Toilet paper is an essential household product used by millions of people every day. But have you ever wondered exactly where toilet paper comes from and how it's made?
In this in-depth article, we'll uncover the origins of toilet paper production, the shocking environmental impact it has, and eco-friendly alternatives like bamboo toilet paper.
A Brief History of Modern Toilet Paper
Before we explore where most TP is made today, let's look at a quick history:
500 AD - Paper was first mass-produced in China and a few centuries later, the first evidence of toilet paper cropped up in the form of paper sheets for emperors.
1391 - The Bureau of Imperial Supplies in China began producing 720,000 sheets of toilet paper annually for the imperial family.
16th Century - Toilet paper slowly spread across the world, showing up first in Europe before making its way to America. It remained a luxury item for the wealthy.
1800s - Toilet paper was commonly sold as individual sheets from catalogs and dry goods retailers. Joseph Gayetty marketed the first rolled and perforated TP in 1857.
1890 - Major toilet paper manufacturers emerged, mass producing rolled and perforated TP. Brands like Scott Paper and Charmin got their start during this time.
1930s - Splinter-free toilet paper was introduced, which helped TP gain widespread household adoption.
Today, toilet paper is ubiquitous in modern bathrooms and produced on a massive scale. But where does all this toilet paper come from?
The Current State of Toilet Paper Production
As it stands now, the majority of toilet paper sold and used in the United States and globally originates from two main sources:
1. Virgin Tree Pulp
The conventional toilet paper industry still heavily relies on the harvesting of virgin tree pulp to make paper products. Most large brands source their raw paper materials this way.
Trees like eucalyptus, spruce and other softwoods are specially farmed and cut down to make virgin pulp for TP manufacturing.
This pulp goes through an extensive chemical bleaching process to remove color and purify the fibers. The environmental impacts of this are immense, contributing to deforestation, habitat destruction and pollution.
2. Recycled Paper Fiber
The second major source of toilet paper raw material is recycled paper waste and scraps from other paper products. This includes waste office paper, newspaper, cardboard boxes and more.
While recycled fibers are an improvement over tree pulp harvesting, the toilet paper derived from it is lower in quality. As we explain more in our article "Why Recycled Toilet Paper Falls Short", recycled fibers get shorter and weaker with each reuse, resulting in thin, rough toilet paper.
Most toilet paper brands use a blend of virgin tree pulp and recycled materials to balance quality, cost and sustainability factors. However, tree pulp still makes up a significant portion.
This brings us to the unfortunate reality of the TP industry today:
Every Day, 27,000 Trees Are Flushed Down the Toilet
The amount of virgin trees cut down to meet global toilet paper demand is staggering.
- Over 27,000 trees are cut down to make toilet paper
- 20% of the world's forests are cleared for TP manufacturing
- 473,587 tons of TP are produced globally
This level of continuous deforestation is enormously destructive and unsustainable. Making toilet paper requires nearly double the amount of wood compared to paper like notebooks or newspapers. This is because the fibers need to be exceptionally soft, requiring more intensive processing.
The Canadian Boreal Forest alone supplies over 10% of the world's toilet paper material. These ancient forests are clear cut at alarming rates, threatening wildlife ecosystems and accelerating climate change.
But consumers have alternatives...
Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper Offers a Sustainable Solution
The good news is the high demand for toilet paper enables suppliers of eco-friendly alternatives like bamboo toilet paper to enter the market.
Bamboo toilet paper is growing as a renewable, sustainable option that reduces deforestation for virgin tree pulp. Here are some benefits:
Bamboo Grows Very Quickly Without Replanting
- Bamboo can grow over 3 feet per day, ready for harvest in 3-5 years.
- Trees take decades to fully mature before they can be harvested.
- Bamboo regrows vigorously after each harvest without replanting.
Bamboo Has Natural Softness and Absorbency
- Bamboo fibers contain natural oils that make them soft without chemical treatment.
- Bamboo TP is also naturally more absorbent than wood-based paper.
- This means no harsh chemicals are needed to process it.
Bamboo Can Be Produced With Less Bleaching
- Bamboo has lower lignin content than wood pulp, requiring less intensive bleaching.
- Optical brighteners can enhance bamboo's whiteness instead of chlorine bleaching.
- This makes bamboo TP processing more environmentally friendly.
Bamboo is Biodegradable and Recyclable
- Bamboo TP decomposes readily after use with lower environmental impact.
- The fibers can also be recycled and reused in new bamboo paper products.
Bamboo is a Very Renewable Resource
- Bamboo can regrow after harvesting faster than any tree species.
- Planting bamboo also helps reduce erosion and soil degradation.
- This makes bamboo an ideal crop for sustainable forestry.
With the advantages of bamboo toilet paper, eco-conscious consumers now have an alternative that reduces pressure on forests while providing quality at competitive prices.
Major Toilet Paper Brands Are Slow to Adopt Sustainable Practices
However, most top TP brands have been very slow to adopt more sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. The costs of retooling facilities and supply chains is often cited as the reason.
But in reality, these companies are reluctant to disrupt the status quo of tree-based paper as it's cheaper for them in the short term. Many brands use just enough recycled content or alternative fibers to tout sustainability benefits in their marketing while continuing to source significant pulp from forests.
True change happens when consumers lead it by choosing products made using environmentally responsible materials and methods. This drives the TP market away from destructive tree harvesting and towards renewable solutions like bamboo.
Outlook for the Future of Sustainable Toilet Paper
The good news is the market and demand for eco-friendly toilet paper is growing each year. Based on current adoption rates, here's what we could see in the coming years:
- 2025 - Sales of eco-friendly TP grow to represent 15% of the overall market. Bamboo and other alternative fiber TP goes mainstream in stores.
- 2030 - 25% of TP sold uses alternative fiber sources. Deforestation for virgin pulp drops by 20%.
- 2040 -Over 50% of TP utilizes recycled paper or sustainable materials like bamboo. Forest conservation efforts expand.
- 2050 - Deforestation for toilet paper drops by over 80%. The majority of TP sold and used is recycled or bamboo-based. Forests rebound.
The movement towards sustainable toilet paper illustrates the profound impact conscious consumer choices can have. While early adopters pay a small premium for green products, increasing demand eventually brings down costs and makes them accessible to all.
This consumer-led revolution motivates brands and manufacturers to innovate production methods to meet the expectations of an eco-aware society. The ripple effects help conserve limited resources and enable regrowth.
With a little extra care when shopping, we all have the power to change unsustainable and wasteful industries for the betterment of our planet. Our daily choices truly do make a difference.
About the Author
This article was produced by the team at Recircle Bamboo - makers of eco-friendly bamboo toilet paper. We're on a mission to revolutionize the TP industry by proving that luxury softness and sustainability can go hand in hand. Learn more about our tree-free toilet paper at: RecircleBamboo.com