Every day the world loses something close to 100,000 trees. And according to the statistics, we cut down about 27,000 trees a day just for toilet paper. It’s as if we were literally flushing our planet down the toilet. But what can we do? We can’t change our metabolisms. And not many people are willing to switch to reusable bathroom tissue. Well now, at last, we have the option of bamboo toilet paper.
Bamboo actually provides a far more renewable source of pulp for all manner of paper products, including toilet paper and paper towels. Conventional toilet paper not only consumes an enormous quantity of trees but is also responsible for destroying some of our most precious virgin forests. Bamboo pulp can produce some of the softest toilet paper without the disappointing side effect of deforestation.
Why bamboo toilet paper
The advantages of bamboo toilet paper are obvious. Cutting down 27,000 trees a day when we’ll just end up flushing them down the toilet seems pretty absurd. On the demand side of things, most people would prefer not to cut back on their use of toilet tissue. But on the supply side, there are certainly alternatives to cutting down trees.
Most trees take about 20 to 40 years to reach maturity, but a bamboo grove is ready for harvest in about five years. More importantly, once the rootstock is mature, the plant will produce a bevy of full-grown bamboo culms every year. Harvesting the poles does not kill the bamboo, and no replanting is necessary. That’s because bamboo is a grass. And just like mowing your lawn, regular pruning is actually important and useful for the growth and vitality of the bamboo.
This remarkable degree of renewability makes bamboo a superior alternative for so many things, including lumber, textiles, energy, and paper. As a substitute for cotton, bamboo requires little or no chemical pesticides and fertilizers. As an energy alternative, bamboo is immeasurably greener than petroleum. And it’s a more sensible source of ethanol biofuel than food crops like corn.
But with the world’s current rate of deforestation, bamboo’s most promising application could be as a replacement for lumber and paper. Toilet paper, in particular, is the cause of so much tree loss. And not just ordinary tree plantations.
Logging virgin forests for toilet tissue
The sad truth about toilet paper is something most of us might rather ignore. But I was determined to get to the bottom of this. Yeah, sorry. But believe it or not, humans are steadily wiping out massive swaths of virgin forest just for toilet paper.
Apparently, those previously untouched forests are able to provide the kind of long, slender fibers that make for the softest and most luxurious TP possible. We all enjoy a bit of softness on our bottoms, but is it really worth denuding the world’s oldest forests?
In fact, almost all residential toilet paper in America comes from virgin forests. That includes Kirkland (from Costco), Charmin (Proctor & Gamble), Angel Soft (Georgia-Pacific), and Presto (Amazon). Georgia-Pacific and Proctor & Gamble at least have policies to replant a tree for every one they cut down. The other companies do not. Even so, virgin old-growth forests are virtually irreplaceable.
Unilever from Seventh Generation may be the only responsible major brand of non-bamboo toilet paper on the market. Their product is made from 100% recycled paper, and at least 50% post-consumer recycled.
Where to find bamboo toilet paper
With the increasing awareness of deforestation, coupled with the recent pandemic-induced toilet paper crisis, a number of companies are already producing bamboo toilet paper. And this greener alternative to an everyday disposable item is actually earning rave reviews across the board.
One of the most dedicated and innovative companies I’ve come across is Cloud Paper, up in Seattle, WA. They are currently producing bamboo paper towels and toilet paper, all packaged entirely without plastic. Part of what makes them unique is their subscription-based model. With the pandemic, it was kind of a no-brainer. But at the same time, having toilet paper delivered to your home on a regular basis just makes a lot of sense. As far are regularly used items, what’s more regular than TP? And a 12- or 24-pack is certainly one of the more awkward things to lug around the grocery store.
Who Gives a Crap is another important player in the field of bamboo TP. In addition to their snicker-inducing name, they also have a very admirable pay-it-forward program. The company contributes generously and regularly to critical environmental causes around the world.
Cultivating bamboo for paper
Bamboo paper is not a radical idea. It’s been around for hundreds, probably thousands of years. Each year nearly 1.5 million metric tons of bamboo pulp are produced worldwide. Most of that happens in China, India and Southeast Asia, where bamboo is most prevalent.
This is a booming industry, and it seems to be growing. But when people talk about growing bamboo, it’s important to get specific about which type of bamboo and why they’re growing it. As I think I’ve already communicated in dozens of previous blog posts, the diversity of bamboo, with its nearly 2,000 cultivars, is truly astonishing.
Bamboo species for paper
With so much biodiversity in the bamboo family (technically a subfamily of the grass family), your choice of species can vary quite a bit depending on your climate, your altitude, and what you plan to do with it. Some species are great for building, and some are particularly nice for eating, while others are especially effective for erosion control. And, of course, some species are better suited for paper-making.
Traditionally, some of the most important bamboo species for paper-making have included such tropical wonders as Dendrocalamus brandisii, Dendrocalamus hamiltonii, Dendrocalamus membranacea, and Dendrocalamus strictus. These big species, mainly native to the tropical climes of Southern and Southeast Asia, have thick and fibrous culms, typically several inches in diameter. To this day, they remain important species for industrial use. And D. hamiltonii is actually becoming endangered due to over-exploitation for pulp and paper-making.
Moso bamboo, or Phyllostachys edulis, is the most widely used species of bamboo in the world. It is the chief variety for bamboo flooring, bamboo textiles, and cross-laminated bamboo lumber. Not surprisingly, it is also used for paper-making. Of the thousands of varieties of bamboo, Moso has probably been studied more closely than any other. Research indicates it could be very competitive with tree pulp paper.
Melocanna baccifera, which grows in and around Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Northeast India, is another important species for pulp and paper. It has also been the subject of some extensive research. Findings show that this variety of bamboo has a very similar composition to hardwood, with 52.8% cellulose, 21.1% hemicelluloses, and 25.2% lignin.
In the modern era, however, bamboo has mostly taken a back seat to tree pulp in the paper-making arena. And now that bamboo is enjoying a huge resurgence of popularity, this traditional resource has some catching up to do. In our globalized economy, it may be time to reconsider more varieties of bamboo coming from different parts of the world. With modern pulping methods, we may discover a whole new range of bamboo species that are ideal for paper making.
Besides Moso bamboo, Guadua from South America has probably received more attention than any single species. Native to the equatorial highlands of Colombia and Venezuela, Guadua angustifolia is by far the most important bamboo species in the western hemisphere. But recent research how shown that this crucial species is actually inferior for paper making. The culm tissues seem to be so thick and tough that they wear down the machinery much faster than Moso, which is more comparable to trees. But clearly we need more research in this area in order to identify the best species of bamboo for paper-making.
Bamboo paper in the US
In 2014, the North Carolina State University, Raleigh, began to research the feasibility of growing, harvesting and pulping bamboo for paper in the American southeast. National Bamboo, a private company in North Carolina, has sponsored the research, hoping to become a leader in the domestic bamboo paper industry.
National Bamboo is helping farmers throughout the region convert their land from traditional crops to promising bamboo. Their species of choice is Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon”, a temperate timber bamboo, well-suited for this climate and purpose, given its impressive size and growth rate. They also recommend and work with P. edulis (Moso), P. rubromarginata (Rubro), and P. vivax. If you’re considering a bamboo farm in this part of the country, try contacting National Bamboo for a consultation.
Keep on rolling
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FEATURED IMAGE: Bamboo toilet paper by Zolga F, Getty Images