• Jamie McCroskery

Paper towels and toilet paper with the smallest carbon footprints

Truelabel uses algorithms based on climate research to estimate the carbon footprint of products, helping you reduce your impact while you shop without needing a Ph.D. in climate science.

We do this research because we believe people have a right to know the impact of what they’re buying (we do not take samples or funding from companies). Our research is based on Life Cycle Assessments, the gold standard for evaluating a product’s global warming impact holistically across its ingredients, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, etc.

Paper products - an easy way to help combat climate change

Paper products have some of the largest carbon footprints of all the things you buy, which means it's also the biggest opportunity to help combat climate change. Why? It centers on one of the largest greenhouse gas sources: deforestation (the others being oil production, electricity/transportation, and meat production).

A little context: despite having 4% of the world’s population, the US accounts for over 20% of the global toilet paper & paper towel consumption. We love it, but it also comes from other places we love -- forests from Maine to Washington, Alabama to Wisconsin (1). And especially Canada's boreal forest. Most of these tissues are made from clear cut trees, not pulp laying around as you'd expect and want to think, which means that choosing a low carbon footprint toilet paper will also help preserve indigenous communities and species. The average American family’s use of toilet paper and paper towels equates to 450 hours of barbecuing or driving 1300 miles every year (~550KG CO2e).

If all US households switch to a lower impact product we've identified, it'd be the equivalent of a forest half the size of California sequestering carbon for a year (2).

Quite the opportunity! As you personally know, this is hard to do for toilet papers unless you're really creative, easier to do for paper towels (more on that below). Since we all buy paper products here’s how you can reduce your impact on climate change:

  1. The best: 100% post-consumer recycled that’s FSC-certified (can reduce emissions by 70%)

  2. Next best: <100% recycled paper or FSC-certified bamboo

  3. The rest: virgin paper, hemp

But wait, what about bamboo and hemp are the best?! There’s conflicting science here — bottom line is it’s probably not better than recycled tree-based paper but it could be way, way worse (discussed in more detail below). 

OK, which products have the smallest carbon footprints?

To identify the lowest impact options, our algorithms look at a lot: amount of fiber, type of fiber, shipping manifests to identify likely electricity use and how far they've been transported. We then make sure our findings are highly rated so you can be confident they work!

Seventh Generation 100% Recycled Paper Towels have an estimated 86% decrease in emissions stemming almost entirely from using 100% recycled paper, and less of it compared to competitors. This estimate is conservative given

Seventh Generation 100% Recycled Toilet Paper have an estimated 84% reduction in emissions compared to the standard options. Are we just obsessed with Seventh Generation? No, in fact our algorithms did not their other products highly (like dishwasher detergents). They're one of the few brands who used 100% recycled paper, use less materials than others (it's 2 ply :) ), and don't fall into the bamboo trap.

What about getting off paper towels? Great idea. We estimate one dish towel made from organic cotton (washed on cold) like this one has the same carbon footprint as just 14 sheets of paper towel made from virgin wood. This difference comes from growing cotton vs. cutting down trees, and energy required to make a soft cloth from cotton vs. a hard tree. Yes, cotton isn't perfect, but from a climate change standpoint it's a no brainer.

What other products did we look at?

We ran other major options from brands like Brawny, Bounty, Amazon, Cottonelle, Charmin, Scott, Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, Seventh Generation, to the upstarts talking a lot about bamboo which just don't have the science to support making any real difference.

This all said, new products come onto the market every day, and we're scaling up our technology to survey even more products. But if you've found one you think is low emissions, let us know!

