Best Way to Stock Up While Being a Good StewardKatie had been planning for years to research this topic, framing it as Costco vs. Amazon: Should you drive to the big-box store and put the big pack of toilet paper in your car, or should you stay home and get that big pack of toilet paper delivered by a truck? Which way results in more fuel use, more packaging, more air pollution? When I saw this topic idea, I was surprised that Katie wasn’t thinking about the environmental impact of the toilet paper itself! She had approached the question as if all brands of toilet paper are the same, but they aren’t. Some toilet papers are made from the wood of old-growth forests, while others are made from recycled paper or tree-free pulp. Some are bleached bright white by a method that pollutes our water supply, while others are bleached in a safer way or not bleached at all. I’ve literally never bought toilet paper from Costco or Amazon. I’ve been buying only recycled-paper, chlorine-free toilet paper for 22 years, and my local Costco didn’t carry any recycled brands . . . last time I checked. I don’t buy anything from Amazon at all. In a world with so many options, I prefer to support smaller businesses.So, I agreed to compare Costco and Amazon to the places where I have been buying toilet paper and learn whether I really have been getting the best deal on the greenest toilet paper, or not!If you’re too busy to read about all the details, scroll down to “The Winners!!” to learn what’s cheapest among the greener options, and where to get the best deals on the greenest options. If you want to keep buying your toilet paper from the same store, but you’d consider switching brands, check out this printable from the Natural Resources Defense Council or this one from Greenpeace to learn which brands are greenest.
Buying in Person vs. Mail Order: Which Is Greener?The short answer is: Usually delivery from a warehouse to your home by a truck making multiple deliveries has a smaller carbon footprint than driving your car to a store to get a product that was delivered to the store from a warehouse by a truck, but it depends on a lot of factors. This academic paper gives a lot of detail in a very readable format. Briefly, here are some things to consider:
Are you going to that store anyway?If you add toilet paper to the things you’re bringing home in a shopping trip, you’re not using additional fuel to transport it–even a giant box weighs very little.
Are you ordering from that delivery service anyway?Adding toilet paper increases the space your order takes up in the truck and slightly increases the weight of the package, but the carbon footprint of its travel will be less than if you’d ordered toilet paper all by itself. Buying a full case of toilet paper is different from buying a smaller package: The case will be shipped by itself, adding a whole separate box to your order. The only reduction in waste from buying other items at the same time is that the truck may be able to drop off both packages on the same trip to your house.
How far away is the store from your home?The farther you drive, the bigger the carbon footprint. Could you walk, ride a bike, or take public transit to the store? Would buying a bulky case of toilet paper mean you’d have to take the car when you could have brought home other purchases in a greener way?
When you order for delivery, how far is your order traveling?Look at the “contact us” page of an online store to find out where it’s physically located. If it’s a small business, it’s probably shipping from that location. Big businesses like Amazon or national chains that also have physical stores (Walmart, Target, etc.) have many warehouses and could be shipping your order from any of them. Although minimizing shipping distance helps to keep their costs low by minimizing fuel use, other factors may make it simpler for them to ship your order from a warehouse that’s not the one closest to you, or even from multiple warehouses. That makes it difficult to guess how far your order may have traveled.
Do you live near other people who shop online?The carbon footprint of your delivery is smaller if the same truck is making other deliveries nearby.
Are you getting next-day or two-day shipping?That tends to have a larger carbon footprint because the delivery service can plan trips more efficiently when they can group together more orders from the same area–they only drive to your town on Thursdays, unless your order is promised to arrive by Tuesday.
How much toilet paper are you buying at one time?The more you buy, the lower the carbon footprint for each roll’s travel. This is true whether it means fewer trips to the store or fewer deliveries to your home.
