We're now flush with alternatives to conventional toilet paper that could help the planet and change how we go

We're now flush with alternatives to conventional toilet paper that could help the planet and change how we go
Using toilet paper alternatives, like bidets and paper not sourced from trees, can help us go easy on the planet. But the answers aren't always simple.djedzura/Getty Images
  • Using conventional toilet paper sourced from trees can be destructive to the environment.
  • Alternatives such as bidets and paper produced from bamboo and sugarcane can help the planet.

It's not something we talk a lot about in polite company, but how we go has got to go.

The production of toilet paper used in the US is literally cutting into what advocates credit with being one of the most important carbon repositories, the vast northern forests of Canada. Now, as more alternatives to conventional toilet paper enter the market, there are greater options for consumers who don't like the thought of wiping away all that sequestered carbon with every flush.

Estimates vary, but only about 25 to 30% of the world's population uses toilet paper. Many people use water. And even when they do, it can amount to less water per use than is needed to produce toilet paper. The average American spins through 141 rolls a year.

The good news is there are now more options for going paper-free in markets where TP is king, like the US, Germany, and the UK. There are slick add-ons that can give a toilet bidet superpowers. And there are fancy toilets with built-in bum-cleaning features, though prices for some high-end models befit actual thrones.

Yet the nascent waterworks show in the West is nothing compared with places such as Japan, where high-tech toilets are the norm and tourism boosters might consider the tagline, "Come for the sushi. Stay for the toilets."


Can you spare a square?

Greater choice in the porcelain arena is becoming serious business beyond concerns about hygiene and comforts we never knew we needed until that trip to Osaka. Backers of toilet paper made from alternative materials such as bamboo, sugarcane, and hemp say they can be a better choice for the environment — if produced properly — than new wood pulp from trees.

As with most things climate, the calculus can be tricky. Some tree-free toilet paper is made from a byproduct of sugarcane production called bagasse. Shri Ramaswamy, a professor in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, said using the bagasse and preventing it from going to waste was, of course, a good thing. But if producers are slashing forests to grow the sugarcane, that's not a win for the climate.

"Just because it is nonwood, and they're not cutting trees, it doesn't mean it is sustainable," Ramaswamy said. He added, for example, that it's important to consider how much water goes into the production of a tree alternative to get a better sense of its environmental benefits. Meanwhile, the paper-products industry has continued to boost its overall use of recycled paper and reduce its use of some chemicals, Ramaswamy said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends that consumers look for the Forest Stewardship Council's "FSC" label to make sure, for example, that the bamboo used in toilet paper wasn't grown in places that were recently deforested. Even with traditional toilet paper made from trees, the more stringent FSC labels indicate that the paper products are produced in a responsible manner and with considerations for factors such as the rights of workers and Indigenous peoples' rights.


The NRDC also puts out a scorecard that rates numerous tissue brands. Rolls made with 100% recycled paper rank best. Other lists highlight further options.

Can potty humor boost the bottom line?

Many of us likely haven't thought much about the logistics of going to the bathroom since we learned how. Some companies have been working to disrupt this most habitual of routines with elaborate wrappers and cheeky names like Who Gives a Crap and No. 2.

Who Gives a Crap sells both rolls made from bamboo, which is fast-growing, and ones made from 100% recycled paper. The company also donates half its profits for toilet building and other sanitation projects in developing countries.

No. 2 promotes its products as sustainably sourced and avoiding a distressing-sounding development it terms "butt crumble."


Ryan Fritsch, a cofounder of Cloud Paper, a Seattle startup that makes toilet paper and paper towels from bamboo, said that there had been a limit for years to how many people would grab a "green" toilet paper off the store shelf because some of the early versions in the market weren't all that enjoyable when road-tested.

"It's no surprise that you can't turn a bunch of receipt paper, newsprint, whatever else, into a soft, comfortable paper product, and so, forever, the only people that have switched have been the kind of die-hards," he said.

To boost the rolls of prospective users, Fritsch said Cloud Paper had gone through more than a dozen iterations of its bamboo tissue to achieve both the environmental benefits and the comfort that would please consumers.

"That's where you're going to see the kind of broad switch," he said, "when people really don't feel like they have to make that sacrifice."