What is toilet paper? Everything you need to know
Who can’t do without toilet paper?
Nobody! And its panic purchase during the pandemic was the litmus paper of the importance of this gadget in our society.
Sometimes we give it for granted but that roll of softness is an essential tool that soothes everyone’s daily life.
But not all toilet paper is the same. That’s why it’s important to choose the best type.
To give you a hand, Sheet Glory have gathered a comprehensive guide including all you need to know about toilet paper.
Table of Contents
Why do people use toilet paper?
This question may have an obvious answer. Indeed, most people use toilet paper for their hygiene after going to the loo. But toilet tissue is also useful for blowing your nose and wiping your eyes. And some women find it helpful as a pad to absorb menstrual blood discharge or even for removing make-up. Not to mention you can use toilet paper for cleaning surfaces in your house.
Who invented toilet paper?
Before toilet paper was introduced in our lives, people wiped themselves with a number of improvised utensils. For instance, besides ceramic pieces, Romans used a sponge on a stick, a.k.a. as a tersorium, which was washed with vinegar or salt water and reused. Humans across the ancient world wiped their rears with natural materials such as stones, leaves, seashells or corn cobs.
The very first toilet paper was invented in China, with Chinese using it for cleaning themselves already in the 6th century AD. By the end of the 14th century, China manufactured 10 million packages of toilet paper each year.
For the Western version, we need to wait until 1857, when Joseph Gayetty came up with his "Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet”. Available from 1920, Gayetty sold Americans 500 loose, flat sheets of his aloe-infused paper for 50 cents.
However, the medicated sheets went quickly out of fashion when the Scott Paper Company launched the first toilet rolls on the US market in 1890.
How toilet paper is made
After a brief history of toilet paper, let’s now look at how modern rolls are made.
Based on the type of toilet paper, you will have different feedstock.
As for the recycled paper-based alternative, raw materials include office paper, magazines, books, etc.
Finally, over the last years companies have been investing in more sustainable toilet paper, using tree-free raw materials like bamboo, hemp and bagasse, a sugar cane manufacturing by-product.
The papermaking process slightly varies according to the starting feedstock.
As for virgin wood, the very first step is to fell trees and transport them to a mill. Here, you remove the bark and break the wood into small chips. These are mixed with water and chemicals into a sort of pressure cooker to remove lignin, the component that holds the fibres together. After boiling the water and washing cooking chemicals and lignin off the slurry, you’re left with a broth of cellulose fibres, a.k.a. pulp, which is the main ingredient of toilet paper.
When starting from recycled paper, the pulp making process is similar, yet less energy intensive compared to the fibre’s extraction from virgin wood. This is because the fibres were already broken down during the first pulping process. You then mix the ink-containing used paper (think of a sale receipt for instance) with lukewarm water and cook it until forming a slurry. Next, you inject air into the reactor to make the ink float to the top so that you can skim it off.
Once obtained the pulp, bleaching will change the fibres colour from brownish to white and soften them. Although recycled paper has already been bleached and then requires less chemicals than virgin paper, it still needs to go through the process.
Bleaching was typically done by adding chlorine. However, chlorine-treated toilet paper could release cancerogenic toxins into your body when wiping. That’s why there are now alternative chlorine-free methods to treat toilet paper:
-Elemental chlorine-free (ECF): ECF has mostly phased out the traditional chlorine method and is used for bleaching 96% of North America pulp. It implies using chlorine dioxide (ClO2) instead of elemental chlorine (Cl), thus preventing the formation of cancerogenic substances like dioxins. On the other hand, the process still releases elemental chlorine gas into the air and water.
-Process chlorine-free (PCF): PCF is typically used to (re)bleach recycled paper. As the name hints, the process doesn’t involve neither chlorine nor chlorine dioxide. Instead, brands often use more eco-friendly compounds like ozone, oxygen or hydrogen peroxide. While less widespread than ECF, PCF is a greener process as it won’t produce any cancerogenic chlorine-based chemicals like chloroform. Nonetheless, as recycled paper has already been bleached, you may have residual chlorine in the raw material and therefore in your final toilet roll.
