 percent recycled fiber roll, 423,900 trees would be saved annually. Image courtesy of Alias 0591

Tiny Roll, Big Impact

The idea of using virgin wood for throwaway paper products seems silly, but it happens nearly 99 percent of the time. Toilet paper made of 100 percent recycled paper fiber makes up less than 2 percent of the market in the U.S.

However, toilet paper made of 100 percent recycled paper content, including high percentages of post-consumer recycled fibers, is becoming easier to find as national chain stores now carry major brands like Seventh Generation and Marcal.

Marcal Manufacturing, LLC, the maker of Small Steps 100-percent recycled paper products, processes more than 200,000 tons of recyclable paper each year to create more than 12 million cases of paper products annually. The recycled paper fibers come from magazines, school papers, flyers and mail, 40 percent of which would ordinarily end up in the landfill.

“We’re a small company from New Jersey, but small as we may be, we make a big difference,” Lindsay Jacob, brand ambassador for Marcal Manufacturing, tells Earth911. “Since 1950, we’ve been making paper products from paper. We’ve never made paper from trees and are proud of that.”

Marcal’s CEO, Tim Spring, wants his company to be an industry changer. “We take our commitment to changing the paper industry very seriously, and we will continue to raise awareness of just how beneficial trees are to the environment,” said Spring. “Knowing that millions of trees are being cut down each year just to be flushed down the toilet is just not an acceptable option.”

It Doesn’t Stop at Toilet Paper

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, tissue-grade papers are generally categorized into three major categories: at-home (consumer), away-from-home (commercial and industry) and specialty. Around the home, they are found in the forms of toilet and facial tissue, paper towels, napkins and other sanitary items. They also represent decorative and specialty papers such as wrapping tissue, dry cleaning paper and crepe paper.

Tissue-grade papers are typically made from virgin fiber rather than recycled fibers and are bleached with chlorine to make them look whiter and brighter. Like toilet paper, these tissue grades are widely available with recycled fiber content and chlorine-free bleach.


The Soiled Paper Dilemma

While tissue-grade paper is made from, well, paper, this particular material is actually not recyclable due to the nature of its usage. When we add grease to a paper towel, food residue to napkins and you-know-what to toilet and facial tissue, these items are typically rendered non-recyclable.

When paper products are recycled, they are mixed with water and turned into a slurry. Grease, oils and other soiling materials form at the top of the slurry and paper fibers cannot separate from the oils during the pulping process, rendering the batch useless.

“The oil causes great problems for the quality of the paper, especially the binding of the fibers,” said Terry Gellenbeck, a solid waste administrative analyst for the City of Phoenix. “It puts in contaminants, so when they do squeeze the water out, it has spots and holes.”

Other products typically found on paper products, like ink, tend to break down fast as they are usually non-petroleum based.

Helpful Guides

Greenpeace’s Recycled Tissue and Toilet Paper Guide – Greenpeace has created a guide as well as an iPhone application to help consumers find recycled and responsible paper products. The pocket guide ranks 18 popular toilet paper, paper towel, facial tissue and napkin brands on their use of recycled content, post-consumer recycled content and non-toxic chlorine compounds in the bleaching process.

NRDC Shopper’s Guide to Home Tissue Products – A similar wallet-guide, it ranks tissue-grade paper products on their percentage of recycled content, post-consumer recycled content and bleaching process as well. These small steps can have a huge impact. For example, if every household in the U.S.

  • Replaced one 175-sheet box of virgin fiber facial tissues with 100 percent recycled tissues, we’d save 163,000 trees annually.
  • Used 100 percent recycled paper towels rather than one 70-sheet roll of virgin fiber paper towels, we’d save 544,000 trees each year.
  • Replaced one 250-count package of virgin fiber napkins with 100 percent recycled, we’d save 1 million trees annually.

Feature image courtesy of Wilson Hui

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