How much packaging is involved?Kitchen Stewardship® researcher Sonia spoke with Costco last year to learn about any packaging involved in transporting products to the sales floor. She learned that the toilet-paper packages arrive on pallets, with plastic wrapped around the whole pallet load. They take off the plastic wrap and make it into big bales that are recycled. That’s a pretty standard practice for any store that sells big packages. But when you buy a small package of toilet paper, it usually came to the store or the delivery service’s warehouse in a cardboard box containing a number of the small packages, and a number of those boxes were on a pallet wrapped in plastic.You don’t see the cardboard box, but you have a share in its carbon footprint. Most stores do recycle their cardboard boxes and big sheets of plastic wrap, but recycling uses energy, too. Of course, if there’s extra space around your small package of toilet paper when your order is being packed, that space might be filled with bubble wrap or packing peanuts! At a store, your small package of toilet paper may be placed in its own plastic shopping bag!It’s hard to predict how much excess packaging you’ll get until you see how a store packs its orders. (Bring your own bag to the store!) Buying a full case is the best way to minimize packaging waste because you’re getting the product just the way it was shipped to the warehouse, except for plastic that may have been used to hold it on a pallet.Buying from Amazon is very complex because some of the products on their site actually come from other retailers, with Amazon arranging the sale for them. (Look under the price for the words “sold and shipped by Amazon” or other retailer info.) Sometimes the product gets shipped to you directly from the other retailer. Other times, the product was packed by the original retailer, shipped to an Amazon warehouse, unpacked, and then repacked for sale to you. Not very efficient!The larger an online retailer is, the more likely it is that your order will come in multiple packages from different warehouses. That can foil your attempts to be green by ordering all your stuff at once! So, those are some of the considerations when choosing how to buy your toilet paper. Now let’s look at what kind of toilet paper to buy.
Why Choose Recycled Paper?“Recycled toilet paper” sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? Who would want to use toilet paper that someone else already used and tossed into a recycling bin?! But that’s not how it works at all! Toilet paper can be made from newly harvested wood pulp or from paper that was previously used for something other than toilet paper: junk mail, office memos, school worksheets, newspapers, phone books, cardboard boxes, even the cardboard tubes from used-up rolls of toilet paper.“Post-consumer” recycled paper comes from finished products that were used and then placed in recycling bins. “Pre-consumer” recycled paper comes from scraps of paper or semi-processed wood pulp left over from the processes of making paper and cutting it to the desired size. Most factories recycle their scraps for efficiency. Choosing post-consumer recycled paper helps to support the recycling industry so that our used paper has someplace to go.Recycling paper saves energy and water, compared to making new paper out of wood. Recycling also slows the destruction of forests, preserving habitat for animals, controlling erosion, and keeping trees and understory plants in service absorbing our carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen for us to breathe.Paper that’s been written or printed on can be recycled. Paper that’s been pooped on is ruined. So it seems logical to me that we should save new paper for our most important documents and wipe our poop on stuff that’s already been as useful as possible.
Is Recycled Paper Contaminated with BPA?Some paper used in thermal printers–like cash register receipts and airline boarding passes–is coated with bisphenol A (BPA) as a “developer” for the printing. When people recycle this type of paper, the BPA goes into the recycling stream and may end up in the finished product. BPA is an endocrine disruptor linked to fertility problems, birth defects, impotence, diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. Of course, we don’t want BPA in our toilet paper! But there are three facts that imply recycled toilet paper isn’t a big risk for BPA exposure:
- The amount of BPA in a recycled paper product is about 1/1000th the amount in thermal paper.
- Research indicates that only about 2% of our exposure to BPA comes from thermal paper. The other 98% is from food packaging.
- All of the BPA in thermal paper is on the surface and is easily rubbed off. The BPA that remains embedded in recycled paper, after all the washing involved in the recycling process, may not be easily transferred to our skin.
Should I Buy Bamboo Toilet Paper?More “tree-free” toilet papers have come onto the market recently. All the ones I’ve seen are made from a blend of bamboo and sugarcane. (Many of them are 90% this blend and 10% recycled paper–but no virgin wood pulp.) They’re usually more expensive than recycled-paper products.Bamboo grows rapidly and easily, without pesticides or irrigation. Once it’s established, it’s like a weed, growing back from the roots no matter how often you cut it. It’s ready to harvest much faster than trees. But although bamboo can be grown in parts of the United States, it isn’t grown here on any large scale. Most of the world’s bamboo is in China and other Southeast Asian countries. Bamboo is the major food source for pandas, but they live only in remote forests. Bamboo for paper can be grown in small groves along the edges of farms, so cutting it doesn’t starve the pandas!Sugarcane stalks can be made into paper after the juice is squeezed out to make sugar, so sugarcane paper is made from something that would otherwise be trash. Unfortunately, unlike bamboo, sugarcane cultivation uses lots of water and chemicals, and it’s often farmed in ways that destroy forests and animal habitats while allowing polluted topsoil to erode and silt up the waterways. That’s not so eco-friendly…. The big question in my mind about the eco-friendliness of bamboo toilet paper is how far it’s traveled before you buy it: All the bamboo products I’ve seen are made from bamboo grown in China, so either the raw material or the finished toilet paper had to be shipped halfway around the world. On the other hand, I know that a lot of waste from the United States was being shipped to China for recycling before a recent policy change, so recycled-paper toilet paper might have been made in China, too…. My questions about bamboo vs. recycled paper were answered well enough to satisfy me by Beth Terry’s interview with a manufacturer of both types of toilet paper. He says:
If you’re looking for the best environmental option, we recommend our 100% recycled toilet paper. The bamboo option is also a much better choice than conventional tree-full toilet paper found in supermarkets, but the overall carbon footprint is lowest with our recycled products.Hemp shows great promise as a source of tree-free paper, but it’ll be a while before hemp toilet paper becomes widely available and affordable.
