Not as green as it looks

Not as green as it looks

I’ve just finished writing an article for Red: the Green Magazine about a rather personal issue. Friends and relatives scoffed and chuckled when they heard that I was researching the environmental implications of toilet paper, but by the time I was finished I saw my father-in-law carrying a 9-roll pack of greener loo-paper home from the store. My wife has also switched to the environmentally friendly option.

So which paper is best? Good ol’ cheap 1-ply. Any brand will do because they are virtually all made from recycled paper, but if you want the added benefit of knowing that your roll hasn’t been rolling down the highway accumulating a carbon footprint, Twinsaver is made in Cape Town, Durban and Gauteng, so you are virtually assured of a local roll if you buy it in one of those areas. Carlton is only made in Gauteng. Otherwise, look for a local manufacturer.

I’ve heard all the arguments against 1-ply. People say it actually costs more because you have to use twice as much. This is wrong on three counts. For starters single ply is more than half as thick as double ply, 5/8s as thick to be precise. And there are 500 sheets on a 1-ply roll—or should be—and only 350 sheets on a 2-ply roll. Finally, research suggests that people use about the same number of sheets regardless of the thickness.

The other argument against 1-ply is that it is rougher. I cannot deny that it is not quite as soft. So keep one roll of extravagant, environmentally noxious, virgin 2-ply on hand for those moments when some unmentionable condition makes you tender down there. And let us know if you find a 1-ply that you think is softer than most.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on any high-priced bog roll purporting to be “green.” If you want to know why, you can read the full article from Red below:

How many trees have you flushed down the toilet in your lifetime? The South African paper industry is equipped to manufacture 4.7 kilograms of tissue a year for every man, woman and child in the country. So it is a reasonable estimate that consumers of tissue made from virgin wood will consume about a tree every decade.

Fortunately, South Africans have a large and growing range of options to reduce their loo-print, ranging from toilet paper made from sugar-cane fibre to 100-percent-recycled, 2-ply rolls. With choice comes confusion, however, and paying extra for green marketing may not help the environment. Often the cheapest rolls are also the greenest. When buying toilet tissue, saving the environment and saving money can go hand in hand.

For decades, most South Africans have been using 100 percent recycled toilet paper—without paying an extra cent. These shoppers did not even know they were making the environmentally friendly choice, though they might have noticed a few speckles in the paper that suggested its former existence as office paper. Three-quarters of the toilet rolls sold in South Africa are single-ply rolls that are usually tree-free, something shoppers would never know from reading the labels. The more expensive, two-ply toilet tissue is mostly made from virgin wood pulp.

The problem with virgin toilet paper is not the lost trees—they generally come from forest plantations where each harvested tree is replaced by a seedling. But toilet paper from wood pulp unleashes a host of other assaults against the environment for a product that gets used for only a few seconds. Tree farms take up land that could otherwise be home to diverse natural forests. The conventional pulping and papermaking process uses twice as much water and far more energy than recycled toilet paper. And logs, pulp and tissue are regularly shipped all the way across South Africa, adding to virgin paper’s expansive carbon footprint. Recycled toilet paper, by contrast, is often sourced, manufactured and sold all in the same city.

In the past year, Woolworths has decided to turn these secret virtues of single-ply tissue into a marketing advantage. The packaging on their rolls now proudly proclaims that their toilet paper is “made from 100% recycled material” and is “as kind to the environment as it is to your skin.”

Another product to begin addressing environmental concerns about toilet paper is Essential Green, from Esspack. Sold in Cape Town pharmacies and at “green” stores such as Enchantrix in the Cape and Wellness Warehouse in Gauteng, Essential Green is made of 60 percent sugar-cane bagasse fibres.

Bagasse sounds like the perfect raw material for toilet paper. Sugar cane grows fast, the bagasse fibre is a waste byproduct of milling, and compared to wood it requires less energy to process. In addition, the paper mill that makes bagasse-based tissue, Sappi Stanger, uses one of the better bleaching processes: chlorine dioxide with hydrogen peroxide. These are the features that give Essential Green’s distributor, Esspack, the confidence to say: “Now you can have luxury, and care for the environment.”

But compared with 100 percent recycled tissue, sugar-cane toilet tissue does not seem quite so sweet. To add softness that bagasse lacks, Sappi adds 40 percent virgin wood pulp. Recycled tissue uses even less water and energy. And though bagasse may be a byproduct, Sappi is not rescuing it from landfills. Sugar mills normally burn the cane residue to produce the heat, steam and electricity they need. In fact, sugar-cane biomass is one of the few sources of renewable electricity in South Africa. The main sugar mill that supplies Sappi with bagasse actually has to burn more coal to compensate for the lost fibre.

Since the bagasse paper is produced by only one mill, it also travels farther. A 9-roll pack of Essential Green sold in Gauteng first had to be milled in KwaZulu-Natal and then cut and rolled in the Western Cape. Environmentally conscious shoppers are beginning to wise up to the importance of buying locally-farmed produce. Do they want to buy toilet paper that has traveled 2000 kilometres? (If you want to buy closest to home, check the label for a manufacturer in your province, or buy Twinsaver single ply which is made in three locations near major markets.)

Bleaching is another serious issue where recycled paper holds the green edge. For decades, paper mills turned brown wood into white paper and tissue by using pure chlorine, which results in carcinogenic dioxin, the pollutant that led to a ban on fishing and swimming in the Mvoti River downstream of a Sappi mill. Today almost all South African mills have switched to bleaching with chlorine dioxide, which eliminates most—but not all—dioxin pollution.

Consumers who want totally chlorine-free toilet paper have a few options. Much recycled one-ply paper, especially the cheaper, greyer grades, are unbleached. Nampak brightens its single-ply Twinsaver tissue by de-inking the recycled fibres with air bubbles and then brightening them with a totally chlorine-free process. Must Paper Industries of Nelspruit supplies a light-brown, unbleached virgin Enviro Toilet Paper. (Marketed in Cape Town by Brown toilet paper has not taken South Africa by storm, however. As the owner of Must Industries, Michiel Jansen, says, “the funny thing with toilet paper is that the whiter it is, the more acceptable it is to the market. It doesn’t matter what’s in it or how you get it white.”

Finally, imported Seventh Generation 2-ply recycled toilet paper has arrived on the shelves of Wellness Warehouse and other specialty stores. It costs a little more, and after traveling 15 000 kilometres from Canada, must have the worst carbon footprint of any toilet paper sold in South Africa. But it does at least prove that if South African tissue manufacturers saw a market for a reasonably soft, green, two-ply recycled toilet paper, they could make it. Gert Nell, corporate purchasing manager for Kimberly Clark makes the same point. Says Nell, “If consumers demand it, we will make it.”