Despite my best intentions, I couldn’t tell you that it’s not a big deal that we flush ancient tree paper down the toilet multiple times a day. With 36.5 billion rolls flushed annually, the US leads the world in toilet paper consumption. What could be more alarming? According to Rachel Eubanks, sales director for bamboo toilet paper maker PlantPAPER, we flush 27,000 trees every day, further emphasizing the need for eco-friendly alternatives.
NRDC reports that Canada’s Boreal Forest is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, meaning it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and stores it—a whopping 12 percent of the world’s terrestrial (land-based) CO2 stock. Not only does carbon storage cease when trees disappear, but the carbon is released when the trees are no longer. This is no bueno for the environment and, well, life as we know it. PlantPAPER co-founder Lee Reitelman points out that despite the numerous labels lining store shelves, only a few companies make the majority of toilet paper. (Forest fires in general are also on the rise as a result of warmer, drier weather).
The process of turning wood pulp into paper uses a lot of chemicals and water, according to Eubanks. “Typically it can take about up to 37 gallons of water just to produce one role of tree paper,” she says.“There’s also a gallon of toxic chemicals in these products, including bleach, formaldehyde, dyes, chlorine, and BPA.” This cocktail ends up in our waterways, for starters, and can also impact our health.Our bodies, and actually into our bloodstream through micro cuts,” Eubanks says, noting that while consumers are aware of this issue for feminine hygiene products, they tend to overlook the same concerns when it comes to toilet paper.
However, it is not an easy task to determine what the best eco-friendly toilet paper replacement is. The question that needs to be asked instead of whether traditional toilet paper should be replaced is what is the best eco-friendly alternative. “There are many factors, and what should be done is a full-on lifecycle assessment,” says Bonnie Nixon, professor of Sustainable Supply Chain at UCLA. We have created a lifecycle assessment since some such tests don’t exist yet, so we’ve put together the next best thing. Since such lifecycle assessments don’t yet exist, we’ve created our own.
Here are the pros and cons of tree-free alternatives to traditional toilet paper.
Paper that is made of bamboo
Several new paper companies are working to develop tree-free sources of paper, and one stands out: bamboo. Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, growing up to a meter per day. It also grows back quite fast, unlike trees, it says Reitlman. It requires harvesting for it to regrow. Unlike forests, where it could take 100 years to re-grow, bamboo can essentially regrow within a year of being cut down.”
To turn bamboo into paper, Reitlman explains, it requires much less processing than other plant fibers. According to him, we do not use any bleach or formaldehyde, as well as using fewer adhesives. In addition to being good for human health, bamboo processing requires significantly less water than that of trees. That means reducing or eliminating industrial runoff.
However, there are still environmental impacts that should be considered, including the carbon footprint for producing and transporting it – most bamboo for toilet paper is grown in China – and the effect it can have on biodiversity in the regions where it is grown. Taking the time to learn how your business’s bamboo TP supplier offsets its carbon footprint and preserves the land where it is produced is worth taking the extra step.
As little toilet paper as possible may be the best solution to the toilet paper problem. The founder of the bidet-accessories company Tushy, Miki Agrawal, has built her entire business around her belief that this is the way to go. We’ve been indoctrinated so deeply that we believe that dry toilet paper cleans the dirtiest part of our bodies, she says.
Agrawal is half Indian and half Japanese, so her parents both come from cultures that use bidets, and she’s decided to solve both the cost and installation issues to bring bidets to the U.S. Tushy’s product is just $79 and can be installed onto your existing toilet.
Despite the fact that bidets do not end up eliminating the need for toilet paper entirely – some is still needed for drying purposes – they can, however, lower consumption (especially after that bad curry or something). In addition to bamboo paper, Tushy offers paper made from an even more sustainable material (and Agrawal says they will soon release such a paper). In addition to organic bamboo butt towels, which she says are the softest in the world, once people get really excited about being eco-conscious. Thousands and thousands of our customers have given up toilet paper and just use our organic bamboo towels to wipe themselves dry.”
Nixon is hopeful about bidets, but he explains the caveats. Considering the number of flushes, and the water usage and availability of the region, is crucial, she says. “In a rain-heavy, water-rich area, this would certainly be a more attractive option.”
Given the scope of the virgin TP issue, it’s impossible to determine definitively which alternative is the best for the environment without those full lifecycle assessments Nixon mentioned; however, these alternatives are a necessary step in the right direction.
The key is to cut back, regardless of your route. Before we started making our own toilet paper, I could use 12 or 14 sheets in a single trip, but when we started making it, I thought, “That’s a lot,” and I was able to reduce that number to six or eight,” says Reitlman. I wouldn’t presume to tell someone else how to do their job, other than to challenge yourself to use a little bit less-and that begins with just being aware of how many sheets you use on a trip.”
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