Toilet paper greenwash

We trawled the supermarket aisles and found 21 brands of toilet paper, then star-rated them according to their sustainability claims.
 
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01 .Introduction

Toilet-roll-lead

Toilet paper packaging sports a massive amount of greenwash, but many of the statements on the packaging are unsubstantiated and can’t be proven. We purchased 21 brands of toilet paper and then star rated them for sustainability claims. View the results here.

Claims that count

  • Recycled or sourced from sustainable plantations or forests - the most common environmental claim.
  • Made from 100% recycled office paper. The rationale is that recycled toilet paper is superior because it uses fewer resources, protects biodiversity and diverts waste from landfill. Most of these products are endorsed by environment groups such as Planet Ark and Clean Up Australia, which also back up these claims (and receive funding in return). 

Claims of 100% recycled content from used office paper are specific and verifiable, which means the company could easily prove the claim if asked to.

Only one of the products we surveyed, Quilton Ecoply, is vague, saying its middle layer is made from recycled fibre, without stating either the percentage that is recycled or its source.

With any recycled content product, look for “post-consumer waste” (such as used office paper). “Pre-consumer waste” is simply reprocessed off-cuts from a virgin product that has never left the factory floor.

Sustainable sources

Most brands made from virgin fibre claim to use only plantation trees or fibre from sustainable forestry.

Kimberly-Clark (maker of Kleenex and Wondersoft) uses mainly plantation trees from certified forests. The company has even undertaken a “life cycle assessment” to show that virgin fibre toilet tissue products made from plantations are just as sustainable as recycled products.

A new toilet paper, Green Soft, is labelled “No Trees” and claims to be made from bamboo, straw, reeds and cotton. According to environmental scientist Kyle O’Farrell, bamboo, straw and reeds are fast-growing crops with less impact on the environment than trees – but cotton is a water- and chemical-intensive crop and should be avoided for a single-use product such as toilet paper. Without a labelling system to verify these fibres are sustainably sourced, it’s impossible to know for sure how these claims stack up.

 
 

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Few toilet papers CHOICE found in the supermarket aisles were certified with an eco-label.

  • Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) was the only eco-label we found – on Kimberley-Clark products and Woolworths Select Silky Soft. PEFC certifies that the virgin wood fibre used comes from sustainably managed forests in Australia or overseas.

Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth do not support PEFC, saying it lacks on-ground auditing of forests and meaningful stakeholder engagement. According to Gavan McFadzean, Victorian campaign manager at The Wilderness Society, “conservation groups do not consider the PEFC brand guarantees the fibre sourced is sustainable on environmental or social grounds. Fibre from old-growth forests can still receive the PEFC label, and the label does not claim sustainability as a key criterion.”

  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a global label, is supported by Greenpeace, ACF and The Wilderness Society; however, we could not find any products made from FSC-certified virgin fibre.
  • Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) stipulates that toilet paper must either be predominantly recycled or come from forests certified by the FSC or the Australian Forestry Standard. However, only a few commercial toilet paper products are certified.

Most toilet papers don’t use an eco-label and simply claim their fibre is sourced from sustainably managed forests, with nothing to back this up. Even more opaquely, Sorbent claims its products come from “100% non-controversial sources” with no information about the source of the fibre.

Biodegradability and bleaching

Toilet-paperMost toilet papers claim to be biodegradable, not an environmental claim as such, but rather a benefit to sewage systems. It’s also not a good differentiator, since any toilet paper made from a plant fibre biodegrades.

Many products also claim to use a more green-friendly bleaching process to whiten, usually called “elemental chlorine-free bleaching” – but this still uses chlorine. A more sustainable choice is a totally chlorine-free bleached product or, better still, an unbleached toilet paper.

Packaging

Almost all toilet paper packaging has a triangle recycling symbol (called a mobius loop) with the number four and sometimes “LDPE” written underneath, meaning it is low-density polyethylene.

Thin plastic film (unlike stiff plastic containers) is not recyclable in kerbside systems. O’Farrell says councils prohibit LDPE film in their recycling bins, and “given the hurdle for most consumers to track down a destination to recycle LDPE film it’s impractical for them to do that”. The only toilet paper packaging we can practicably recycle is the paper-wrapped Safe brand.

Misleading claims such as the recycling logo contravene the Australian Standard on Self-Declared Environmental Claims and the ACCC’s Green Marketing recommendations.

Supporting the environment

Some toilet papers display logos from organisations such as Planet Ark, Clean Up Australia and the Australian Rainforest Foundation, which means some of the profits from the products go to these groups or their projects. This is a good reason to buy them; however, these logos should not be mistaken for eco-labels, as the groups do not audit environmental impacts or fibre source.

The 100% recycled content products have specific and verifiable claims, and many also support environmental groups and projects. Based on the information on the packaging, these products have a stronger case for purchase. Use our star ratings as a guide to the most sustainable choices. It’s also worth choosing unbleached products and those that claim to fund environmental projects or organisations.

Toilet-paper-table


Greening the kids

Kleenex deserves a special mention for its Cottonelle Toilet Tissue for Kids brand, which provides a waste reduction strategy for children. A puppy printed every three to four sheets lets kids know when to tear off. It’s not claimed to have a direct environmental benefit, but using less of anything is always a good way to reduce your environmental footprint.

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