Recycled toilet paper
Separating the fibres to make pulp for papermaking takes far fewer resources when those fibres are recycled from recovered paper than when they’re derived directly from trees. Recycling is simply more efficient. It cuts down no trees, uses less energy and water, produces less solid waste, and diverts paper away from landfill.
According to the Environmental Paper Network’s paper calculator, tissue made from recycled content has one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of tissue fibre made from virgin wood.
As toilet paper is a disposable product, you might worry that it’s wasteful to make it from material which could otherwise be used for products which could be recycled again, such as printing paper or cardboard. It’s true that high-quality paper is best recycled into printing paper but this can only be done five or six times before the fibres become too short to make strong paper so toilet paper is a good final outing for those fibres.
For recycling to be economically viable, waste paper needs to be turned into high-value products as much as possible. Toilet paper is a higher-value product than cardboard (according to information provided by Green Stationery Company).
Recycled toilet paper by the big companies is decreasing
Given the benefits of recycled paper, you’d think companies would be using as much of it as possible. But sadly, that’s not the case and the use of recycled paper by the three big companies is decreasing.
- According to their own reporting, in 2011 Kimberly-Clark used 29.7% recycled fibre whereas in 2021 it used only 19.3%;
- Essity used 40% recycled fibre in 2018 and in 2022 this dropped to 36%;
- in 2019, Sofidel used 8.9% recycled material but in 2021 only 7.3%.
The companies don’t explain the decrease.
One of the smaller companies, Nova Tissue, told us that demand for recycled paper simply isn’t there and that customers overwhelmingly want pure virgin paper. But why is this?
Toilet paper is a functional, disposable product. If it does what’s required, why should people care so much whether it’s virgin pulp or recycled paper?
The marketing of toilet paper might provide an answer.
Toilet paper packaging displays pictures of puppies and various other fluffy animals and uses words such as quilted, cushioned, velvet, luxury, and ultra soft. The result is the bizarre association of toilet paper with luxury and self-indulgence. And the expectation that wiping your bum should feel like a caress from a baby alpaca. In this context, it’s not surprising that people favour ‘virgin fibre’ with its hints of soft, snowy whiteness over the workmanlike ‘recycled’.
Through their advertising, the big toilet paper companies have the power to influence our desires and expectations. If the demand for recycled paper isn’t there, it’s the toilet paper companies who are at least in part to blame.
Certified toilet paper on the rise, but is it really sustainable?
It’s also notable that, as recycled paper use by the big companies has decreased, their use of certified paper has gone up. For example, Kimberly-Clark’s use of FSC-certified fibre has increased by 20% in the last ten years.
Schemes that certify virgin fibre as sustainable have been criticised for undermining demand for recycled paper and figures from the big brands in this guide suggest this is the case.