Friday, February 15, 2008

So Why Is Toilet Paper White Anyway?

I recently wrote an email to Kimberly Clark (famous for their paper products including Kleenex, Scott, Viva and Cottonelle) and asked why they bleach their toilet paper white. Their customer support explained that bleaching is not only for aesthetic purposes – it also removes the lignin or glue from the wood. The removal of lignin helps improve the strength, feel and shelf life of their tissue and paper.

Unfortunately, most paper mills and companies like Kimberly Clark use chlorine to bleach their toilet paper. The chlorine bleaching process creates many incredibly toxic by-products including dioxins which end up in our water systems and soils.

Humans are most often exposed to these chemicals by eating contaminated food (e.g. fish), drinking contaminated water, or by working at companies that produce dioxins (e.g. paper mills). It is believe that populations exposed to high levels of dioxins have increased risks of birth defects, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. You can learn more about studies on dioxins at the Nation Institute of Health.

I also wrote an email to Seventh Generation and asked why they whiten their toilet paper and why they, in contrast to Kimberly Clark, bleach without chlorine. Here’s Seventh Generation’s response from the Director of Contract Manufacturing:

"Our tissue products are whitened using processes that are chlorine free. Hydrogen peroxide and/or sodium hydrosulfate are typically used to whiten. Because our tissue products are made from 100% recycled feedstock, this lignin (glue) is not an issue for us. It has already been removed. The whitening process helps provide a tissue with consistent look and feel.

Although I tend to agree directionally with the statement about the lignin and its potential undesired impacts on tissue characteristics, I don’t necessarily agree that chlorine containing substances are the best overall methods for bleaching wood pulp when considering the potential adverse impact on the environment in which we live. Furthermore, I am not necessarily agreeing so readily that bleaching is absolutely necessary in order to make a tissue product that can meet consumer’s expectations. As a matter of fact, we offer an unbleached version of paper towels and napkins which tend to be well accepted by the Seventh generation customer. So, I am suggesting that even if bleaching result in somewhat better tissue characteristics, the value added may not be worth it if all aspects of the situation are being considered."

As Seventh Generation mentions, there are alternatives to the chlorine bleaching processes. Here are your more eco-friendly options when it comes to toilet paper:

  • Unbleached: Completely natural – no bleach added. May not be a winner on softness or comfort.
  • Processed Chlorine Free (PCF): Recycled paper bleached with oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen peroxide. Examples brands of PCF toilet paper: Seventh Generation, Green Forest, Planet, 365 Whole Foods, Earth First. See the NRDC’s toilet paper comparison chart.
  • Totally Chlorine Free (TCF): Non-recycled paper bleached with oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen.

That was the good, now here’s the bad (and the ugly):

  • Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF): Paper bleached with chlorine dioxide. This process releases fewer dioxins than bleaching with chlorine gas, but it is still is harmful to the environment. Examples brands of ECF toilet paper: Charmin, Quilted Northern, Cottonelle, Angle Soft, Kleenex, Safeway Select
  • Chlorine Gas: Dioxins galore!

So the next time you're purchasing toilet paper, try out paper that is chlorine free. It's better for the environment and still white and soft.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Where Does All That Water Go?

What happens to the water you flush down the toilet? What about the water that goes down the drain when you shower or wash your hands? These are questions that I never gave much thought to before I became interested in greening up bathrooms. But Wikipedia and the USGS have helped educate me. I’m hoping to take a trip to a water treatment center to verify all of this, but in the mean time, here’s a simplified look at what happens to the water we use:

  1. Water from the sink, shower, toilet, and so on (now contaminated with chemicals and waste) goes down the drain and heads for either a wastewater/sewage treatment plant or a septic tank. I’m going to focus on the sewage treatment plant in this post.
  2. At the treatment plant, water goes through a primary or mechanical treatment where 60% of suspended solids are removed. Machines remove large objects including human waste, sand, gravel, rocks, oils, greases, rags, fruit, cans, and other objects that could clog or damage the equipment. These solids are usually sent to a landfill.
  3. The remaining liquid goes through a secondary treatment where aerobic bacteria breaks down soap, detergent, human waste and food waste. The bacteria consume the organic components and combine the less soluble parts into blocks called floc (which are removed).
  4. Finally, the water goes through a tertiary treatment where it is filtered and disinfected so it can be released back into the environment. Here are some common steps taken during this stage of treatment:
    • Nitrogen and phosphorus are removed (if necessary) to prevent algae blooms (where algae acts like cancer - it multiplies, uses all of the oxygen in the water, releases toxins and kill animals).
    • Treatment facilities disinfect with chlorine, ozone, or ultraviolet light to reduce the number of microorganisms in the water. Chlorine is commonly used because of its low cost, however, it can be toxic to the environment and aquatic life. Ozone is much safer but expensive. UV light is safer but high in maintenance and not always as effective.
  5. The treated water (or effluent quality water) is released back into the environment via streams, rivers, lakes, ground, etc.

As you can imagine water treatment plants use large amounts of energy to clean water. Unfortunately, most of the water that goes into these treatment plants comes from excessive water use and didn’t need to go down the drain in the first place.

If we can all reduce our water usage in the bathroom by brushing our teeth without the water running, by taking shorter showers, by adding water displacement devices to our toilet tanks, or by purchasing other water saving products, we can significantly cut down the amount of energy we use to clean water at water treatment plants.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Story of Stuff

To continue with the landfill, recycling and composting themes, I wanted to add a quick link to a video a friend of mine told me about. It's a 20 minute video called The Story of Stuff and is about our patterns of consumption - where our products come from and where they end up. Although the video doesn't discuss consumerism in the bathroom (that's my job!), it is still full of interesting facts and is worth a view.