Is Toilet Paper Biodegradable?

In this brief write up we will talk about the topic “is toilet paper biodegradable”?. We will be discussing the making of toilet paper, its potential uses – I bet you know it! And know more about its biodegradability aspect and how it contributes to a healthy environment.

Is toilet paper biodegradable?

Yes, the normal toilet paper is completely biodegradable as it is made from the naturally occurring wood and its pulp. However, the process is slow, and accumulation of these papers may affect the septic system of your home. Moreover, the toilet papers are made of wood fibers which may take up to 3 years to degrade. 

Use of toilet paper is unavoidable as a large number of the population is dependent on it for their daily activity. But now we have a more sustainable solution – a biodegradable toilet paper. Though it is expensive, it is the best eco-friendly toilet paper that serves its purpose without harming the environment. 

The making of toilet papers

There was a time when people used different materials to clean themselves. The list includes many wondrous things such as leaves, grasses, water, stones, and even seashells. Well, they wanted to be close to nature while still being indoors. 

However, things have changed for the better and now we are using toilet paper. The soft, cushy effect of toilet paper is made possible by the toilet paper industries that started back in the 18th century; the raw materials used then were mostly wood. 

However, the current manufacturing process includes raw materials such as hardwood, softwood, cooking chemicals, lignin, and sanitizing agents such as peroxides. 

The important raw material used for making toilet paper is the hardwood and softwood which provide the strength and softness to the toilet paper, respectively. It is important to know that the waste generated through the processing of paper such as tree barks and black liquor, a fluid obtained after cooking, are recovered and reused to power the paper mill. 

Since toilet paper is contaminated after its use, it cannot be recycled, and only empty rolls are recycled. Thus, they end up in septic systems and if the degradation process is slow, they may clog our toilet.

Toilet paper from wood pulp. Photo: iStock

Downside of the use of toilet paper 

Packaging material used for toilet papers

Since toilet paper can absorb water very well, it needs to be packed with waterproof material during its transportation and storage. The currently available waterproof packaging material is plastic and this is where one case of environmental pollution comes from. 

However, these packaging materials can be recycled but people have to be made aware of and encouraged to recycle plastic products. Even if cardboard materials are used for packing, it still adds to the consumption of already downscaling trees. 

Wastage of toilet paper rolls

Empty toilet paper rolls are not used and get dumped in trash which piles up in landfill. These rolls are again made by cutting down trees and hence with each roll there is that many empty rolls wasted. 

However, many toilet paper making companies are releasing products that come without a toilet roll creating an efficient step towards a greener environment. 

Cutting down large number of trees

One of the main drawbacks of using toilet paper is that it leads to cutting down a large number of trees thereby adding to the cause for deforestation. Nearly thousands of trees are cut down every day to meet the demand for toilet paper. This is a scary part as only a limited population uses toilet paper for their daily activity.

Destruction of virgin forest to produce toilet paper is another drawback (and a most severe one) related to the use of toilet paper. These forests are old growth forests which are present in their natural state. Remember that these trees were born during the time your great-great grandparents were born. 

The time span for a tree to grow and fully develop is huge and even if we plant more trees this will never replace the number of trees that are cut down by the toilet paper industry.

Use of chemicals during making of toilet papers

Few studies have also found that toilet papers could cause health issues from the chlorine used during the making process. These chemicals produce toxins such as dioxin and furans which remain persistent in our environment as these are not degraded by natural bacteria.

What are the best biodegradable toilet papers? 

Biodegradable toilet papers are the most environmentally friendly as they get easily degraded by environmental factors as well as microorganisms. These toilet papers degrade much faster than the normal toilet papers. However, the degradability rate depends on some factors such as thickness of tissues, water and environmental conditions. 

Thicker tissue such as the one with 2-ply has a low degradation compared to the 1-ply single sheets. In addition, degradation of thicker tissues takes up more volume of water and greater the thickness, greater the time taken for it to dissolve in septic tanks.

Some of the best eco-friendly and sustainable toilet papers available includes:

  • Green Forest
  • 365 Everyday Value
  • Earth First
  • Nature value
  • Seventh generation

These toilet papers are made from recyclable material or a better renewable source than the virgin forests.

Biodegradable toilet paper. Photo: iStock

What could be a better source of toilet papers?

This question has been put to make readers understand that there are alternative sources for making toilet paper and by making a little adjustment in our routine we can contribute to a greener environment in a significant way. The other ways and sources include:

Use of one-ply toilet paper

As discussed earlier, many toilet papers are made from virgin forest which took many decades to form. There are other good options where people can contribute to a much more eco-friendly way of cleaning their behind. 

One such is the use of one-ply toilet papers. Since it contains only one layer of paper sheet, it will disintegrate much faster and not clog the septic system compared to two or three-ply toilet papers. 

