Dear Recyclebank: Is it better to buy tubeless toilet paper rolls or toilet paper made from recycled material? So far I have not found a company doing both. –Leslie H.
Dear Leslie: There are actually advocates of getting rid of toilet paper completely — by bringing the culture of washing, instead, to the U.S. — because of the environmental cost to create cardboard tubes, toilet paper, and other paper products. Like many other industries, the pulp and paper industry requires the heavy use of virgin resources (especially trees, in this case), and pollutes air and waterways during harvesting and manufacturing. But the pulp and paper industry is also a major industrial source of man-made GHGs, and makes up the biggest portion of the U.S. waste stream: In 2013, we generated 68,600,000 tons of paper and paperboard waste.
Going paperless may sound tempting after all that, but if you’re not ready to go the way of the bidet, choosing tubeless TP isn’t a bad way to start reducing your own paper use. Since the 17 billion toilet paper tubes produced annually mostly end up in the landfill — despite being recyclable, about 160 million pounds of TP tubes are trashed each year — the invention of tubeless toilet paper not only reduces the environmental impact associated with making paper, but also reduces the amount of waste generated.
As you pointed out, though, there are no tubeless options that are also made from recycled material available to household consumers. The reason you won’t find a combination tubeless-and-recycled TP is that the specialized equipment used to wind the tubeless rolls is a patented process exclusive to Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Scott Naturals® Tube-Free Tissue, which is made with certified responsibly-sourced — but not recycled — paper. Meanwhile, a variety of competitors lack the technical capability to wind up their TP without cardboard tubes, but do offer recycled toilet paper products.
And compared to regular toilet paper, which generally relies on clear-cutting forests for virgin paper and using harmful chemicals during the bleaching process, recycled toilet paper is a more sustainable option. Replacing conventional toilet paper with toilet paper made from post-consumer recycled fiber helps save forests and lessen the environmental impact of paper production. The NRDC estimates that if each U.S. household switched just one four-pack of conventional toilet paper for a four-pack of recycled toilet paper, it would save approximately 1 million trees a year, eliminate 60,600 pounds of chlorine pollution, and save 356 million gallons of fresh water. It’s worth noting, though, that recycling contamination — for example, putting receipts in the recycling bin even when they’re not accepted — has led to the presence of BPA in some recycled paper products, including recycled toilet paper. That said, the exposure is no more than what we normally get from touching receipts, newspaper ink, or the money we handle every day, and much less than we’re exposed to through our diet.
In the end, it looks like going for 100% recycled toilet paper is better at preserving trees and preserving our ecosystem, especially since you can always recycle the cardboard tubes they come with. And for the truly committed, there are other options, such as tree- and BPA-free toilet paper made from bagasse and bamboo, or reusable toilet paper (AKA cloth). Or, we can try our hand at bidets like the rest of the world.