The Problem: Finding 100% recycled or tree-free toilet paper that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic. Since 2007, my toilet paper of choice has been cardboard cases of Seventh Generation recycled rolls that come individually-wrapped in thin paper wrappers. I ordered it from Amazon and even had a subscription at one time. But over the years, I’ve received comments from readers that they would order a case and it would sometimes come with plastic inside. Or that the plastic-free cases were not always available on Amazon.
A New Solution: A few months ago, I started seeing Facebook posts about a new brand of toilet paper called Who Gives a Crap. Funny name. But it sounded interesting. The company donates 50% of its profits to provide toilets and sanitation in the developing world. The toilet paper comes in two versions, bamboo or recycled paper, and is shipped in a cardboard box. At the time, only the bamboo version was available in the United States, so that’s what I ordered and tried. Today, both versions are available here in the U.S.
Disclosure: Who Gives a Crap has an incentive program for all first-time customers. If you purchase via a link in this blog post, you will receive $10 off your first order of $48 or more, and I will receive a $10 credit on my next order. After that, you will be able to offer and receive the same deal when you share with your friends via your own special link.
Who Gives a Crap Bamboo Toilet Paper vs. Seventh Generation Recycled Toilet Paper
They both come shipped in cardboard boxes. Unfortunately, when I first ordered Who Gives a Crap back in February, the product was new to the United States, and during that early testing phase, the company was only able to stock the smaller sized cases of 24, so when a customer placed an order for a case of 48 (as I did), they were shipped two 24-roll cases banded together with plastic straps. The reason for the straps was to avoid paying double the cost to ship two separate packages, which makes sense. But the plastic straps were obviously a problem for me.
Today, the sales volume has increased enough that Who Gives a Crap is able to stock both size boxes in the U.S., so when we order a case of 48, they come in one big box.
As with Seventh Generation toilet paper, the rolls come individually wrapped in thin paper. No plastic.
What these rolls have that Seventh Gen’s don’t is the statement, “50% of our profits are donated to build toilets.” What that actually means is that the company donates half its profits to non-profit organizations like WaterAid working to improve access to hygiene, water and basic sanitation in developing countries. According to the company’s website, as of this writing, they have already donated $1,175,000.
So, what about the price? As you can see in the image below, the sheets look approximately the same size. (Seventh Gen is on the left. Who Gives is on the right.) Both rolls contain 500 2-ply sheets. But Seventh Gen is sold in cases of 60 and Who Gives in cases of 48. Doing the math based on the Amazon price tonight (which is always subject to change) Who Gives a Crap is 16% less expensive than Seventh Gen, and both prices include shipping. Of course, if you order for the first time via my product link, you get an additional $10 off. You can figure out that additional math.
Which one is softer? Hands down, Who Gives a Crap bamboo toilet paper is softer. I haven’t compared their recycled toilet paper to Seventh Gen because it wasn’t available in the U.S. when I first ordered, so this may be an unfair comparison.
Asking the Hard Questions
But what about the ecological footprint of turning bamboo into toilet paper or the fact that most recycled toilet paper contains BPA? And how is the toilet paper so white when the wrapper states that it’s chlorine-free? I sent a ton of questions to Phil King, head of product and sourcing for Who Gives a Crap. It took many months for him to find time to answer my questions and for me to find time to follow up. But we got it done. I hope that this interview answers any remaining questions that you might have. Ultimately, the choice between bamboo and recycled toilet paper (or any toilet paper at all) is a personal choice, and I don’t think there are any absolute right or wrong answers.
1.) Why did Who Gives a Crap decide to individually wrap its TP in paper and ship in cardboard boxes rather than using plastic?
As you can probably imagine, we’re not big fans of single-use plastics and hate to see the oodles of plastic used to wrap toilet rolls in supermarkets and most online retailers. For us, finding a way to do away with plastic wrapping entirely was a must from day one. It’s not only a great environmental choice, but we think it’s turned an otherwise boring household item into something beautiful and worth proudly displaying in your bathroom. The design aspect of our packaging is important for us as we’ve transformed something dull into something fun and shareable. This makes it natural and easy for our customers to gift our rolls and share on social media, hopefully encouraging more people to switch to a more sustainable choice!
A related question we often get asked is; ‘why wrap them at all?’. We actually need to wrap the rolls to keep them moisture free and hygienic in transit – we can’t just put them in a cardboard box unwrapped. We’ve explored a number of other options, including wrapping in larger paper bags or other configurations. However, wrapping the rolls in anything larger than 6 packs wasn’t possible due to strength issues. Wrapping in 6 packs would have required a much higher grade of paper so the net paper usage (by weight) was actually roughly the same either way. Therefore, wrapping each roll individually in paper made the most sense, economically, environmentally and from a design perspective – so it was an easy choice for us. We’ve also increased the sheet count per roll (400 sheets for our core recycled product) which is in some cases more than four times as many sheets per roll as our supermarket competitors. It’s crazy when you think about all of the extra packaging, inner cores and inefficient shipping that we’ve saved by making our rolls longer!
2.) Can you tell me more about the paper wrappers, cardboard tubes, and cardboard boxes? Are they made from recycled content?
The inner cores of our toilet paper and paper towels, and all our shipping cartons are made from recycled cardboard. Unfortunately for the toilet roll wrappers, we’ve been unable to get the print quality high enough using recycled paper. We use soy inks where we can, and we’re actively seeking out printers that can do this for us throughout the process.
3.) Your website says that the bamboo is grown in plantations. Can you please describe where the plantations are and how they are overseen?
