Toilet paper – One small wipe for a man; one giant smack in the face for mankind?

Small steps…

  • Check the virgin wood fibre content of your toilet paper, eg. via an FSC certification.
  • Try one of the cheaper, more sustainable and more hygienic alternatives to paper, as used by the world’s vast majority.
  • If your butt insists on paper, go for a brand made from 100% recycled wood fibre.

Photo by Fikri Rasyid

Aeroplanes, meat-heavy diets and SUVs – all phenomena of the modern age, all predominantly enjoyed by the wealthy west, and all now under scrutiny for their contribution to environmental devastation. So is it time to add the humble bog roll to the list?

Toilet paper only became commercially successful around 1867, and is used by only about 30% of the planet’s population.

Toiletpaperhistory.net

After the US and Germany, we in the UK are world-leaders in the consumption of toilet paper, wiping our way through a staggering 127 rolls per person per year – that’s almost 2.5 rolls per week. (For the sake of our bums, you’ve got to hope some of that goes into blowing noses.)

And thanks to marketing and increasing wealth in the developing world, the use of toilet roll is only growing, with ever more luxurious versions becoming available.

‘The spread of globalisation can kind of be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices.’

Dave Praeger, Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product

So just what is the problem with a well-buffed butt?

The bottom line – ha, ha – is that it takes an unbelievable amount of wood, chemicals (to bleach it white), energy and water to make toilet paper, and the more virgin wood fibre involved (as opposed to recycled fibre), the more resources are needed. According to one estimate, a single standard roll takes about 1.5 pounds of wood, 1.3kWh of electricity (enough to boil a full kettle more than eight times), and 37 gallons of water, or 168 litres. At an average of 200 sheets per roll, that would mean that our family’s usual brand, Andrex, works out at about 0.84 litres for every single sheet!

By contrast, 100% recycled paper uses almost half as much water and creates half as many hazardous pollutants. In a world where water scarcity is an increasingly volatile issue even in the developed world, that alone should make bog roll containing any virgin pulp an extravagance worth reconsidering.

But then there’s the issue of where the wood content actually comes from. Until recently, my conscience (and my backside) were salved by the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification found on many brands, supposedly a guarantee that the timber used to make the product is sustainably sourced. But the FSC actually has three different labels, only one of which – ‘FSC Recycled’ – means that all the wood used is pre- or post-consumer waste.

By contrast, ‘FSC Mix’ (proclaimed by most supermarket brands, including Andrex) means a mix of FSC virgin and recycled wood, and virgin wood from ‘Controlled Woods’ – forests considered low risk but not actually FSC certified. ‘FSC Mix’ is therefore the least stringent of the three FSC labels and, simply put, involves cutting down trees.

And at a time when the earth’s climate depends on forests and we’re all frantically planting trees, it makes no sense to cut them down to create the ultimate single-use consumer item. Not when there’s a viable alternative.

If every American household replaced just one toilet paper roll of virgin-fiber a year with a roll made from 100% recycled paper, approximately 425,000 trees would be saved annually.

Toiletpaperhistory.net

There are cheaper, more sustainable and actually more hygienic alternatives to toilet paper, as used by 70% of the planet, from a bidet to a ‘bum gun’. You could even treat yourself to a $1,200 toilet seat with extendable wand that will warm the water before washing and drying your rear.

But if these all sound a step too far, then 100% recycled toilet paper is definitely worth a wipe. Ethical Consumer recommends a number of brands made entirely from recycled fibre, including Ecoleaf, Essential, Traidcraft and Who Gives A Crap.

We recently took advantage of WGAC’s limited offer free trial and, for just £3, received two rolls of their recycled toilet paper, a roll of their ‘premium’ bamboo toilet paper (not recycled, but far more sustainable than wood pulp), a roll of kitchen paper and a box of tissues. And after extensive trialling amongst the family, we’ve now ditched the Andrex and receive WGAC’s recycled toilet paper on subscription by the box: at £36 for 48 double-length rolls, that’s 13.5p/100 sheets as opposed to Andrex’s best offer of 21p.

Better still, WGAC is a Certified B Corp and use half their profits to build toilets around the world, where ‘around 289,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoea diseased caused by poor water and sanitation.’ Use this stuff and you’re literally crapping to help mankind – an excuse worth remembering when your partner’s screaming at you to hurry up and get out the bathroom.

The WGAC rolls come individually wrapped in colourful, recycled paper rather than plastic bags, are 3-ply (just like Andrex), and are made entirely from recycled books and office paper. On the downside, the sheets are slightly smaller (10x10cm rather than Andrex’s 10x12cm), the fibre is shipped from China (unlike the others mentioned above that source from the UK), and it’s delivered to our door by courier rather than being available in local shops. And there’s just no denying it – recycled paper is not quite as soft, strong or white as toilet roll made with pristine virgin pulp.

But it’s still got to be a huge improvement. Because, at best, felling trees means fewer remain to suck carbon out the atmosphere. At worst, our choice of toilet paper can contribute to the devastation of the climate, indigenous peoples and ecological diversity. Either way, as much as I want the best for backside, that’s a price that’s hard to justify.

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