The Roll of the… Toilet

Toilet paper is the one thing that we always seem to be running out of in our house: I live with five other people and with me included, I’d say we go through about 18 rolls a month. This high consumption means that no one seems to notice when we’re running out and leads to an emergency trip to the shop to stock up on this essential item.

A trip to Sainsbury’s

A couple of weeks ago, while doing the weekly shop, I was browsing the toilet paper section for the best value for money and my eyes fell on the words ‘recycled toilet tissue.’ I was delighted and instantly bought a pack of nine rolls to tide us over for a bit.

My reasoning behind the purchase was purely for environmental purposes; buying recycled toilet paper could only be a good thing surely? Additionally, after meeting David Attenborough, I’m starting to take my environmental decisions more seriously!

What I wasn’t sure about was the processing that went into this supposedly environmentally friendly product. What has been recycled to make it? Why was it still wrapped in plastic packaging? Was the process environmentally friendly? Was it 100% recycled and truely environmentally friendly?

In this post I’ll try to answer some of those questions to help me, and hopefully some of you reading, decide if buying recycled toilet paper is all it’s cracked up to be!

Is recycled toilet paper worth it?

I discovered some staggering stats on my tour of the not-so-humble toilet roll: an average British person will go through 50 toilet rolls a year. One tree will produce nearly 200 toilet rolls and so in terms of my house, we flush just over 1 tree a year down the toilet. Scary.

On a global scale, every day, 27000 trees are used to make toilet roll. You get the picture; toilet roll is bad for the environment and I haven’t even touched on the emissions produced in the toilet roll process. Deforestation alone causes 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and felling trees is obviously essential to make the array of paper product we use every day.

Most articles I read suggested that switching to recycled toilet roll would help the environment in some way but there are some drawbacks.

Firstly, the packaging and the central cardboard tube. The package that I bought was wrapped in plastic which I think negates any claims of the product being environmentally friendly! Further reading showed that despite the plastic packaging, the cardboard tube was indeed recycled. This might not apply to all recycled toilet rolls; the spotlight is on the toilet tissue itself and not the packaging or holder. It’s a clever tactic to help people forget some of the important issues that surround all parts of a product being environmentally friendly!

People are incredibly accustomed to seeing stark white toilet rolls; it’s what makes bathrooms so instaworthy isn’t it? That obligatory pile of beautiful, soft toilet rolls in a wicker basket can make or break that clean bathroom feel. Unfortunatly, white = bad. Just like whitening your teeth, whitening toilet roll with a chemical bleaching process is unhealthy for both the environment and us.

There’s also the fact that paper doesn’t have an infinite life span. After being recycled 4- 6 times, the structure of the paper becomes too weak to be useful again, which leads me nicely onto the next section.

Will any old recycled toilet roll do?

In short, no. Not all recycled toilet paper will be 100% recycled because of the strength of the recycled paper being used. Most recycled toilet paper will contain what’s known as ‘virgin pulp’. This is essentially wood pulp that has never been used before and is not recycled. This is used to strengthen the recycled paper, but the amount that is used varies from brand to brand and therefore affects the product’s impact on deforrestation and the environment.

The Ethical Consumer  has kindly done all the hard work for us busy consumers and compared a whole host of toilet rolls, both recycled and non- recycled on sale in the UK. They’ve even rated each one to make our descision about buying bog roll even easier!

Unfortunatley the one I bought from Sainsbury’s scores very low; a measly 4 out of a possible 20 points (Sir David Attenborough would not be proud)!

Is it safe?

That is a good question and one that doesn’t have a simple answer. There was a lot of controversy in the articles I read from writers whole- heartedly endorsing recycled roll to others discarding it as a concept completely! Both had valid reasons. Those against the idea were mainly fueled by one academic paper published in Environmental Science and Technology which reported on the occurance of BPA in paper products including recycled toilet roll and its implications on human health.

BPA, or Bisphenol A, is used in the manufacture of many plastic products and there are concerns about the effect that it has on many parts of the body including the brain. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed hundreds of articles and concluded that the amounts we are exposed to through food is safe but research is ongoing to fully understand the effects of this chemical.

As it turns out, BPA is also used significantly in the manfacture of receipt papers which are recycled and could contaminate any resulting products it is made into such as toilet roll. One subjective post I read suggested this was enough of a reason to not use it at all, but actually reading the paper and looking at the data revealed this is a bit brash. The researchers created a useful table presenting some numbers to put it into perspective.

Recycled toilet paper alone exposes the general population to a mean of 0.0027 nanograms of BPA per day. That’s less than a millionth of a gram per day. Compare this to receipt papers which expose us to 4,556 times that of recycled toilet roll per day. Perhaps we should re-think getting receipts with purchases rather than purchasing recycled toilet paper?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published guidelines for safe levels of oral consumption of BPA (quoted in the paper). This equated to 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of bodyweight per day. That means I’m allowed to safely consume 0.0027 grams of BPA per day, which is vastly more than toilet roll is exposing me to!

In conclusion, with current BPA research and recommendations, recycled toilet paper is safe providing you get the non-scented, unbleached variety.

Are there any complete alternatives to toilet roll?

You might have read this and though, “blimey, toilet paper seems bad on all accounts, I don’t want to use it anymore!”

Luckily, for the dedicated environmentalist, there are a lot of alternatives. If you still want a toilet paper experience, you could use rolls that are made out of alternative fibres such as the current favourite: bamboo. Other alternatives such as cloths are available and quite a few artciles suggest bringing back the bidet- a part of my grandma’s bathroom that my six year old self once mistook for a tiny sink installed especially for little people.

What would Sir David Attenborough do?

In truth, I don’t know what he woud do; I’ve met him once and none of the questions posed to him or stories he divulged covered his bathroom habits! There is a question of what am I, the writer of this incredibly interesting post, going to do?

Well, I’m going to do my best to buy environmentally friendly toilet roll. I’m going to make more effort to check what I’m really buying and think about the consequences of being lazy and going for the easy option. It could be as simple as reading the back of the packet- a habit that many people have got into when making choices about food but doesn’t quite extend to other household commodities.

I think the secret to becoming more environmentally friendly, and making Attenborough proud, is to make more effort. Shopping is already a lot easier with supermarkets selling everything our hearts could possibly desire. Why not take a little extra time, perhaps a minute or two, to discover what we’re actually buying instead of putting it straight in our baskets.

Disclaimer: Although I have tried to ensure that at the maths is correct, please forgive any mistakes and make sure you tell me about them if you find any!

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