By Nate Lipka on Nov 9, 2009

The 411 on Toilet Paper

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.

Photo: Est Bleu2007

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. Photo: Flickr/Est Bleu2007

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.

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Comments

  1. Pavlina says

    Isn’t it true that the majority of the “virgin wood” is in fact virgin wood scraps leftover from processing? The (toilet) paper manufacturers are not taking an entire x-hundred year old tree and putting the entire tree into the chipper to make toilet paper, but instead is taking the leftover wood and making that into paper? This is the answer I get from Kimberly Clark, but I get no response from any site that makes the claim that you just did. Thanks. I don’t work for a paper company, I just want the truth.

  2. Betty Boop says

    Lori
    Please give me your address so I can send you my used toilet paper for you to reuse…that way I am doing my part and so are you….now go jump into the nearest poop pool you can find and do us all a favor.

  3. HEALTHFOODMAMA says

    Betty Boop, what is your deal? Why the attack on Lori? She was only explaining recycled and recyclable products to us. She was not advocating reusing used toilet paper. When we first started recycling paper products we wondered why pizza boxes were a no no. Well, Lori explained it by telling us it is the oil in the pizza that transfers to the box that makes it non recyclable. Doesn’t mean it can’t be composted tho. Anyway, if you are not interested in the facts presented on this website then do us all a favor and don’t visit here. Your attack was totally out of line.

  4. Erica says

    Great article, Lori. I had no idea that so many trees were being cut down at the expense of (non-recyclable) toilet paper. I noticed you said that “When paper products are recycled, they are mixed with water and turned into a slurry”…does this mean that toilet paper or just paper in general that has been wet (with water), can be placed in the recycling bin? I always thought that it was only dry paper.

  5. Linda says

    Trees cannot possibly grow back as fast as we’re cutting them down. (Look at Easter Island and Chaco Canyon….it’s been 800 years and the trees still haven’t grown back.) So anything we do, including buying tp from recycled paper, to save the trees that provide our oxygen and sequester a lot of carbon, is more than worth doing.

  6. Patricia says

    Why not get a bidet-like product, they are starting to manufacture them now, and some are even portable. Americans are some of the only people that clean themselves ONLY using dried paper, which is very unsanitary. Much of the world does clean themselves with water/soap after voiding themselves. Most of us can’t rip apart our bathrooms to install a bidet, but there are websites called bidetking.com which can show you products which you can use to modify your water on your toilet to clean your backside. Clean, sanitary, and a help especially to women during their monthly cycles, or to seniors who have trouble bending over, etc.

  7. Jane says

    If we can save 1 million trees by swapping one package of napkins for recycled, imagine how many trees we can save by switching to cloth napkins! We made this switch about a year ago when I observed the most common things we threw in the trash and tried to figure out a way to eliminate them. Any suggestions on what to do with all the plastic bags the newspapers come in?

  8. Linda A. says

    Patricia, what’s “unsanitary” about dried paper??? Dried TP is TP that hasn’t been used yet, so how can that be “unsanitary”?

    As for you, “Betty Boop,” you must have been having your “time of the month” when you wrote your post. What you wrote was completely uncalled for, but I do want to give you the benefit of the doubt.

  9. says

    Thank you so much for providing an article that lets all of us know an easy behavior change that everyone can do to help our planet.

    Your article was informative, straight forward and gave an easy and practical solution for us to follow. Excellent job.
    Respectfully,
    Mrs. Garie Thomas-Bass
    Author of Purposeful (Not Random) Acts of Kindness (AKA Beginning Steps for Overcoming Spoiled Brat-aholism)

  10. Angry Beaver says

    On a related but unrelated note, the plastic wrapping that your toilet paper comes in can be recycled at the same facilities that accept plastic grocery bags.

    Jane – The plastic newspaper bags can be recycled at the same facilities that accept plastic grocery bags.

  11. says

    I am happy to tell you all that my company has recently developed biodegradable, eco-friendly, bamboo fiber toilet paper that is not only really soft, breaks down easily, but it is derived from a renewable and sustainable resource. A scientific university study recently solved the mystery as to why the chemical compound BPA is showing up in our ground water…it is because of recycled content toilet paper! When they recycle the material that goes into make the TP, they use all kinds of paper, including glossy paper like credit card receipts (source of BPA or Bisphenol-A – a plastic!). Our bamboo bathroom tissue, the world’s first – does not necessitate recycling because of how fast bamboo grows. In addition to all that, we plant a tree for every package of 4 rolls sold, and our bathroom tissue will come in a 100% recycled cardboard box instead of plastic packaging.We also lighten it without elemental chlorine! Please contact me with any questions. Visit http://www.bumboosa.com to see our current bamboo products and find out when our new bathroom tissue arrive – sometime this spring 2010! We also on FACEBOOK. Have a great New Year!!!

  12. Clueless Chacmol says

    Are there studies or conclusions about the impact of tissue in wastewater that could be published? Besides the impact on trees, wastewater may be another issue but I haven’t find anything final. Thanks!

  13. Hank says

    Marcal is the biggest air and water polluter in the state of New Jersey. They have been fined almost a billion dollars by the EPA, and do much more harm than good. They filed Chapter 11 to avoid paying for the clean up, and also used it as an opportunity to break their union contract. Nice guys, huh? Then when they emerged from bankruptcy, they painted themselves green. For them to claim to be a green, eco-friendly company is a joke, as well as a lie.

  14. Ecofacts says

    All of us at Marcal welcome valid criticism and open discussion on blogs (and everywhere), but we want you to know that “Hank” leaves comments like the one here anytime he or she sees something written about us…and leaves them anonymously, so there is no way we can get in touch and set the facts straight. The phrases used are always very similar, the kind of pattern that almost shouts, ”spam campaign.” This kind of nameless attack isn’t in the open spirit of blogs, and we think it’s a disservice to readers and to our hard-earned reputation. The simple fact is that we make our products in a manufacturing system designed to minimize our environmental impact.
    We invite the person making these attacks to come pay us a visit; we have nothing to hide! We think our actions speak for themselves; otherwise, why would a group like the NRDC cite our factory in a discussion of companies leading the way environmentally in the New York metro area? (http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/egoldstein/green_apples_and_bad_apples_nr.html).
    Marcal didn’t recently “paint itself green.” We’ve been using recycled paper since 1950, long before green was in. As for the lawsuit, it was settled with no admission of wrong doing, enabling the company to emerge from bankruptcy to protect and grow jobs under a new owner and management team that understands that, if you are going to market yourself as green, you better do things right.
    Are we perfect? Of course not, but we are always striving to be better. We invite anyone with questions about our practices to contact us at ecofacts@marcalpaper.com

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Read the full post at Earth911. 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. [...]

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