Toilet paper from bamboos

There are other ways of subsiding the disadvantages if you spend a little more from your pocket. Toilet papers made from bamboo trees are little expensive but they provide a continuous source of raw material. 

Bamboo is a type of grass that has a much faster growth rate and we can get a fully mature plant within a few months which is very effective compared to the destruction of centuries old trees. 

Use of brown toilet papers

Toilet papers that do not undergo a bleaching process are much more effective as it reduces the cost of chemical treatment and provides safe non-toxic toilet papers. This is the case with brown toilet paper which does not undergo the bleaching process and hence does not appear white like the other tissues.

Toilet papers made from recyclable materials

There are toilet papers made from hemp plants which are stronger and softer than wood pulp based toilet papers. Moreover these plants grow much faster and there will always be a supply of raw materials to meet the demand.

In many other toilet papers, high amounts of sugarcane fibers which can grow fast and are recyclable. The sugarcane fibers are trashed away after their juices are extracted so why not use them for a good purpose. Companies have been using 60% sugarcane fibers and 30%  wood pulp to make sustainable toilet papers. 

Is there any alternative source for toilet papers?

The best alternative is to go back to old ways and be close to nature. Since this is impossible for us now, the best available source is to use biodegradable toilet papers. 

Another suggestion would be the toilet paper made from the natural recycling process. Don’t worry you will not be given the already used toilet papers! In this case, papers from old textbooks, office papers or other post-consumer waste papers are recycled to make toilet paper. This means using less trees and more toilet papers.

You will be surprised to know that there are other naturally occurring plant leaves that are used by hikers and campers in the back country and provide the greenest alternatives to toilet papers. These include the leaves of following plants.

  • Great mullein
  • Broadleaf plantain
  • Curly dock
  • Lamb’s ear
  • Cottonwood

These green leaves are not known to have any toxic effects and the leaves of invasive weed mullein are fresh, fluffy and strong enough to provide a soft touch to your work. There are leaves that are broad enough for your task such as the leaves of a cottonwood plant, while with other short leaves, you may need multiple of them. 

Some of these leaves have astringent and antiseptic properties and most of them have medicinal properties. These can be grown in large numbers in one’s backyard or in millions in gardens and get a lifetime supply of toilet paper.

Though these leaves are non-toxic and safe to use, one must be 100% sure of the identity of the leaves. Else they may end up choosing a wrong leave which may cause any allergic reaction.

Conclusion 

This blog spot addressed the question, “is toilet paper biodegradable?”. We highlighted the material composition of toilet paper, its biodegradability aspects and what are the best biodegradable products available in the market. We also discussed the issues with current toilet papers and how biodegradable toilet paper plays an important role towards a greener environment. 

There are some downsides of using toilet paper but their benefits and disposal methods are more than the risk realized. On a positive side, companies are trying to innovate chemical free and recycled toilet papers to provide a more eco-friendly solution. 

Frequently asked question (FAQs): Is toilet paper biodegradable? 

How long does it take for toilet paper to decompose?

Even though toilet paper breaks down within a few seconds, it may take around 1-3 years for it to biodegrade using natural processes. The majority of the content of toilet paper is wood fibers which take much more time in landfills to derage completely. 

This is the  case with normal toilet papers, however, biodegradable toilet papers usually take 1-2 months to fully decompose.

Is normal toilet paper biodegradable?

Normal toilet papers are made from hardwood and softwood which takes nearly 2 years to completely biodegrade. However, a fully biodegradable toilet paper takes only a few months to biodegrade as these are made from not so hard fibers but still provide enough strength and softness for your work.

Is toilet paper bad for the environment?

Toilet papers are to some extent bad to our environment because they are using up our precious trees. Moreover, using thicker paper sheets clog the septic system. If we switch to a much more eco-friendly option their adverse effects can be significantly reduced. 

What brands of toilet paper are biodegradable?

The following brands are very eco-friendly as most of these are made from recyclable raw materials.

  • Green Forest
  • 365 Everyday Value
  • Earth First
  • Nature value
  • Seventh generation

What can I use instead of toilet paper?

There are several other options for readers to know. Different plant leaves that have been used by campers are non toxic and provide the same texture and strength to that of a normal toilet paper. 

These plants can be grown in your backyards to get a lifetime supply of toilet leaves.

Is it better to flush toilet paper or throw it away?

Toilet papers, after their use, contain pathogens from our body and most of these papers if thrown away will end up in landfills where they will decompose and cause much bigger problems. Hence it is better to flush them off to the septic system where they are securely degraded.

References

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/05/toilet-paper-less-sustainable-researchers-warn

Lingle S.E. (1999) Sugarcane. In: Smith D.L., Hamel C. (eds) Crop Yield. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-58554-8_9

https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/5-plants-you-can-grow-as-toilet-paper-replacements

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