-Totally chlorine-free (TCF): TCF is the same as PCF except that it is applied to non-recycled paper. When using bamboo as feedstock, TCF may likely be the most environmentally sound treatment.
After bleaching (if any), the process follows the same path regardless of the type of feedstock. The pulp is diluted in water to generate the so-called paper stock. This is first sprayed onto a wire mesh to drain water before a fibre sheet is pressed and further dehydrated in a heated dryer. At this stage, you have a rudimental version of toilet paper. A flat sheet of paper is then scraped off with metal blades and wound onto giant reels. After that, a machine will further process the paper that is perforated into squares and rolled into massive logs. Finally, the logs are cut into commercial size rolls.
Is bamboo toilet paper processing any different?
As bamboo fibres behave the same way as the woody ones, the papermaking is basically the same. However, bamboo pulping may be more environmentally sound in some cases. For instance, the wastewater containing the cooking chemicals is sometimes looped back into the system a few times to make the process more sustainable. Some manufacturers don’t use any chemicals at all to break down the bamboo shoots and convert any waste into energy.
How to store toilet paper
Grabbing a 48-roll pack of toilet paper is sometimes convenient for your family and your wallet. Though that can be a bit cumbersome, especially if you have a tiny bathroom.
There are a few ways to store your rolls more efficiently and free some space in your super small toilet. Just like using a toilet paper stand which will take some of your rolls off the floor and spread them up vertically. Alternatively, if you have literally no footprint left, you can create space in mid-air by mounting a shelf on the wall. Instead of a standard horizontal layout, a round bucket design would work even better.
But we can get even more creative. What about slotting a few rolls in a hanging shoe rack? Also, why not invest in a backdoor rack? Both solutions will generate storage space for your rolls out of thin air.
Types of toilet paper
Regardless of the feedstock and the process, toilet paper can come in one or more plies. These are nothing but the layers forming each sheet. The most common toilet paper thickness ranges between 1 and 3 plies.
If you want to treat your derrière’s skin with a luxurious feel (and you can afford it), you should go for a triple ply toilet paper. Though, a high-quality double ply toilet roll may also do the job. Anyway, you should think twice before buying two or even worse three-ply toilet paper if your plumbing is prone to clogging. In that case, a 3-ply of toilet paper may turn out into a nightmare for your wallet (and your nose too).
Nevertheless, the degree of thickness and paper quality vary from brand to brand. Therefore, investing in a premium thicker sheet could potentially translate in a lower consumption of toilet paper, thus cutting on cost in the long run.
How to dissolve toilet paper in a clogged toilet
Sheet can happen, right? So, you may end up using a bit too much toilet paper of the wrong kind and clog your loo.
In case you haven’t got any of those unclogging weapons, you can harness the power of chemistry. Pouring a mix of hot (not boiling if you want to avoid cracking your toilet) water and dish soap (or a similar product that can act as a lubricant, like shampoo) from waist level in your bowl should do the trick. You might need to wait for a few minutes before the paper gets dissolved. For a greener recipe, just use a combo of two natural ingredients: one cup of baking soda and two cups of vinegar.
If none of the above methods work, it might be wise to call a plumber.
Alternatives to toilet paper
Whenever you clog your toilet, you may think twice before using too much toilet paper. Perhaps you wonder whether you can get rid of it altogether.
Toilet paper vs bidet
As reported by a manufacturer, a typical bidet consumes 1/8th of a gallon of water in one go. This is just a drop when compared to the four gallons of water consumed by an average toilet each time you flush your washroom paper down the drain. In addition, it takes 37 gallons of water to produce a single roll of toilet paper.
