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How to buy the best toilet paper

What to look for when buying this household staple

girls holding toilet paper

Despite its simple use, toilet paper options are seemingly endless: First you need to decide what ply you want, if you want a scented roll, a quilted roll or one with prints on it. Then there are the sustainability claims: recycled vs virgin paper, biodegradable, chlorine-free...

Toilet paper is a huge contributor to forest logging so sustainability claims and environmental classification schemes are something we should be paying close attention to. But what else should we be thinking about when when buying loo paper?

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Ply count

Toilet paper generally ranges from one to four-ply. This simply refers to the number of layers of paper used. Generally the higher the ply count, the thicker, softer, stronger and more absorbent the tissue should be.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification

FSC is an international, non-profit organisation that promotes responsible forest management by setting standards on forest products with a certification process. You'll find the FSC tree-tick logo on many toilet paper packs, but if you take a closer look at the fine print you'll notice there are three classifications to the label:

  • FSC mix means the product can be a mixture of timber/fibre from an FSC-certified forest, reclaimed timber/fibre, or timber/fibre from other controlled sources. The entire production volume needs to contain at least 70% FSC-certified material, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a particular product line will contain any FSC-certified material at all.
  • FSC recycled means all the timber/fibre in the product is recycled material, however 15% can be pre-consumer waste (manufacturing scrap that has been put back into production). Your best bet is to look for products with this logo.
  • FSC 100% means all the timber/fibre in the product comes from an FSC-certified forest.

Ultimately, the FSC logo isn't a guarantee that the whole product is from a sustainable source, but it does indicate that the virgin fibres (see virgin vs recycled below) used to make the product came from forests managed to higher environmental and social standards.

PEFC certification

The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is an international organisation that works to promote sustainable forest management and ensure timber and non-timber forest products are produced using high ecological, social and ethical standards. 

It has a third-party classification scheme and you can identify its products by its PEFC-certified label. There are two PEFC classifications:

  • PEFC Certified means at least 70% of wood comes from PEFC-certified forests and wood from controlled sources.
  • PEFC Recycled means at least 70% PEFC-certified material from recycled sources and wood from controlled sources.

Virgin vs recycled

Where recycled toilet paper is made by re-using a variety of materials, virgin toilet paper has no recycled or alternative fibres. The bottom line (no pun intended) – look for recycled products. The process of recycling is less damaging to the environment and keeps waste out of landfill. However, paper can only be recycled four to six times before the fibres become too short and weak, so there will always be a need for virgin paper. Only a small amount of the products we've tested are made from 100% recycled material, so it's important to look for products with FSC or PEFC certification.

Elemental chlorine-free (ECF)

Toilet papers are bleached to give them their whiteness and you may have noticed the claim "elemental chlorine-free bleaching" used on many products. Elemental chlorine gas produces dioxins which can be harmful not only to the environment but also to our health. ECF doesn't mean the product is chlorine-free but rather that the product has been bleached using chlorine dioxide (instead of elemental chlorine gas) which reduces the potential to form these harmful dioxins. It's best to look for a product that is "unbleached" or uses alternatives to chlorine (like oxygen or hydrogen peroxide) to achieve whiteness.

Bamboo and wood pulp alternatives

Yes, a growing (ha ha) number of brands are making toilet paper from bamboo instead of timber fibres. Bamboo is a fast-growing, very sustainable crop that's ubiquitous across Asia, so it's an environmentally friendly option, but just be aware that unlike the majority of traditional paper-based toilet tissue which is manufactured locally, the bamboo-based bog rolls are usually imported, so they have a higher carbon cost in transit.

Other features

Printed, scented, embossed, quilted

These 'features' are all added for decorative and aesthetic appeal. Whether you choose to buy loo paper with these features comes down to personal preference.

Hypoallergenic

If you have a sensitivity to dyes or perfumes then look for a product without them and one that claims to be hypoallergenic.

Country of origin

Unlike most commodity goods these days, toilet paper is typically manufactured locally rather than imported. That's because it's a very bulky, low volume product so it doesn't make financial sense to ship it half way around the world, and because we have plenty of raw materials for it here in Australia. Whilst some brands are imported, particularly bamboo-based products, if you see a mainstream brand manufactured overseas you may be looking at a grey import.

Delivery and subscription services

An increasingly common business model is goods delivered to your home. This is especially handy for toilet paper as it can be big and bulky, and hence a hassle to lug home from the shops. You can even 'subscribe' to toilet paper now, receiving a regular delivery to your doorstep so you never have to think about whether you're running low again. This typically won't be the traditional, mainstream brands but rather it will be the innovative new players in the toilet paper business that offer this service.

Cost

If you base your decision on price, you can spend anywhere from 10 cents to 60 cents per 100 sheets – it might not seem like much when you look at it like this, but over time that's a lot of money to be flushing down the toilet. But keep in mind that if you purchase in bulk, you're likely to get most (if not all) of these products at a cheaper price per 100 sheets.

That said, double and triple length rolls can muddy the waters here a little – you might find a two-pack of double length toilet paper is cheaper than a four pack of standard length stuff, despite having the exact same number of sheets, and conventional logic says the four pack is cheaper because you're buying in bulk. So make sure you check the unit price, not just the overall price when shopping.