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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Toilet Paper

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Here’s a brief history of a modern luxury we take for granted, and its eco-friendly options.

Although we now tend to see it as a necessity, toilet paper as we know it is a modern luxury.

The first recorded use of toilet paper was in China, circa AD 851, but it faded into obscurity before resurfacing during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. Special sheets were created for the imperial court, using a soft fabric that was cut into 2 x 3 feet squares. Modern toilet paper first appeared in 1857 when Joseph Gayetty, an American entrepreneur cum inventor, designed therapeutic aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp that was dispensed from boxes. Americans weren’t too jazzed about the product until 1890, when brothers Clarence and E. Irvin Scott came up with toilet paper on a roll. From then on, toilet paper slowly but surely grew in acceptance, eventually becoming the American staple it is today.

So what’s it made of? Well, that depends. Standard issue toilet paper is typically made from virgin timber (virgin timber is lumber taken from an uncultivated forest), and recycled toilet paper is typically made of good old recycled paper. Other materials used to manufacture toilet paper include water, different chemicals for breaking down the trees into a usable fiber, and sometimes chlorine-based bleaches.

Given that the U.S. now spends more than $6 billion a year on toilet tissue — much more than any other country — and that an average American goes through nearly 50 pounds of TP per year, it’s easy to sense the impact toilet paper has on the environment.

Perhaps eco-friendliest alternative is family cloth, a reusable cloth or bit of fabric that is washed after use. This option has been embraced by some mothers (who may already be accustomed to the idea through cloth diapers) and DIYers/frugal-living enthusiasts. However, most people are understandably squeamish about using reusable cloths in the bathroom. Unless a major cultural shift occurs, most people will probably hang on to regular ol’ disposable toilet paper.

Luckily, there are other TP options that could help mitigate the impact associated with the 57 squares we each use every day. Toilet paper that is made with recycled content and safer chemicals during the manufacturing process is generally more sustainable. With recycled toilet paper, you’re using more recycled material and fewer virgin resources. Choosing paper that is bleached without chlorine prevents this harmful chemical from escaping into the environment and turning into dioxin, a highly poisonous and bioccumulative substance. Compared to conventional TP, making recycled paper takes up less water and energy, and also creates less air and water pollution.

Different brands of eco-friendly toilet paper offer different options. Seventh Generation, for example, offers an unbleached bath tissue that’s 100 percent recycled. That option is hypoallergenic, and composed of 80 percent post-consumer recycled material, and 20 percent pre-consumer recycled material. Seventh Generation also offers a recycled bath tissue that is whitened with non-chlorine materials. Earth Friendly Products also offers a 100 percent recycled toilet tissue, void of fragrances or chlorine and other toxins.

Be kind to your behind and the environment by choosing the most eco-friendly TP you can find. You can’t go wrong by choosing a paper made with recycled material and treated without chlorine.

The Washington Post
Mental Floss
Seattle Times
Seventh Generation
Earth Friendly Products
Made How

Do you use eco-friendly toilet paper? And if not, would you consider the switch?

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About the Author
Rachael Clemmons
Rachael Clemmons

I'm a writer, and a designer and Blanche Devereaux is my spirit animal.

  • sara o. 4 years ago
    Marcel is a brand that is 100% recycled. The thought of cutting down virgin forests to wipe everyone's butt makes me very angry - Why don't more people know. I noticed that Marcel used to advertise it was 100% recycled very obviously. Now it is in very tiny print - As if it is the least important thing about the product. Marcel is cost competitive with with every other brand. Is 7th generation really 12 rolls for $80???
  • Ruth C. 4 years ago
    Scott has T B with no cardboard tube that will stop some waste/
  • Carmen A. 4 years ago
    What kind of inventor was Joseph Gayetty? Is that a typo???
  • Geff M. 4 years ago
    Embrace double [sized] rolls, or even better, now i've seen t.p. rolls w/o a [cardboard] tube holder - yes, tubeless & sold w/o any extraneous materials.
  • Linda W. 4 years ago
    good points. I don't know if I can go without (he he) but I do try to conserve!