Huge environmental impact of toilet paper consumption

The manufacturing process demands approximately 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually in US

By Web Desk
December 04, 2023
Huge environmental toll of toilet paper and possible sustainable replacements.—interestingengineering

In a world where toilet paper is synonymous with convenience, the hidden environmental costs of its production and consumption are now coming to light.

As an essential part of daily life, toilet paper's ubiquitous presence contributes to significant environmental challenges, from deforestation to air pollution. Exploring its journey from history to manufacturing and its environmental impact opens a gateway to understanding the need for sustainable alternatives.

To grasp the magnitude of toilet paper consumption, consider the staggering global figure of 42 million tons per year. If these rolls were laid end to end, they would circumnavigate the Earth nearly 50,000 times.

The United States, with one of the highest per capita consumption rates, surpasses China when considering individual usage.

However, beyond the sheer quantity, the environmental toll and potential health concerns associated with toilet paper raise crucial questions.

Deforestation dilemma

Toilet paper's reliance on virgin wood pulp contributes to up to 40% of global deforestation, with an estimated 31.11 million trees sacrificed annually for the US alone.

The environmental impact extends beyond habitat loss, disrupting ecosystems and intensifying the greenhouse effect. The toilet paper industry's substantial energy consumption, water usage, and chlorine-intensive bleaching processes further compound its ecological footprint.

From Chinese courts to commercialisation

Tracing toilet paper's evolution reveals its ancient Chinese origins, developed by court official Cai Lun in the 2nd century CE. In the US, Joseph C Gayetty introduced commercial toilet paper in 1857, marketed as an anti-hemorrhoid product. The familiar roll format we use today can be attributed to Seth Wheeler's patent in 1891, marking the onset of mass production in the 20th century.

Unveiling the pulp reality

Modern toilet paper primarily relies on virgin wood pulp, extracted from freshly harvested trees. The intricate manufacturing process involves debarking, chipping, pulping, cleaning, refining, and bleaching to achieve the desired texture and color. The environmental toll includes the daily felling of 270,000 trees, contributing to deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Air pollution, energy consumption, and chlorine usage

The toilet paper industry's environmental impact extends to air pollution, with hazardous chemical releases and high carbon emissions. The manufacturing process demands approximately 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually in the US, accompanied by a staggering water usage of 473,587,500,000 gallons. The reliance on 253,000 tons of chlorine for bleaching introduces toxic chemicals into the environment, posing risks to both animals and humans.

Navigating towards a greener future

Recognising the urgency of mitigating toilet paper's environmental impact, sustainable alternatives emerge as viable solutions. Strategies include reducing toilet paper usage, promoting bidet adoption, and embracing eco-friendly alternatives like bamboo and recycled toilet paper.

Bamboo toilet paper: A fast-growing solution

Bamboo toilet paper leverages one of the world's fastest-growing plants, offering a renewable and regenerative resource. With minimal land and water requirements, bamboo stands out for its resilience and biodegradability. Despite its environmental benefits, proper sourcing is crucial to avoid unintended environmental consequences.

Recycled toilet paper

Recycled toilet paper presents another sustainable choice, utilising post-consumer recycled content. Its production requires less energy, water, and bleaching compared to virgin pulp manufacturing. Embracing brands with high percentages of post-consumer recycled material and chlorine-free bleaching methods amplifies its environmental benefits.