Our bamboo is predominantly grown in the Sichuan Province of China by local farmers who plant bamboo on the outskirts of their family farms to supplement their income. It’s the perfect crop in small villages – it requires no tending, irrigation or fertilisation and only needs to be harvested once a year. When harvested, bamboo is aggregated by village / regional co-operatives, chipped and then delivered to a local factory for pulping.
4.) Your website says that to make the bamboo toilet paper, “we just pulp the clean fibers at super high temperatures.” Are there any chemicals besides water needed to turn the bamboo into toilet paper?
A thermochemical process is used to convert the raw bamboo into finished paper. In simple terms, that means the bamboo is pulverised and then cooked at high temperatures to break down the fibres in the first instance. Beat that MasterChef! The broken-down fibres then go through a set of steps to isolate the fibres and, in the case of our bamboo product, whiten them using the same chemicals used to make conventional virgin wood paper, like hydrogen peroxide and chlorine dioxide. The liquid mix is then drawn onto giant drums at high speed where they re-form, bond and dry as toilet paper.
The process shouldn’t be confused for that used to make bamboo textiles and ‘non-wovens’ (used in wet wipes or nappies for instance). Those products demand a spinnable fibre (which toilet paper doesn’t) and demand different chemicals and a more intensive process – it is this process that is often where public criticism of bamboo production processes comes from, not the thermo-chemical production we use.
5.) Your FAQ says that you don’t use chlorine, inks, or dyes, which is great. How do you turn the paper white? (Note: This question was sent in February. The FAQ has been changed since then.)
Our toilet paper has always been elemental-chlorine free, as well as free from inks, dyes, and scents. However, we decided that the chlorine claim could be open to confusion and therefore wasn’t in line with our transparency-driven ethos – as a result, we’ve dropped the claim from our marketing.
To answer your question, it’s not possible (to our knowledge) to make a white paper product without using some form of bleaching. You actually end up with a dull beige or rather unappealing gray paper. While this might not be an issue for the most dedicated consumers, we are trying to build a hugely scalable impact business and feel that strategically it is important, and more impactful, if our products can also appeal to more ‘mainstream’ consumers for whom environmental product choices may not come as easily. We need to be able to make it easy for these consumers to make the switch to more responsible products like ours in order to grow our impact and reach our goal of helping everyone in the world access a toilet. These consumers are generally already buying toilet paper made from trees, so we know we can also have a very powerful environmental impact by switching them to a tree-free product like ours.
To answer your question about the whitening process more specifically, in the case of our recycled paper, our factory focuses on sourcing input materials that are as close to white in the first instance (to minimise the need for any whitening), and then uses a blend of hydrogen peroxide and chlorine dioxide-based detergents (commonly referred to as elemental chlorine free or ECF, so no chlorine gas is used) to remove any residual inks and dyes. Hydrogen peroxide is a naturally occurring bleaching, oxidising and disinfecting agent and is commonly used in medicine as an antiseptic – it even occurs naturally in our bodies!
For bamboo, our process is also ECF but does not involve hydrogen peroxide. We are currently going deeper into the pulping process to understand to what degree derivatives of chlorine may be present. That research includes visits upstream in the production process to plantation and pulping facilities as well as further investigations to determine whether there may be environmentally better solutions available.
6.) How is the wastewater from the papermaking process handled?
The waste water in the tissue paper making process is recycled, but it can only be used once or twice before it is then treated and returned to municipal water systems. We work with a combination of 3rd party and in-person visits to check that water is processed to local and international environmental standards.
7) Many people are wary of buying products made in China. Can you describe how you oversee the facility where the toilet paper is made and what measures are in place to ensure that environmental standards are maintained?
We understand why people are wary about manufacturing in China – we certainly were when we started out! However, we think it’s important to stress that, like any country, China has a huge range of producers – from the very ethical to the downright shady. We’ve visited more than 100 Chinese factories and seen the full range. We’re confident that our producers are at the much more ethical and sustainable end of the spectrum or we wouldn’t be working with them. To ensure our standards are maintained, we use a combination of in-person visits and 3rd party audit and accreditation via the BSCI scheme, which has a very detailed approach and set of guidelines. Compliance by our producers is tested, audited and used to drive improvement where opportunities exist. The core philosophy focuses broadly on the areas ethics, human right and worker rights, health and safety and environment.
8) Regarding your recycled toilet paper, some people are avoid recycled toilet paper because traces of BPA have been found in it (probably due to people adding thermal paper to their paper recycling.) Do you test for the presence of BPA in the recycled toilet paper?
We focus on paper sources which exclude thermal paper and, yes, we run regular tests to ensure that BPA is not present in our paper.
Our recycled paper options are also now available to all of our North American customers, in addition to our bamboo products. If you’re looking for the best environmental option, we recommend our 100% recycled toilet paper. The bamboo option is also a much better choice than conventional tree-full toilet paper found in supermarkets, but the overall carbon footprint is lowest with our recycled products.
9) Scott Tissues has recently released a core-less version of their toilet paper, eliminating the cardboard tube entirely. Would this be something that Who Gives a Crap would consider in order to eliminate even more waste? Why or why not?
Absolutely! We’re always looking for ways to improve our products’ environmental buttprint (sorry, we had to get at least one pun in here!) and core-less rolls is definitely something we’d consider.
So, what do you think? Is this a better option than Seventh Generation from Amazon? Have you moved beyond toilet paper to family cloth or rinsing with water? After we use up the bamboo rolls we bought (which we still haven’t really started on, except for my test roll, because we still have so much Seventh Gen to get through), I’ll try Who Gives a Crap’s recycled version and see if I like it better.