Go on. Imagine life without toilet paper. Or really any of the household paper products we use every day; products we use, largely without thinking, to wipe bottoms, blow noses, remove makeup, and mop up spills. While it may seem that we have endless consumer choice when it comes to toilet tissue, in fact most brands are owned by a relative few companies – and the market monopoly is growing. Recently, tissue giant SCA announced its €512 million takeover of Procter & Gamble’s European tissue business, which has added brands such as Charmin, Bounty and Tempo to the company’s current stable of tissue products, including Velvet, Handy Andies, Wipe & Clean and Tork. The press release announcing this merger went on to state that SCA came top in a WWF survey of the top five tissue manufacturers, based on environmental performance.
Even in the world of toilet tissue, it seems, greenwash rules. What this extraordinary eco-backslapping didn’t say was that, although SCA was judged to have more sustainability checks in place than other companies, it came ‘first’ out a poor bunch of performers, scoring only 46 per cent out of a possible 100 per cent for producing ethical, sustainable tissue products for the European market.
The problem, said the 2006 WWF survey ‘Scoring of the Tissue Giants’, is that most of the tissue products available in shops today are made of virgin fibres and not recycled content. In Europe, the five ‘giant’ tissue manufacturers – Georgia Pacific, Kimberly- Clark, Metsä Tissue, Procter & Gamble and SCA – which supply around 75 per cent of the European market, are producing alarmingly low levels of recycled products.
Greenpeace has chimed in too with its ‘Kleercut’ campaign against Kimberly-Clark, manufacturer of brands such as Andrex and Kleenex. The campaign calls for Kimberly- Clark to use recycled fibres for its tissue products, otherwise, it says, the company is simply ‘wiping away ancient forests’.
So, is the answer for eco-worriers everywhere to buy recycled toilet tissue wherever possible? As with so many eco-dilemmas where we aim to buy something to make a different, the answer is only a qualified ‘yes’.
Does recycled paper save trees? Yes – and given that each European uses 13kg of toilet tissue per year, equivalent to around 22 billion rolls Europe-wide, recycled toilet tissue has the potential to save a lot of trees. Does it reduce energy consumption? Yes. 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.
But paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. It can only be recycled four to six times, as the fibres get shorter and weaker each time. Some virgin pulp must be introduced into the process to maintain the strength and quality of the fibre, so we will never completely eradicate the need for virgin fibre, no matter how much we recycle.
This brings up the question of source materials for both the recycled and virgin pulp. Do you know where it comes from? Basically, manufacturers can source raw materials from post-consumer sources (office paper, newspaper, magazines), from pre-consumer sources (off-cuts from printers, waste packaging discarded after shipping) or from wood pulp (essentially the waste materials from lumbering businesses).
But do you know where that wood pulp has come from? Buying recycled tissue products made from the waste pulp of trees felled from old-growth forests or from forests that are not sustainably managed does more environmental harm than good. Likewise, virgin pulp from monoculture forests has negative impact on biodiversity and carbon storage. This is why more manufacturers are trying to get their products Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.
Even if you get around all this, though, there are some chemical worries with recycled paper. Not that the industry spends much time investigating such concerns: one German study in 1993 (that’s how far back we had to go to find data) suggested that there can be 10 to 100 times more toxic metal residues in recycled paper than in that made from virgin pulp.
These days much recycled paper is non-bleached or uses oxygen rather than chlorine for bleaching. But again, it is the source of your toilet tissue that probably determines what residues are likely to be in it.
Michael Braungart, chemist, founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) and co-author of the book Cradle to Cradle, which looks at the elimination of waste, is concerned that the production of recycled toilet tissue often involves turning high-grade office paper into toilet roll using halogenated hydrocarbons (persistent organic pollutants). These hidden ingredients in recycled toilet paper are not widely acknowledged – in this country, at least, you can’t buy products whose labels guarantee them to be free of them. Halogenated hydrocarbons are chlorinated compounds that are not only dangerous to health, but also can contaminate sewage outlets. Whichever way this sewage gets used, even if it is burned for fuel, it causes persistent pollution. How healthy can it be to be rubbing these into sensitive parts of our anatomy?
Then there is the tricky issue of who really owns our favourite ethical brands. In the UK, Nouvelle is the premier brand of recycled toilet tissue, but Nouvelle is owned by tissue giant Georgia Pacific – the company that came out worst in the 2006 WWF sustainability survey. Georgia Pacific’s parent company, Koch Industries, has, according to the Ethical Consumer, been part of a team advising George Bush on developing a conservative ‘environmentalism for the 21st century’ – one that includes more logging and dam-building.
So the broad conclusion is that recycled paper is better for the environment than virgin paper on two counts: first, because it helps divert waste paper away from landfill; and second, because its manufacture is less damaging to the environment when compared to the manufacture of virgin. If you are already buying it you are making a difference.
But clearly not all recycled toilet papers are created equal. Every type of paper we use has an impact on the environment; using recycled toilet tissue is good, but it is not likely to wipe away all your eco-guilt – only cutting down on your overall paper use can do that. Most of us use far too much for jobs that can be managed with other options. You may not be able to imagine life without toilet paper, but do you really need to buy paper towels? Do you need to remove your makeup with tissue, when a facecloth or sponge would do the job better and for longer? Do you need wasteful sanitary products and nappies when recycled or better cloth alternatives are becoming more and more plentiful? Is it really viable these days to use endless tissues, when a cotton hankie works just as well? Do you need paper napkins when cloth will do the job over and over again without waste?
Admit it. You know the answer is ‘no’.
Avoiding the paper trap
Consider these simple actions to help reduce your paper use and make better buying choices.
Buy recycled. Tissue products, such as toilet paper, handkerchiefs, napkins and kitchen towels cannot be recycled after use, which is why it is important to ensure that the tissue products you buy contain a high level of recycled content.
Is this product necessary? Don’t use paper products when you can use cloth. Reserve your paper purchases for essentials only.
It doesn’t need to be white. The whiter it is, the more it has been bleached. To reduce chemical exposures, don’t choose the whitest product.
Ask for recycled. If you local store doesn’t stock recycled toilet tissue, ask them to start stocking it.
Read the label. Make sure the claims make sense to you. What is your toilet tissue made from, waste paper or pulp? What percentage of the total is recycled material and is it from a sustainable source? Does it make any claims for safe bleaching processes, such as ‘chlorine free’? If the label isn’t clear, don’t buy the product.
Support ethical companies. The Ethical Consumer recommends brands such as Naturelle or Co-op’s recycled toilet tissue range. Other good choices include products from the Natural Collection, Traidraft, Ecotopia, Essential and Suma.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2007