Could You Be Using Less Toilet Paper?Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, right? When we think about reducing our environmental impact, before we choose a solution that involves buying recycled material or recycling things we’ve used, we should consider whether we could use less of the product, reuse it, or replace it with something we can reuse. An easy way to reduce is to take your toilet paper one square at a time, instead of by the handful. If you have kids who tend to unroll too much paper, try leaning on the roll to bend the core into an oval before you put it on the rack–that keeps it from spinning easily, so it’s easier to tear it without it rolling off more paper. Another option is to replace some of your toilet paper with a cloth that you wash and reuse. Are you grossed out by the idea of reusing anything that touched poop? Then try using cloths just for pee–that will cut a typical female’s toilet paper use by approximately 50%. Get the details here!
Katie here! I LOVE LOVE LOVE when readers share great ideas with me. Several of you asked why we didn’t consider mentioning bidets. Honestly, neither Becca nor myself had experience with them and we like to keep it real here and review what we know. But it is a great option to lessoning waste and many of you have mentioned affordable ones you love and found online. Feel free to share in the comments your experience with bidets.
What Makes Toilet Paper White?In the 1990s, I began switching over to paper products that were unbleached or bleached with hydrogen peroxide, to reduce my exposure to dioxins, another endocrine disruptor linked to immune system disruption, cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems. Dioxins linger in our bodies for generations. Bleaching paper with chlorine gas creates dioxins in the finished product but also in the factory wastewater, and dioxins in the environment contaminate our drinking water and food. Dioxins build up in the food chain, so meats, dairy, and fish are higher in dioxins than other foods. Dioxins also are among the endocrine disruptors that cause reproductive damage to animals that can endanger their species.This is one situation in which consumer pressure has affected corporate decisions about how to make stuff! After a decade or so of arguing that dioxins in paper, cotton, and rayon were harmless, most companies started switching over to elemental chlorine free (ECF) bleaching processes. That’s better, but it’s not the best. Here are some terms you’ll see on paper products and what they mean:
- ECF = Elemental Chlorine Free. Paper is bleached with chlorine dioxide instead of chlorine gas. That creates less dioxin, but there’s still some.
- TCF = Totally Chlorine Free. Paper is bleached with peroxide, oxygen, or ozone. No dioxins!
- PCF = Processed Chlorine Free. This is recycled paper with no chlorine compounds used at any step of the process. This is better for the environment because recycling is so much more resource-efficient than making new paper. No new dioxins are created. (It’s possible that there could be a tiny amount of dioxins from the original processing of the paper that went into the recycling bin.)
- Unbleached = It doesn’t look as white as bleached paper. No new dioxins were created. It may or may not contain recycled paper.
Paper or Plastic: Which Packaging Is Better?There are two main types of toilet paper packaging: a thin plastic wrap holding several rolls together in a block, or a thin sheet of paper around each roll. I couldn’t find any analysis of the environmental impacts of these specific packages, so here’s my reasoning: Good things about individual paper wrap:
- Each roll stays dust-free while stored on a shelf, in the basement, under the bed, or wherever you keep them.
- You can arrange the rolls to fit efficiently in your storage space, whatever size it is.
- Most brands make the wrapper out of recycled paper.
- This thin paper breaks down very quickly in your backyard compost bin–disappears in three months or less.