Based on these numbers, regular toilet paper appears not to stand a chance against bidet. Those who can’t give up on the wiping habit should go for either 100% recycled or bamboo toilet paper as their manufacture requires much less water compared to virgin toilet paper. The production of these greener rolls is also less energy-intensive and their carbon footprint may get closer to that of more modern and energy-hungry bidet, which warm the water and feature blow-dryers.
Reusable toilet paper
If you get rolling with it, you will save money and waste as you cut down on toilet paper use (and cut down less trees). On the other hand, you need to consider the energy, water and chemicals (e.g. bleach) consumed when washing the cloth.
Overall, switching to reusable toilet paper can be tricky and there are controversial opinions on its hygienic risk.
What is the healthiest toilet paper?
Toilet paper may not be as hygienic as a bidet but it’s certainly safer than relying on a reusable cloth.
However, depending on the way it’s made, toilet paper may contain chemicals that can harm your skin and not only that.
Overall, on the healthy side, you want to go for a chemical-free toilet paper (or the closest as possible).
Regardless of the type of tissue you use, there’s a pro tip on how to use it. In fact, to save yourself from getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), you should always wipe from front to back. This way you’ll keep fecal bacteria the furthest away from your urethra.
How to recycle toilet paper rolls
Recyclable toilet paper is not a thing. Why? First, it would mean using dirty paper, which is unsafe. Secondly, its fibres are already broken down so they would be useless. Lastly, most toilet paper degrades relatively fast, so they won’t stay in the environment for long.
Alternatively, you can play around with creative upcycling techniques to turn the tubes into seed pots, bird feeders or even a stationery organizer.
Ultimately, the most sustainable approach would be to buy tube-free toilet rolls, thus not creating waste beforehand.
Plastic-free toilet paper
While toilet tissue itself doesn’t contain any plastic, it often comes in a plastic packaging. Although some plastic packaging may be recyclable (check for the Mobius loop, alias recycling symbol), only 9% of all plastic generated worldwide is actually recycled. So, the most eco-friendly option would be to buy plastic-free toilet rolls, thus reducing plastic waste in the first place. This means that your loo rolls could be wrapped in one of the following materials:
-Recyclable Cardboard Box containing “naked” rolls
-Recyclable Cardboard Box containing individually wrapped (ideally in recyclable paper) rolls
-Compostable Wrapper: Look out for one of these 2 labels. The packaging may be either home compostable (i.e. it will degrade in your backyard composter) or compostable in a commercial facility (i.e. a typical example is polylactic acid (PLA), a.k.a. bioplastic. In this case you’ll have to throw it in a council composting bin.).
Recycled and non-recycled toilet paper
As mentioned earlier, most of the rolls you find in a shop today are still made from virgin pulp. Which means someone had to cut down trees to make the toilet tissue.
Just to clarify, this eco toilet tissue is not made from toilet paper. Most often its main ingredient is post-consumer paper, like the one discarded in an office. You can also have pre-consumer paper, which is basically papermaking waste like wood chips or sawdust. The first one is preferred as it’s more likely to end up in a landfill than pre-consumer waste, which is more easily repurposed. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a post-consumer fibres content of up to 60% in bathroom tissues.
As for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) labels, recycled toilet paper may have either an “FSC Recycled” or an “FSC Mix” stamp on its package. The “FSC Recycled” label will tell you that your rolls were made with 100% waste fibres, of which at least 85% are obtained from post-consumer recycled paper. Instead, if you read the “FSC Mix” stamp on your toilet paper pack, that’ll mean that some non-recycled paper (either virgin timber/fibre from an FSC-certified forest or from other controlled sources) was used for producing your rolls.
What Are the Benefits of Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper?
Using recycled paper for producing toilet rolls implies some environmental advantages, such as reducing the amount of paper waste ending up in landfills and driving down the demand for newly logged wood.
And it’s not just about trees. Tackling deforestation has the eco-bonus of protecting wildlife species habitats and Indigenous people’s land.
Using FSC-accredited virgin wood for producing toilet paper is better than sourcing raw material from uncertified forests. However, this manufacturing route would still have a carbon footprint three times larger than crafting washroom tissues from recycled paper.
