Which Toilet Paper is Better – Virgin, or Recycled?
Okay, so that last one doesn’t really rank among the great metaphysical quandaries of the human experience, but when you consider that it involves a product that’s used by pretty much everyone numerous times each day, it’s not insignificant and people can get pretty worked up about it. Debates have raged around TP-related topics: one ply, or two? Over, or under? The question of whether the product that’s politely termed bath tissue should be made of virgin (new) or recycled pulp involves more than just personal preference; there are environmental and economic factors to consider as well. Before delving into an analysis of the arguments on both sides of the recycled toilet paper debate, here’s a brief history and a few fun facts about the little squares you rely on numerous times throughout the day but seldom think much about.
What Did People Do Pre-TP?
Since long before there were bathrooms, humans have come up with an almost unbelievable number of approaches to bathroom hygiene. As with so many niceties and conveniences throughout history, the precursors to modern toilet tissue often emphasized the division between the haves and the have-nots. Wealthy Romans utilized wool and rosewater, while public privies for commoners were equipped not with bulk toilet paper, but with salt water-soaked sponges on the ends of sticks. French aristocrats used bits of lace along with their wool and hemp, and were the fortunate owners of one of the first great lavatory luxuries, the bidet. The elite in other societies also used wool along with hemp and even, in the case of Great Britain, pages from books.
For the most part, people made do with what they could find in their environments: coconut shells in Hawaii; balls of hay in the Middle Ages; tundra moss and snow among the natives of what is now Alaska; and for sailors, the end of an old anchor line. In the U.S., long before recycled toilet paper was an option, people made efficient use of resources by placing their discarded catalogs and magazines in their privies.
The Debut of Toilet Tissue
Now considered a universal lavatory accouterment, commercial toilet tissue was first introduced in 1857 by Joseph Gayetty. Gayetty’s Medicated Paper was sold in packs of 500 individual, aloe-treated sheets. Thirty-three years later, the first bathroom rolls were introduced. Modern bath tissue still adheres to the basic concept and design of those early rolls. In the 125 or so years since, this product has undergone improvements from the dubious, such as the introduction of the first splinter-free tissue in 1930, to the audacious, such as TP rolls printed with pop culture icons or dollar bill designs. The first recycled toilet rolls were made available to consumers in 2008, igniting the ongoing debate about the best ways to reconcile the need for bathroom comfort and luxury with the desire to make choices that protect the environment.
The Case For Recycled Tissue
The first tissue rolls made from recycled pulp were introduced during a time of rapidly increasing attention to environmental issues such as pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and natural resource depletion. They were developed in an effort to mitigate the impact of the enormous toilet paper industry on the environment; with paper consumption in general increasing rapidly worldwide due to the widespread proliferation of copy machines and home computers/printers, recycled paper products of all kinds were seen as a way to slow the consumption of wood pulp, and by extension, trees.
Recycled toilet paper seemed particularly logical; after all, is it really necessary to use virgin pulp for a product that’s going to end up being flushed? In the U.S. alone the number one producer and consumer of this product worldwide about 7 million trees are needed each year to support the nation’s production of bathroom tissue, much of which is exported to other countries. It is estimated that almost a half million trees could be saved annually if every U.S. family replaced just one virgin roll with a recycled one. If large numbers of consumers switched to bulk toilet paper made from recycled pulp, of course, the number of trees preserved would increase exponentially. The environmental benefits don’t end there; recycled tissue also reduces energy consumption and air pollution.
Not So Fast
Recycled products are not the clear winners in the debate about how best to protect the environment while satisfying consumers desire for luxury in the lavatory. When you think of recycled paper products you may assume that they’re all made from post-consumer pulp, a paste-like substance that is created from used wood-based products. However, other sources for recycled toilet rolls include discarded wood-based shipping materials; roll ends from magazine and newspaper print; and leftover wood pulp from the lumber industry. Any of these can be a good way to use up material that might otherwise go to waste, but that last option in particular can be problematic; if your recycled toilet rolls are made from wood pulp that originated in old-growth forests, you may unwittingly be causing more harm than good.
Another complicating factor in this debate is the fact that recycled tissue carries with it all of the residues and chemicals to which the products it came from were exposed when they were manufactured and used the first time around. It may contain trace amounts of substances you’d rather not come in contact with, although it is very difficult to say just how much of a given chemical is present in a specific recycled product given the wide variation in the source materials and the impossibility of keeping track of where it all came from.
Shop Smart and Use Wisely
When it comes down to it, the best way to be kind to the environment when purchasing toilet paper may be to make the most economical use of this product as you can. Buying bulk tissue can significantly lessen manufacturing and packaging waste, as well as reducing your contribution to fuel usage and carbon dioxide emissions during shipping. Larger rolls minimize the use of wood pulp by providing more product per cardboard tube, while bigger orders streamline the consumption of product packaging and shipping boxes.
Whether you ultimately prefer recycled tissue or premium virgin varieties, buy bulk toilet paper to reduce your impact on both the environment, and your wallet.