You might be surprised by how much toilet paper is being used every year, but our need for fluffy, extra soft toilet tissue accounts for approximately 15% of our world’s deforestation. It is a single-use paper product that mostly comes from virgin wood. According to environmental research organization Worldwatch Institute, citing the World Wildlife Foundation, global toilet paper production uses about 27,000 trees per day, resulting in almost 9 million trees per year. Not only the cutting down of (old-growth) forests has a big environmental impact, the whole manufacturing process of making toilet paper is a wasteful one. The water wasted to clean and prepare the pulp, and the energy costs of manufacture and transportation have to be taken into account as well. Furthermore, chemicals are added, like chlorine that bleaches the pulp and makes it white and feel softer. The paper industry does plant new trees, but this is often in monoculture plantations that are energy-intensive and made up of a singles species of tree. These are inadequate substitutes for the biodiverse forests they replace, and they displace native plants and animals.
"Fluffiness comes at a price," reported the New York Times in 2009: “Millions of trees harvested in North America and in Latin American countries, including some percentage of trees from rare old-growth forests in Canada. Although toilet tissue can be made at similar cost from recycled material, it is the fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel, and most large manufacturers rely on them.”
One option is to use recycled toilet paper, but much of the time it is only a small portion of the product that is made of recycled material, with the rest containing raw wood material. Standard “Recycled paper’ isn’t actually made from our recyclable waste as many people are lead to believe, but usually virgin timber off cuts directly from trees. Another aspect to take into account with recycled paper is that a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology found traces of BPA (a known endocrine disrupter) in many recycled paper products, including toilet paper. These traces seem to come from thermal receipt paper, which is contributing the majority of BPA to our recycled products (I am not sure if these traces are harmful to your health or not).
Another, better option, is the Franch solution of using a bidet. A bidet eliminates the need for toilet paper, instead using a small amount of water to clean things after toilet use. It is actually not such a crazy idea, since we wash every other part of our bodies with water and not with paper. Claiming that bidets waste water doesn’t hold ground when you look at the numbers. Making a single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water, 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and some 1.5 pounds of wood, while the amount of water used by a typical bidet is about 1/8th of a gallon. Toilet paper also clogs pipes and adds a significant load onto city sewer systems and water treatment plants. Bidets are not only popular in (Southern) Europe: 60 percent of Japanese households today have high-tech bidets made by Toto called Washlets. Most people use a small amount of paper to dry off after bidet use, but more expensive air-drying models make the use of paper redundant. So why isn’t the bidet more popular in the USA when it comes to cleaning our undersides? It is mainly a cultural thing, but it seems times are changing. While the classic bidet a miniature, bathtub-like fixture situated next to the toilet is, these days you can also have a mini-shower attachment connected to the toilet. And there is even a new alternative coming on the market. Miki Agrawal, founder of Thinx, along with other investors, is backing a toilet attachment called Tushy, which adds a small water spigot under the rim. Maybe something for all of us in the near future?