How Biodegradable Toilet Paper Protects the Environment?
For a toilet roll to be environmentally friendly, is not enough to be made from recycled paper. You want the toilet tissue to be broken down by bacteria as fast as possible without releasing any toxic substance in the ecosystem. In short, it needs to be biodegradable. For instance, a biodegradable plant-based material would decompose into carbon dioxide and water only.
Intuitively, the thinner the sheet, the more biodegradable the toilet paper. So, the 1-ply design should break down much faster than thicker sheets. Also, if you want your tissue to disappear fast, you want to avoid bleached toilet rolls as chemicals will prevent the paper breakdown. On top of that, the toilet tissue should not contain any scenting fragrances, inks or dyes.
Ultimately, the most biodegradable toilet paper you can get is bamboo-based. Bamboo toilet tissue will dissolve much faster than virgin or recycled toilet paper which may take up to two years to break down completely. Thanks to its 100% biodegradability, bamboo toilet tissue is completely flushable and septic safe. This means it shouldn’t block your toilet drains and cause plumbing troubles.
What is bamboo toilet paper?
Recycled toilet paper is not the only eco-friendly toilet roll out there. In fact, bamboo toilet roll is possibly the king sitting on the eco toilet paper throne.
Besides being tree-free, the toilet paper made from bamboo is extremely sustainable. That’s because bamboo is the fastest growing plant on the planet, with a Chinese species shooting at 1 meter/day. Which is outstanding when thinking that a large conifer takes a year to grow only 30 cm. Depending on the species, this magic grass will reach full maturity between 90 days and 7 years. This is much quicker than trees that, under optimal conditions (warm weather and plenty of water available), take about 30 years before they could be harvested.
This extraordinary plant has been growing in Southeast Asia for millions of years. Still today China is the largest producer of bamboo. Even though it mostly thrives in tropical, subtropical, or temperate zones, some species may survive in colder regions of the world. Its adaptability to different climates and soils makes this special grass a large available source which adds up to the sustainability of bamboo toilet paper.
Some of the best bamboo species for crafting toilet paper are Moso Bamboo, which is farmed in the Chinese province Guizhou, and the Dendrocalamus tropical species.
Bamboo Vs. Paper: The Battle for Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper
So, is bamboo toilet paper better for the environment than regular and recycled rolls?
While the production process of bamboo toilet tissue is similar to the one for virgin paper-based rolls, there is a fundamental difference in the raw material. That is, bamboo is a plant rather than being a tree. And not just a common plant but the fastest growing on our planet. Given its extremely rapid proliferation, it’s considered a renewable feedstock.
Plus, it doesn’t need any fertilizers to speed up its development. It’s also less greedy than trees as it requires 30% less water and land to flourish. Rather than taking up resources from the soil, bamboo gives them back to it. Because it’s not a thirsty grass, bamboo can grow in depleted soils and its residues turn into nutrients which are fed back into the ground. On top of that, its root system reinforces the soil, which becomes less prone to erosion. That’s why bamboo is great for improving degraded areas.
Overall, this translates in a lower carbon footprint. In fact, the production of bamboo tissue fibres emit 30% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to virgin wood-derived fibres. And it’s even a better lung for the Earth, absorbing 5 times more carbon from the atmosphere and releasing 35% more oxygen in the air compared to similar size trees.
What’s even cooler about bamboo is that you don’t have to replant it as it’s a self-regenerating species. When you chop off the cane's top, new leaves will sprout. This gives the plant roots energy to shoot new stalks from the ground. That means you can harvest it every year once it reaches maturity.
