This is the best and worst toilet paper for the planet

toilet paper on pink background (Getty Images; design by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life)
Some of the most popular brands of toilet paper are adding to deforestation and, as a result, climate change. (Getty Images; design by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life)

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Not all toilet paper is created equally — and some of it is downright destructive.

With the U.S. topping all other countries in its annual per capita usage of toilet paper rolls, according to 2018 data — 141 (three per week, or 28 pounds' worth) as compared with 134 rolls in Germany, 127 in the United Kingdom, 91 in Japan and only 38 in Brazil, for example — it's crucial to know where all that tissue is coming from.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the latest version of its annual "Issue with Tissue" report and scorecard, some major companies are fueling climate change by using virgin forest fiber from Canada's vast and vital boreal forest — one of the most ecologically important forests on Earth — to make the disposable product.

"I think the vast majority of consumers don't give their toilet paper purchase a lot of thought, because it's pretty unbelievable that it's fueling such devastating forest loss — something you use for a few seconds and then flush," NRDC's boreal protection campaign manager, Shelley Vinyard, tells Yahoo Life. "So we aim to just educate people, especially about the world’s last remaining climate-critical forest, so they know the impacts of their purchasing decisions."

While the trend in toilet paper manufacturing has been that "more and more companies are offering more sustainable brands," with even Kimberly Clark and Georgia-Pacific making versions of its products from 100% recycled paper, "we're looking at Procter & Gamble (P&G)," this year’s worst offender, "specifically, to do that," Vinyard explains.

P&G, maker of three types of Charmin, "remains stuck in the past," relying on the boreal forest, says Ashley Jordan, lead author for the NRDC toilet paper scorecard, released in September, which looked at 142 products, using a deep-diving methodology. As a result,"P&G is now the only one of the three largest toilet paper producers to earn F grades across all its tissue brands." (Kimberly Clark and Georgia-Pacific are not far behind, with their Cottonelle, Angel Soft and Quilted Northern products getting Fs, too — along with Scott and Walmart brands.)

P&G did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.

As Jordan tells Yahoo Life, "This is our fourth version of the scorecard, and it's changed over time — there are more sustainable brands each year than the previous one. But the largest U.S. tissue brands are continuing to create their products almost exclusively from virgin forest fiber."

Below, a primer for wiping more responsibly.

Toilet paper 101

Hands down, the most sustainable type of TP to buy is one made from 100% recycled content, with "at least 50% post-consumer recycled content," notes the NRDC, which doles out As on its scorecard to brands that abide by this — including those which earned an A+, Green Forest, Trader Joe's and 365 recycled from Whole Foods, and those that earned an A, Seventh Generation, Ever Spring and Who Gives a Crap 100% Recycled (which conveniently ships boxes of the rolls to a subscriber's home on an automated basis).

Recycled options, according to the Environmental Paper Network's Paper Calculator 4.0, have just one-third the carbon emissions of products made from using virgin wood pulp — often from old-growth forests such as Canada's boreal, which, says Vinyard, is "home to over 600 Indigenous communities, is a habitat for threatened species and is essential in the fight against climate change, [as it] holds more than 300 billion tons of climate-altering carbon — more than twice as much as the world's oil reserves." That poses a danger to the planet, as logging and other development releases the vast amount of carbon it has trapped over decades.

Contrary to what many think, toilet paper is not typically made from lumber scraps.

"A substantial amount of boreal wood pulp destined for tissue production comes from whole logs, also known as roundwood," writes the NRDC in an earlier fact sheet on toilet paper. "In Ontario, one of the largest exporters of pulp to the United States, an average of 44 percent of all pulp comes from roundwood, according to estimates from Stand Research Group … Any way you cut it, the tissue industry is, in fact, a key driver of intact boreal forest loss.”

A view of the lush boreal forest in Canada. (Photo: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A view of the lush boreal forest in Canada. (Photo: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images) (John Greim via Getty Images)

While logging companies are technically supposed to regrow the trees they remove, it's not quite as simple as that. Regrowth takes years and almost always leaves a forest irreparably changed — particularly since "companies will choose to replant monocultures of certain tree types that feed future logging operations, instead of a biodiverse mix similar to the ecosystem that was there before," notes the NRDC. And, it adds, "New research shows that logging creates scars on the landscape from roads, equipment and piles of wood waste where the forest has failed to return, decades after the logging ended."

Other factors to consider, from certifications to bamboo

One possible indication of sustainability is a product's certification label — although not all are equally reputable, says Jordan. She says that when the NRDC reaches out to companies every year for input on the TP report, many that still use virgin wood pulp "dodge the question" of recycling and instead "point to third-party certification," including from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which she calls "an industry-dominated scheme that requires little more than legal requirements."

