The environmental impact of toilet paper

The average British consumer uses 127 rolls of toilet paper (loo roll) a year, according to Statista.

The Confederation of Paper Industries says that this equates to 1.3 tonnes of tissue annually across the UK.

Worldwide every year, we go through enough toilet roll to wrap around the Earth’s equator 50,000 times. And that’s despite that only around one third of people on the planet use toilet roll. The US is the world’s biggest buyer of toilet paper.

National Geographic explains that this level of demand results in the loss of 27,000 trees a day – rounded that’s an incredible 10 million trees in just 12 months.

However, the Confederation of Paper Industries argues (unsurprisingly, you might say) that “If it were not for the pulp and paper industry operating worldwide for the last 150 years, CO2 levels in the atmosphere would be 5% higher (about half a degree in Celsius) than they are at present.”

Industry campaign group Two Sides reminds us that “virgin fibres from sustainably managed forests are needed to maintain the paper cycle” because fibres cannot be recycled indefinitely.

It highlights the significant progress made by European countries in both lowering emissions within the industry and increasing the recycling rate of paper. 72% of paper used in Europe is now recycled making it one of the most recycled materials. And reassures us that between 2005 and 2020 European forests grew by an area larger in size than Sweden (UN FAO data).

Ironic, when you compare this with a 2017 Greenpeace article which says: “Since the 1950s, in Sweden’s portion of the Great Northern Forest, large areas of old-growth forest have been clearcut and the wider forest landscape fragmented. This has led to population declines in hundreds of forest species, with logging currently believed to be having significant negative impacts on over 1,300 red-listed plants, animals, fungi and lichens.” Clear-cut forests can take more than a century to return to their pre-logged state, while many never do.

For us, Two Sides’ case is a little weaker when it explains that “71% of wood and 83% of pulp purchased by the European pulp and paper industry is FSC or PEFC certified.” So 29% of wood and 17% of pulp isn’t from sustainable sources? It also (selectively, we would suggest) quotes the WWF, pointing out that the likes of agriculture and infrastructure projects are among the biggest contributors to deforestation.

In a wide range of articles, the likes of WWF and Greenpeace point out that for every good news story, there will be a not so good one. For example, in this WWF article it states : “Fifty percent of the fibres used to produce pulp for tissue goods come from recycled sources. Natural forests, plantations and tree farms supply the other 50%—and it’s often difficult to trace those virgin fibres to the specific forests they came from. The toilet paper you buy in a US grocery store, for example, could have been made with pulp from Brazil, Chile, Canada, Europe or Southeast Asia.”

It continues: “Deforestation in Brazil, which is driven by demand for wood and agricultural products, has declined by almost 80% since 2004. In Indonesia, meanwhile, deforestation has roughly doubled over the last decade—and most of that increase is driven by pulp and paper and palm oil production.”

In this National Geographic article it is argued that: “While the paper industry often touts plantations as the solution to creating an ongoing supply of virgin pulp and fiber, these monocultures often displace indigenous plant and animal life, require tremendous amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and soak up large quantities of water.”

What is the solution?

Other than joining the 70% of people who live life without toilet paper, or investing in a bidet, there are two main alternatives to big brand toilet paper – recycled toilet paper or toilet paper made from bamboo.

The excellent Ethical Consumer reminds us that: “Around a quarter of the Carbon Dioxide contributed by humans to the atmosphere is removed by the world’s forests. Maintaining forests and other natural habitats is, therefore, an essential means of fighting climate change.”

In its annual analysis of toilet roll brands in the UK, it begins by saying: “Ethical Consumer has taken the line that toilet paper made using virgin wood pulp, even if FSC certified, cannot be considered a sustainable product. It is hard to justify using virgin wood pulp to make a product that is, by definition, to be immediately disposed of, especially when there are more sustainable options, such as using recycled pulp, which are easily available.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Are the big brands and major retailers doing enough?

Ethical Consumer’s report found that only five of the brands it examined used no virgin pulp (Ecoleaf, Essential, The Cheeky Panda, Who Gives A Crap, and Traidcraft) in their products and only half of the UK’s ten largest supermarkets sold own brand recycled toilet paper. As a caveat to this, do keep in mind that Ethical Consumer did not review every single brand available in the UK and that the position is an evolving one.

American giant Kimberly-Clark is one of the largest tissue producers globally and owns leading brands including Kleenex, Andrex and Scottex, Viva, Tella, Cottonelle, Page and Hakle. Yet the proportion of recycled wood pulp used by the company fell by 6.5% (from 30% to 23.5%) between 2011 and 2017.

Bamboo toilet rolls vs recycled toilet rolls

This is where it gets more difficult, especially as bamboo products are relatively new to the market.

Ethical Consumer for example argues that recycled toilet roll, which can be manufactured in the UK from 100% recycled UK pulp comes out on top because it does not rely on (albeit fast and sustainably grown) bamboo being shipped from Asia.

It does however acknowledge bamboo toilet papers and certain more established bamboo brands in particular (for example, The Cheeky Panda which was also the only FSC certified bamboo brand in its list at the time – newcomer Naked Sprout is for example now FSC certified) as being far more sustainable alternatives to most supermarket and big brand toilet rolls.

Brands including The Cheeky Panda and Naked Sprout cite audits endorsed by The World Land Trust and Carbon Footprint Ltd.

The Cheeky Panda states: “The Cheeky Panda’s product has a lower emissions footprint per sheet. Emissions per sheet of toilet paper are 31.0% lower (0.31 gCO2e) when compared to recycled toilet tissue,” while Naked Sprout says: “Carbon emissions from producing our bamboo Naked Rolls are 30% lower than recycled toilet paper.”

We have talked much about paper itself so far and less about the manufacturing process and resources used to produce toilet rolls, which are also a significant factor when weighing up the environmental impact.

The Ecologist explains things clearly: “Producing recycled paper involves between 28 to 70 per cent less energy consumption than making virgin paper, and uses less water. For every tonne of paper used for recycling, the savings are at least 30,000 litres of water, 3,000 to 4,000 kWh electricity (enough for an average three-bedroom house for one year) and up to 95 per cent of air pollutants.”

While many of the more eco-conscious brands have moved away from using Chlorine and other toxic chemicals, their toilet rolls are still bleached. Naked Sprout claims to be the “only unbleached toilet roll on the market.”

Bamboo is biodegradable and breaks down like any other tissue in water. And for what it’s worth, recyclable, although no toilet roll is recycled (for obvious reasons!)

Our favourite toilet roll brands

We only like to endorse products that we’ve tested and reviewed ourselves. As such, our list is less comprehensive than Ethical Consumer’s excellent guide.

We also encourage you to do your own research, both online and by trialing different brands, and indeed posing them any questions that you may have.

So, in no particular order, the toilet roll brands that we consider to be among the most environmentally friendly options and we would therefore be happy to recommend are:

BrandPaper typeAverage sheets per toilet rollPrice for 24 toilet rolls *Plastic free packaging?
The Cheeky Panda100% FSC bamboo from China200£19.99Yes
Naked Sprout100% FSC bamboo from China300£23.50Yes
Ecoleaf100% recycled UK pulp200£13.50Recyclable plastic packaging is being
replaced with home compostable wrapping.
BoxRoll100% recycled UK pulp300£13.21Yes
WGAC100% bamboo from China370£24Yes

* Based on a single purchase of 24 toilet rolls, including delivery.

You may also find our interviews with the founders of BoxRoll and The Cheeky Panda interesting.

Let us know how you get on and what you decide…

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