What about 100% recycled paper? As already said, adopting this raw material for making toilet rolls is certainly greener than processing virgin pulp. Yet, this solution has got downsides too. First, you can’t recycle paper over and over again. After seven cycles, the fibres becomes too short and weak. This means you need to add virgin fibres in the mix to increase the pulp strength. Because of its shorter fibres, recycled toilet paper is also less soft than both regular and bamboo rolls. According to Treehugger, the softest eco-friendly toilet paper is bamboo-based, which was also rated as the best eco-friendly toilet roll overall. To compete for softness, recycled paper has to be heavily bleached, but this comes with environmental penalties.
Other than bleaching-derived chemicals, recycled toilet paper may contain bisphenol-A (BPA), which is an endocrine disruptor. That means it may mess up with your hormones. When wiping, you may absorb some of it. Once entered your body, it may alter your growth, energy levels, reproduction and other vital functions. If this doesn’t sound good, you won’t like what comes next.
Animal tests suggest a link between BPA exposure and cancer. Also, an epidemiological study found high concentrations of BPA in urine promoted diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adults. And it’s not just harmful for us. If you flush BPA-containing tissues in your toilet, the chemical will flow through the waterways. When ingested by aquatic wildlife, it can affect their reproductive function, immune system and metabolism.
But where are these chemicals coming from?
BPA is in the paper which is recycled to make your eco loo roll. For example, the nasty substance is found in sales receipts produced by thermal printers and in newspapers.
The good news is bamboo toilet paper is BPA-free. Also, its virgin fibres won’t need neither a harsh bleaching nor a de-inking step as recycled toilet paper will.
At the end of the roll, bamboo seems to win the battle for the most environmentally friendly toilet paper. 100% recycled paper gets a silver medal, whereas you should steer away from virgin paper-based rolls.
However, to get the very best bamboo toilet paper, the ideal roll should tick a couple more (tree-free) boxes.
First, it should be organic, which means bamboo toilet tissue is obtained without destroying any forest or using any chemicals. Sometimes brands advertise 100% organic bamboo toilet paper when it’s technically not. For their claim to be credible, the package should bear either the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) or the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification logo.
To complete the eco-masterpiece, bamboo should also be responsibly sourced (look for the FSC stamp). This means plants are harvested sustainably without clearing forests, violating workers’ rights and harming pandas while providing environmental, social, and economic benefits.
100% Bamboo Vs. Other tree-free toilet paper
Bamboo is not the only tree-free resource you can use to make toilet tissue.
For instance, bagasse is often used in combination with bamboo to make toilet paper.
After extracting the juice from the sugar cane stalks, you’re left with a dry fibrous residue. Well, that’s called bagasse. The eco-bonus of throwing it into the toilet paper mix is that bagasse would otherwise be landfilled or burned. This approach is therefore in line with a circular economy as it repurposes waste material.
But is the bamboo-bagasse toilet tissue blend more eco-friendly than 100% bamboo loo rolls?
If the bamboo is not responsibly sourced (i.e. FSC-accredited), that may mean some trees or other vegetation are displaced to make some room for its plantations. This type of bamboo cultivation would damage biodiversity and emit a significant amount of CO2. So, in this case, having a fraction of bagasse would make the rolls production more eco-sustainable.
To sum up, the most sustainable bamboo toilet roll should ideally be made by a mixture of FSC-certified bamboo and bagasse.
Bamboo vs Hemp toilet paper
The real tree-free competitor for bamboo toilet paper is hemp, which is a variety of the Cannabis Sativa plant. While there’s no botanical difference between hemp and marijuana species, they’re not the same thing from the legal point of view. In particular, hemp has got a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content—a psychoactive compound—lower than 0.3%.
Hemp and bamboo fibres share some essential features for toilet paper production. Besides being biodegradable, they’re both soft and strong at the same time.
But which one is better?
From the eco-sustainability standpoint, hemp is very similar to bamboo as it’s also on top of the list when it comes to fast-growing plants. Having a short growth cycle, you can harvest hemp every four months. Besides being renewable, this weed thrives even in infertile soils without the help of fertilizers or pesticides. Also, it rapidly regenerates itself and captures CO2 while growing.
