Warning! Don't eat while reading this!
This week's Hard-to-Recycle item is one of the most difficult materials to recycle by the sheer nature of its use and our consumption of it, but it's cost to the environment is one of the highest out there, and therefore makes it deserving of discussion. Toilet paper, tissues, moist toilettes, napkins, diapers and tampons can all be lumped into a category I will call sanitary paper/fiber. With a pun about how it's literally a pain in the ass to recycle out of the way, (everyone say poop!) I will try to address the most eco-friendly choices you can make regarding these products. By NO means should any of these used products be put in the recycling! Some things were meant to be disposed of. I can't tell you how many diapers come out on the sorting lines every day. Hopefully, the offending young parents of Boulder County will read this post and this particular contamination problem will be allayed, but doubts remain.
Toilet paper can be traced back to ancient times, mainly from quotes about the Far East (leave it to the Chinese to invent all the necessary things in life), but its modern commercial use and production only goes back as far as the late 19th century. Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the founding fathers must have been struggling; you would think the developer of electricity and libraries would have thought of a clever way to clean his arse. Conversely, bidets were around as early as 1700, but only for royalty or noble usage (I feel like I should put quotes around noble usage), and for some reason never caught on in America, unfortunately (yes, I am a fan). History majors would have a unique and fascinating thesis in studying bathroom habits for the last few hundred years, but I digress.
The convenience of disposability and the fact that soiled sanitary paper can't really be reused makes it near impossible to recycle. The eco rule holds that one should use cloth napkins instead of paper ones, handkerchiefs instead of Kleenex, and even cloth diapers if possible. Cloth toilet paper (and tampons) would just be disgusting unless one washed them right after use, but this extra water usage would negate the positive impact you'd be having on the environment for using the cloth in the first place. Still, one can decrease the pain inflicted on forests by buying and using less sanitary paper in general. The rule (from Elaine on Seinfeld) is three good sheets, and when I say good, I mean the multi-layered kush stuff not the sandpaper single-layer stuff (please ask Matthew Sanchez for his opinion on cheap toilet paper which he turned into a song accompanied by Davey Rogner on guitar). I would also argue that the multi-layered toilet paper is not only more comfortable but more eco-friendly than the cheaper, single layered rolls (lord knows I've bought my share of .99 cent 4-packs) because you use less sheets as the multi-layered absorbs more. All college students should take this into consideration.
I haven't really counted this past year, or any year for that matter, but each American uses about 24 rolls of toilet paper annually on average, which leads to an astounding sum of 26 billion toilet rolls consumed as a nation, yielding $2.4-5.7 billion each year (Wikipedia). That's a lot of money, and that's a lot of trees, seven million to be exact. Luckily, a growing number of those toilet paper rolls are being manufactured using post-consumer fiber, or in layman's terms, recycled paper. Look for labels that may include the recycling loop, or say somewhere the product is made using post-consumer fiber. Abbreviations such as PCF or TCF mean the paper is totally/partially chlorine-free, chlorinated paper being another leachate problem that affects septic tanks and landfills once the soiled paper in question reaches there. If you need further help, all those street canvassers from Greenpeace asking for your donations and signatures were able to pull together this guide to sustainable tissue paper purchasing. Greenpeace was also able to take a break from aggravating whale hunters and launched a successful campaign against Kimberly-Clarke, one of the largest tissue paper corporations in the world and the maker of Kleenex, that effectively compels the company to stop using trees from Canada's ancient Boreal forests, the world's largest terrestial storehouse of natural carbon and a sacred habitat for caribou and migratory birds, as well as a commitment not to use virgin fiber wherever possible. Greenpeace kept up extraordinary pressure on the company throughout the 5-year campaign and was able to move from conflict to agreement. This is the type of pressure needed to persuade unruly companies employing harmful environmental practices for profit. Next up is Georgia-Pacific, but the Boreal forests of Ontario are still in danger from other lumber practices.
One brilliant but expensive idea that's highly unlikely to catch on is a machine that converts office paper into toilet paper all at the office! For $95,000, a Japanese company will send you a ginormous machine that will convert 16 pounds of 8x11" printer paper into two rolls of toilet paper. If that last sentence didn't describe enough logistical problems with the machine, then imagine having to wait two hours for the whole process to complete itself when you're trying to answer nature's call.
So remember, when you're wiping up whatever bodily fluid, secretion or excretion that decides to make a journey from one of your orifices, try to use cloth/fabric instead of paper wherever possible. As Douglas Adams writes in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "the towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." If necessity requires that you use paper, use as little as possible; or in other words take what you want, but use (efficiently and effectively) all that you take. The plus side of sanitary paper is that it will decompose, eventually, somewhere far from home, and so should not pose a waste stream problem unless wrongfully disposed of in the recycling (in which case I've trained a pack of wolves that will track the scent of you and your baby's waste back to you for an unpleasant reckoning). However, the threat to forests like the Boreal and Central American rain forests by using virgin fiber is real. Look for the paper brands that have post-consumer content in them, or buy the toilet paper converter machine, but never, ever, buy that cheap sandpaper substance. The eradication of single layer toilet paper must be a goal for all of us, as should changing the financial incentive to use virgin materials by buying recycled products.