- If you don’t have a compost bin, the paper is recyclable.
- If a paper wrapper gets away from you and ends up in nature, it will biodegrade quickly and harmlessly.
- It doesn’t protect the toilet paper from moisture. This hasn’t been a problem for us, but if you store a whole case of toilet paper near a shower or other humid place, it could get stuck-together or even mildewed.
- It’s more total packaging than the plastic…but not a lot more; it’s really very thin paper.
- It keeps the toilet paper dry–great if you’re storing it in humid conditions or bringing it home on a rainy day.
- It lets you lift as many as 24 rolls together as a single object–convenient if you need to move your spare toilet paper from place to place.
- The plastic is low-density polyethylene, recyclable in plastic film recycling bins at Target stores and most supermarkets. (Do not put plastic wrap or plastic bags into single-stream recycling!)
- Once you’ve opened the package to take out one roll, it doesn’t work so well: Moisture and dust can get in. You have to be careful picking up the package or it will dump out some of the rolls. Sometimes it just rips and becomes useless.
- Plastic is a non-renewable resource. We can grow more trees, but we can’t grow more petroleum.
- Plastic wrap can’t be recycled into more plastic wrap; it can only be downcycled into different products like fiberfill stuffing and composite lumber.
- If a plastic wrapper gets away from you and ends up in nature, it’s likely to kill a sea creature.
- Plastic eventually does break down when left out in the weather, but it’s not returning to nature–it’s just breaking up into tiny pieces of plastic that contaminate our drinking water, fish, and even sea salt.
Which Store Sells the BEST Toilet Paper–At What Price?For each store, I’m including the most eco-friendly toilet paper they sell and their least expensive toilet paper with any recycled content. The most interesting thing I learned in collecting this information is that the use of recycled paper appears to have become an all-or-nothing game: All the brands that make any mention of recycled paper are using 100% recycled paper, although the proportion of post-consumer paper varies. I focused on two-ply toilet paper because in our household we found that if we bought one-ply we just used twice as much of it! That ends up making it more expensive (one-ply is typically cheaper than but more than half the price of two-ply) and gives us the annoyance of changing the roll twice as often. The price per roll is not a fair comparison because some rolls are bigger than others. I calculated the price per sheet, not the price per square inch, because I tear my toilet paper on the dotted lines–so I’ll use the same number of sheets even if the sheets are bigger. Where the same product comes in multiple sizes, I’m telling you about one that’s the best value for your money.The first thing I’m telling you about each store is whether I researched mail-order or physical store purchasing. If it’s a store, I’m telling you which location I visited. If it’s mail-ordered, I’m telling you what I can about the shipping distance. Prices were collected in June 2018.
CostcoStore in Homestead, Pennsylvania. You must pay a $60 annual membership fee to shop at Costco. I’m disappointed to report that, at this location, Costco still doesn’t sell any toilet paper that contains recycled paper or is processed chlorine-free! At least, none of the 3 brands of 2-ply in stock had any mention of recycled content or bleaching on the packaging, and the only clear information I found online is that Scott toilet paper has zero recycled content and is ECF. I’m not buying any of these!I found a different version of Marathon (big rolls for public restrooms) that is PCF, but I couldn’t confirm if Marathon’s home-sized rolls also are PCF. I got really confused searching: The package says Marathon toilet paper is made by Georgia-Pacific, but Georgia-Pacific’s website doesn’t mention Marathon as one of their toilet paper brands! (Their page about paper recycling says Soft’n’Gentle toilet paper has recycled content.) So, all I can tell you about Costco is which toilet paper has the lowest price: Marathon is 48 rolls of 470 sheets for $27.99 = 0.124c per sheet. Rolls are individually wrapped in paper, inside an outer plastic wrap. Costco may carry greener toilet paper in other locations.
AmazonMail order. Amazon has many distribution centers, and shipping distance is not their only consideration in deciding where your order will be filled, so it’s hard to estimate the shipping distance. To cut down on the shipping waste, you can look into the Prime Pantry option. This gives you the chance to shop for smaller grocery and household items, including toilet paper, and have them all shipped together. They tell you how full your box is so you can maximize your shipment instead of having it all shipped individually. Amazon carries a wide selection. I looked only at products with some recycled content. These are the best options I found (the prices do vary from day to day):Greenest: Two brands are 100% recycled paper, 80% post-consumer:
- Natural Value is PCF, individual paper wrap. You get 48 rolls of 500 sheets for $60.21 = 0.251c per sheet.