Hemp has got a natural advantage compared to wood and other agricultural wastes like bagasse: It contains three times more cellulose (the component giving fibres). This results in a pulp yield per hectare of land of up to four times higher compared to forests, thus making hemp toilet paper more sustainable and economically convenient.
Moreover, hemp is less rich in lignin (the part you want to remove to isolate the fibres during pulping) and its hurds are finer. This favourable structure and composition allows adopting more eco-friendly processes like oxygen delignification (bleaching) and autohydrolysis (pulping) to obtain hemp fibres. These require less harsh chemicals and energy compared to standard methods used for making bamboo or virgin wood-based toilet paper.
While hemp has been around forever, it’s a relatively new entry in the papermaking world as its cultivation was legalized only in 2018. Although it’s a promising alternative to bamboo for crafting eco toilet tissue, hemp has some drawbacks.
First, it’s less widely available than bamboo. While you can easily buy hemp toilet paper online, you’ll struggle to find it in the nearest shop to your place. A major factor hindering the US hemp production is regulations compliance. When a tested plant goes over the THC limit of 0.3% is defined as “hot crop” and is legally considered as marijuana. Which means farmers are forced to destroy the entire plantation. Another problem is the lack of clear agronomic and fertilization recommendations. Finally, hemp is less resilient than bamboo. For prosper, this weed requires both a humid climate and a soil with good water retention. That means it would be severely impacted by drought.
Despite some limitations, hemp is an excellent candidate as a sustainable feedstock for tree-free toilet paper. Yet, for the time being, bamboo seems to be still one step ahead of the tree-friendly game.
Why is bamboo toilet paper so expensive?
As a consumer, you reasonably care about the price of your roll.
The first thing to take into account is where your rolls are coming from. Imported goods will bear an extra cost, so you may save some money by opting for a locally-made product instead of buying bamboo toilet rolls shipped from China.
While it’s true that regular toilet paper is usually the cheapest option, you can also find bamboo toilet paper at a competitive price. On top of that, when you consider the environmental (i.e. biodiversity loss, deforestation and climate change) and social (i.e. Indigenous land deprivation) costs behind those tree-hungry rolls, the price difference shrinks.
Another heads up on toilet paper price. The cheapest option is not always the healthiest, as there’s a higher chance of having a nasty chemical like formaldehyde in it.
Someone may argue recycled toilet paper is just as eco-friendly as bamboo toilet rolls and has a similar price. Yet, bamboo toilet tissues don’t contain any BPA and are much softer than recycled toilet rolls.
Last but not least, bamboo toilet tissue breaks down much faster than regular and recycled paper-based alternatives. That means it’ll be more difficult to clog your toilet drain, and you’ll save on potential plumbing expenses.
So, all considered, the price for bamboo rolls seems to be fair.
Why is bamboo toilet paper popular?
With the Coronavirus outbreak, the popularity of any kind of toilet paper seemed to skyrocket. Though, the bamboo toilet roll is particularly gaining traction.
This is mostly because of its superior environmental benefits, but there’s also other reasons.
For instance, unlike hemp, whose cultivation is still held back by bureaucratic challenges, bamboo plantations have no legal barriers (yet there are sustainable limitations).
On top of that, bamboo fibres are ideal for toilet paper as they’re softer than cotton. Their texture was defined as a blend between cashmere and silk. On the other hand, bamboo has got a higher tensile strength than steel. That means it’s very difficult to tear apart. For this reason, it’s also used as a more sustainable construction material. When bamboo is processed without using harsh chemicals, its fibres retain the natural resistance of the parent grass. As a result, bamboo toilet paper will have a greater tearing strength and durability.
Thanks to bamboo fibres’ sponge-like porous structure, toilet paper made out of them can both absorb and release water very quickly. Plus, the fibres’ high biodegradability will keep your toilet pipes free from paper wads.
Finally, bamboo toilet paper is one of the safest options for your skin because of the intrinsic antibacterial activity owned by this raw material.