Down the pan
The British are the world's most enthusiastic users of toilet paper, with the average person getting through 110 rolls a year. Ruth Rosselson considers the damage.
Barely a day goes by without green issues hitting the headlines and more people than ever are recycling. Surveys show that we’re prepared to spend more on ‘green products’ but this has yet to transfer itself into action when it comes to buying recycled toilet paper.(2) It’s the ultimate in wastefulness – for trees to be cut down, used once and then flushed away.
Recycled toilet paper takes 50% less energy to produce than virgin paper.(1) It also makes more sense for us to get as much use out of trees by using them as many times as possible before flushing them away. Yet Beatrix Richards, head of forests at WWF, points out that “the levels of recycled fibres being used in lavatory paper, paper towels and napkins are still far too low”. A situation which, she argues, just can’t continue.
According to the WWF, wood fibres for ‘virgin’ toilet tissue come from forests all over the world. “In several countries, illegal harvesting, social conflicts, unsustainable logging and irresponsible plantation establishment and management still threaten forest biodiversity, the survival of many forest species as well as human rights” says the campaign group.(4) The scale of illegal logging in regions such as the Baltic states is dramatic and goes largely unrecognised. In addition, many forests of high conservation value in countries such as Canada, Sweden and Finland are being logged unsustainably, though not illegally. This threatens the habitats of a wide range of wildlife and fauna.(4)
Gone are the days when toilet tissue used to be just paper. Some ‘luxury’ brands are impregnated with a variety of added ingredients and chemicals, including perfumes. Our shop survey found parabens (preservatives which are on Greenpeace’s list of chemicals to avoid) in ASDA’s Shades brand with aloe vera. Furthermore, those added ingredients also make toilet paper difficult to flush and to degrade.(6)
Each year, WWF rates the big toilet tissue manufacturers on a number of different factors including environmental responsibility, recycled content, energy efficiency and wood sources. Top in the 2006 survey was SCA Hygiene (Svenska Cellulosa on our table), makers of Velvet, Naturelle and now the Charmin and Bounty brands. It scored 85% on the survey, with Kimberly Clark coming next best, scoring 40%. Although Nouvelle may be the recycled brand with the highest profile, its owner came out worst, scoring only 26%.(7) The report also noted that there was a reluctance by the major brands to disclose the amount of recycled fibre used in their consumer branded products. This means that brands such as Velvet, Bounty or Andrex might contain some recycled content, but with no disclosure, and no labelling, we don’t know if they do, or how much.
Despite the fact that the brands may have made progress, the fact remains that they are still using virgin paper for us to flush away. However, there is progress elsewhere. The Co-op was recently commended for offering more than one own-branded recycled toilet paper(8) and much of the paper in its recycled ranges comes from paper from its own offices. By the time that this report is published, all of ASDA and Sainsbury’s own brand tissues will be FSC certified or made from recycled fibres. Morrisons has also set a similar goal with a deadline of the end of 2007.(9)
If the supermarkets can pledge this, then there’s no reason why the major toilet tissue brands can’t do the same. There is enough recycled paper out there, argues Alison Sutton from WWF, “but it would require a sea of change amongst companies to make this switch”.(10) However, it doesn’t look like the major tissue manufacturers are going to make the leap without pressure from us. The greenest choice is therefore 100% recycled unbleached toilet paper, labelled as such. Next best is toilet tissue which has a high recycled content, with the remainder of fibres certified by the FSC. Finally, paper which carries the FSC logo is the next best choice.
Waste Online www.wasteonline.org.uk or the Recycle Now helpline on 0845 331 31 31
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), www.wrap.org.uk, 0808 100 2040
Greenpeace GM campaign www.greenpeace.org.uk, 020 7865 8100
1 Daily Telegraph, 5/2/07
2 Mintel Household Paper Products, January 2006
3 Which? Toilet rolls 17 May 2006
4 WWF website, www.panda.org forests campaign 1/4/07
6 The Journal of Unlikely science, British gas experiment found on www.null-hypothesis.co.uk
7 WWF www.wwf.org.uk/news / WWF October 2006, scoring of the Tissue Giants 8 Greening Supermarkets – National Consumer Council, 9/06
9 Morrisons CSR report 2007
10 email from Alison Sutton, April 2007