The "only legitimate standard, in terms of environmental sustainability and human rights," Jordan says, is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — and while its certification was one of the factors considered for the NRDC scorecard, what that means is not always crystal clear.

"If you're buying a product that has to be made of wood, like a table, it is critical you look for the FSC label,” the NRDC report says. "However, there is no reason to make single-use tissue products from wood, and FSC certification simply isn't as beneficial to forests as avoiding the use of trees in these products altogether." Further, while new standards will be stronger, the standards currently in use don’t promise protections for the northern, or boreal, caribou habitat or insist that Indigenous communities have consented to logging on their land.

Kimberly–Clark's Fullerton mill, which produces tissue and toilet paper and paper towels, adapted to the half–hour notices it was given under a voluntary cutback program. But it worries about the safety of its workers and high–speed production equipment if it gets only 10–minute notice of rotating outages. An employee works with 4–ton rolls of tissue coming out of the tissue machine Wednesday.  (Photo by Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Kimberly-Clark's Fullerton mill, which produces tissue and toilet paper and paper towels. (Photo: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Al Schaben via Getty Images)

And while many major brands, including Charmin, may have FSC certification, it is not a full certification, according to the NRDC, but "what is called FSC Mix certification, which includes pulp from forests with far less robust protections."

Some companies eschew wood pulp altogether, and opt for bamboo, touting it as more sustainable. But that's also complicated.

"One thing that's important to know about bamboo is that there is variability around where that bamboo is coming from," Vinyard explains. "Sometimes plantations are created on recently deforested land — and planted there, after the forest has been cut down, with the exclusive purpose of putting it in." What is sustainable, on the other hand, are plantations that are not fueling deforestation — and that's where an FSC certification is meaningful, and why the scorecard gives different grades to various bamboo products.

Hemp products, too, are a potentially sustainable alternative, but, as with bamboo, only if it's sourced without impacting forests. Hemp plants also require more fertilizers in the growing stage and more chemical additives in its processing than other materials, notes the NRDC report.

Finally, there is the question of bleaching, a process by which the paper is made softer and more absorbent. It's done with a variety of methods. The worst, elemental chlorine, releases highly toxic dioxin into wastewater, but its use has mostly been eliminated. The most popular method now is elemental chlorine free (ECF) bleach — which, despite its name, emits chlorine gas containing dioxins into the air and water near tissue manufacturing plants; it's commonly used in virgin-forest products and some made from bamboo.

Recycled paper products, on the other hand, generally use the processed chlorine free (PCF) method, which avoids chlorine and uses oxygen, ozone and hydrogen peroxide.

But what about ditching TP altogether?

"Bidets are a fantastic alternative to using tissue products," says Jordan, referring to the post-toilet washing appliance that's popular in many other countries around the world. The item — typically in the form of an electronic seat attachment for regular toilets — had a moment in the spotlight at the start of the pandemic, amid toilet-paper supply issues.

Bidets, she says, "require less water per use than the tissue-making process does. … But many people in U.S. are reluctant to stop using tissue products."

High-tech toilet-seat bidet attachments grew in popularity in the U.S. during the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Images)
High-tech toilet-seat bidet attachments grew in popularity in the U.S. during the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Images) (chingyunsong via Getty Images)

Kartik Chandran, who teaches earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University and is a global leader in sustainable wastewater treatment, has researched communities of "wipers v. washers," and says both have points in their favor — as long as consumers stick to 100% recycled brands of toilet paper, which has a negligible post-use carbon contribution, meaning that its fibers break down easily.

But as for issues of water usage, whether with toilets or bidets, the biggest problem is systemic, he says, and largely out of consumers' hands. "In much of the U.S., we actually flush toilets with drinking-quality water, and that's really, really bad," Chandran explains. "When we have the luxury of such a pristine source of water … This is not the way to do it." He suggests that experts start with that premise.

Going forward, he explains, new construction could have a second set of pipes that use gray water, meaning post-washing water, for flushes, which could "offset water demand by up to 55%." Also vital is implementing more low-flush toilets — particularly since water consumption per capita per day in much of the U.S. is a whopping 100 gallons, but we drink only about a gallon at most; the rest is wastewater.

New developments in toilet engineering could make a big dent in the problem. "There are technology providers working to develop what would be the holy grail — to minimize the amount of water used for flushing to less than a liter [or a quarter of a gallon] per flush," he says, through engineering better hydraulics.

For now, though, one way to maintain control over toilet-water waste is to live by the classic adage: "If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down," which Chandran calls "absolutely" impactful.

"I’ve seen toilets using as high as three-plus gallons per flush," he says — all to get rid of what's probably only about 1.5 liters [or less than half a gallon] of urine a day.

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