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Recycled toilet paper vs bamboo: what is the most sustainable option?

Written by: Claudia February 16, 2021

Thanks to the Covid pandemic, loo paper is a subject we’ve all become accustomed to thinking about an inordinate amount in the last year. It may not be the most glamorous of household goods, but let’s face it, it’s something we all need, so it’s not surprising that it’s the first commodity to fly off the shelves the minute there’s even the slightest whiff of an impending lockdown.

But the very fact that loo roll is bought in such vast quantities the world over means it adds up to a major environmental issue. While many major toilet paper brands carry a claim of sustainability because they source virgin wood pulp from sustainably managed forests, the Ethical Consumer argues that it’s not sustainable to use virgin wood at all for a product that’s immediately disposed of.

Here in the UK, we’re the world’s third biggest consumer of toilet paper, so it’s fair to say we’re a big part of the problem. If you’re looking to reduce your personal impact on the planet, switching to a more eco-friendly kind of loo paper is one easy change you can make in your day-to-day life. Two of the more sustainable options are recycled and bamboo toilet paper - but which is the most environmentally friendly? Let’s take a look at each in turn...

Recycled loo paper

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: when we say ‘recycled loo paper’, we’re not talking about used loo paper reconstituted as new loo paper - so you can lay to rest any concerns about hygiene. We’re talking about toilet paper that’s made from other recycled materials - either pre- or post-consumer materials, or a mix of both - instead of cutting down trees and using virgin wood pulp (you can spot toilet paper made from virgin wood pulp by the ‘FSC mix’ label on the packaging).

Pre-consumer materials are waste from the manufacturing process, such as unused paper, or offcuts from wood processing. Post-consumer materials are those that have been used in a previous life, such as pulped books, magazines and other paper products. These are all processed to ensure they’re soft and flushable, with any inks washed out before being put through the same manufacturing process as regular toilet paper.

Research shows that recycled toilet paper is a lot more sustainable than regular loo roll, so it’s a good switch to make if you’re trying to minimise the impact your household has on the environment. That’s because it doesn’t involve felling trees, uses around half the amount of water and generates half the amount of hazardous air pollutants as making toilet paper from virgin wood pulp. What’s more, recycled loo roll is made from commodities diverted from landfill, reducing landfill use in the process. Basically, it’s a no brainer.

Just one thing to keep in mind. When you’re buying recycled toilet paper, the key is to look out for brands that haven’t used bleach - which is typically used less in recycled paper anyway - and ideally ones that don’t use chlorine processing full stop. Such as Who Gives a Crap’s classic recycled toilet paper, which we’re big fans of here at Caara HQ.

Bamboo loo paper

An alternative to recycled toilet paper that’s beginning to find its way onto supermarket shelves here in the UK is bamboo loo roll. Bamboo is officially a grass, so technically speaking, bamboo loo roll doesn’t involve cutting down trees. It’s still a plant though, so why would it be a more sustainable choice than virgin wood pulp? 

The answer lies in the fact that, as the fastest-growing plant in the world, bamboo grows at a staggering rate: a whopping 20 times faster than trees do. It’s also a hardy species that grows in poor soil, enriching it with nutrients in the process. The process used to turn it into toilet paper is more environmentally friendly, too, generating around 30% fewer greenhouse gases.

However, bamboo loo roll isn’t quite as sustainable as recycled for a few notable reasons:

  • Firstly, the number of airmiles it’s had to travel to get to us in Western Europe from where it’s grown. 
  • Secondly, the fact that bamboo plantations are often planted on land that’s recently been deforested, and it can be hard to ensure it’s been responsibly sourced (look out for the FSC logo on packs of bamboo loo roll). 
  • Thirdly, unlike recycled loo roll, bamboo loo roll still uses virgin materials, so it isn’t helping divert commodities away from landfill.

If you’d like to give bamboo toilet paper a try, you can get it from Who Gives a Crap, who not only promise that it’s made from 100% forest-friendly bamboo, but also that it’s so soft that it’s ‘like wiping with clouds’. Though not FSC-certified, its products are made from bamboo grown by small farmers making extra money by growing it on the edge of their farms. To be fair, FSC certification can be too expensive to be a realistic option for small-scale growers - but go with a brand you know you can trust, like Who Gives a Crap, and it’s all fine and dandy, as you’re supporting small farms as well as doing your bit for the environment.

So, which is better?

To summarise, bamboo toilet roll is more sustainable than loo paper made from virgin wood pulp, but recycled loo roll is more sustainable than both of these options. Whichever brand of toilet paper you go for, don’t forget that it’s also important to consider what it’s packaged in - try to opt for brands that don’t use single-use plastic in their packaging.

And finally, don’t forget that all this applies to your kitchen roll and boxes of tissues as well as your loo roll. Sustainable options such as Cheeky Panda’s bamboo kitchen towel and facial towels and Who Gives a Crap’s forest-friendly paper towels (made with a mix of bamboo and sugar cane) make it easy to make the switch to sustainable. So what are you waiting for?

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