- Seventh Generation Unbleached is unbleached, 12 rolls in plastic wrap. You get 48 rolls of 400 sheets for $50.38 = 0.262c per sheet.
Gordon Food ServiceStore in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. No membership required. Learn all about shopping at GFS! GFS sells one brand of toilet paper. It’s 100% recycled paper in 400-sheet rolls, but I was unable to find information on post-consumer content or bleaching. The only choices are in the amount of packaging and the cost per sheet.Greenest: Array, 48 rolls individually wrapped in paper, in a cardboard box, for $26.49 = 0.138c per sheet.Lowest price: Array, 24 rolls individually wrapped in paper, with an outer plastic wrapper around all of them, for $12.99 = 0.135c per sheet. You’ll pay the same amount per 24-pack if you buy the case of 96 rolls, which contains four 24-packs…so the only reason to buy a case is to enjoy a longer time before you have to buy toilet paper! The prices are so similar, I’d opt for the plastic-free, compostable packaging of the 48-roll box.
East End Food Co-opStore in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s not a chain, but there may be a co-op near you! East End’s policy is that non-members can shop there, but only members can order items by the case at a 20% discount off the retail price. Membership is a one-time, refundable $100 fee. Learn all about shopping at the co-op! Not wanting to bother Customer Service to gather all the details of how many of which size package are in a case, I calculated prices based on the shelf prices and then subtracting 20%. The co-op carries two brands of toilet paper, each of which is available in an individual paper wrap, 4 rolls in plastic, or 12 rolls in plastic. The best price for each brand is in the 12-roll pack. (To actually get the price per sheet cited below, you’d have to buy a case–probably 4 or 8 of the 12-packs.)Greenest: Seventh Generation Unbleached is 100% recycled paper, 80% post-consumer, unbleached, 12 rolls in a plastic wrap. You get 12 rolls of 400 sheets for $9.99 = 0.208c per sheet. (Note that the paper-wrapped individual rolls of Seventh Generation sold at the co-op are a different variety: 50% post-consumer, PCF.)Lowest price: Field Day is 12 rolls of 300 sheets for $6.99 = 0.194c per sheet. It’s 100% recycled paper, 80% post-consumer, PCF, 12 rolls in a plastic wrap. The decision here comes down to whether you want to save a little money and have white toilet paper, or you’d rather have beige on a bigger roll that you won’t have to change as often.
TargetMail order. Of course, Target has physical stores all over the United States, and you may find recycled paper on the shelves in stores, but the online selection is larger. Another option for many items is to order online and pick it up at your local store–which is convenient if you routinely shop at Target anyway and/or you don’t have a porch for the mail carrier to stash your toilet paper while you’re at work! Like Amazon, Target has many distribution centers, so it’s hard to estimate the shipping distance. At Target, the greenest toilet paper has the lowest price of any brand with recycled content: Seventh Generation is 24 rolls of 240 sheets for $13.79 = 0.239c per sheet. It’s 100% recycled paper, 50% post-consumer, PCF, 24 rolls in a plastic wrap.
What About Quality?I didn’t actually buy all these toilet papers to review them! The softness, strength, texture, dotted-line reliability, ease of unrolling, and whatever else you might consider important in a toilet paper are another whole article’s worth of research. Also, what I like in a toilet paper might not be the same as what you prefer. The huge popularity of Charmin, for example, has always puzzled me, because it’s so fuzzy that it leaves lint on you, and I hate that! Apparently many people don’t.
The Winners!!Overall, the most eco-friendly toilet paper is one of these three, depending on how you look at it:
- Green Forest has the highest post-consumer recycled content, 90%. (0.284c/sheet at Grove)
- Seventh Generation Unbleached is 80% post-consumer and does not use any bleaching process. (0.208c/sheet at East End Food Co-op or 0.262c/sheet at Amazon. Woohoo, buy locally and save!)
- Cascades Moka does not use any bleaching process, is made with wind energy, is wrapped in paper not plastic, and is 60% post-consumer. (0.175c/sheet at Greenline)
Where do you buy toilet paper? How do you balance environmental concerns with price?Photography by Becca’s son, Nicholas Efran, age 13.