For the data nerds, let's dive into why some paper towels and toilet paper have 70% lower carbon emissions

Emissions for any product come from raw materials & manufacturing, packaging, transporting the product to you, your use of the product, and throwing the product away (or recycling). For paper products, the largest source of emissions that you can reduce comes from 

  1. materials: 50% of emissions come from sourcing wood

  2. manufacturing: 35% of emissions come from turning that wood into soft paper

  3. packaging: <1% from the packaging of the paper product

  4. Transportation, use, and disposal: ~15%, these are pretty much the same for all paper products.

Sources (2, 3, 4)

Emissions from Materials and Assembly

For most of the big producing companies (like Proctor and Gamble), tissue-based products like the ones listed above start in the forest. Once virgin wood is harvested, the logs are converted into pulp, bleached, screened, pressed, and dyed to produce the tissue which is finally made into different disposable products. In these steps there is energy, chemicals, oil, and water use which all contribute to climate change. For example, did you know that paper and pulp production constitutes 6% of the energy use in the entire USA (5)? In order to reduce the use of these carbon-producing processes, updated technologies must be employed. 

In total, about 50% of the GHG emissions come from sourcing of the main raw material, wood, and 35% come from manufacturing processes (6).

Not all paper products are made equally, and different materials result in different emissions. For example, if the tissue is produced with recycled paper, it will emit 69% less carbon into the atmosphere compared to the traditional Bounty or Charmin (7) which has been linked to deforesting Canada's boreal forest.

To make these calculations, our algorithms look at amount of fiber, type of fiber, shipping manifests to identify likely electricity use and how far they've been transported.

Photos from Government of Canada, NRDC, Conrads Tree and Landscape

Emissions from Packaging

There’s a huge focus on developing packaging that’s small and sustainable, but the packaging of tissue products is almost negligible, accounting for less than 1% of the total emissions. This is largely because the ingredients and manufacturing processes required for the production of tissue products is the key player in climate change.So while reduced packaging is nice, finding a product that uses recycled materials is ~50x more important when it comes to reducing climate impact. 

Emissions from Transportation and Disposal

While no GHGs are emitted from using the paper products, there are emissions from transportation and disposal. Emissions from transportation are generated when getting the product from the factory to you — and it’s only about 2% of total emissions. Lastly 13% of the emissions come from the disposal of the tissue product. When tissue decomposes, it releases the stored carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide gas. Since tissue paper is used to clean up messes, carbon emissions will be released when it’s thrown away and biodegrades.

How to see through marketing: 

Now you know the science, but how do you actually read product labels and see when you're at the store (hint: you can use the Truelabel extension when shopping online so you don't have to read labels)? Here are common tricks used in eco marketing and how you can see through it.

"Made with bamboo or hemp"

Verdict: it could lower emissions under very specific conditions, but on average it might be way worse than recycled tree-based paper. So why take the risk? The story for these products is compelling though — they require less land and resources(fertilizers, chemicals, and energy) to produce, and they have a short rotation age, unlike trees which take years to develop. What’s the catch? Much of this bamboo comes from far away countries that are cutting down forests to grow trendy products, and hemp requires more chemical fertilizers as well as manufacturing processes in crop production. Agriculture techniques make a big difference here, so there’s a wide variety and you can’t be sure that the product you’re buying is demonstrably better than just using recycled paper. 

That said, if it’s a bamboo product that’s has a FSC certification to prove it’s not causing deforestation, it’s likely better than virgin fiber alternatives like Charmin. But we recommend using recycled paper if you don’t want to risk causing more damage.

“Renewable energy”

Verdict: this matters, but don’t take the brand’s word that this means reduced emissions. Renewable energy can reduce emissions by 50%, but the type of renewable energy really matters. Ideally companies use their own solar panels or purchase-power-agreements that demonstrably add clean energy to the grid. For example, a company can be saying they use renewable energy by purchasing renewable energy credits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s less dirty energy on the grid — they’ve simply bought the right to say they’re using green energy that’s already been produced. Some use alternative power sources like, hydroelectric energy requires the use of dams so water can turn turbines and produce energy. These dams lead to environmental degradation (including carbon release into the atmosphere), flooding, and loss of habitats.


Verdict: yes, this is important in making sure you didn't buy paper that came from clear cut forests. FSC is the only certification that organizations trust to verify the supply chain of paper products. If you choose a FSC-recycled AND see that it’s 100% recycled, you can be sure you’re getting product with lower greenhouse gas emissions than a non-FSC, non-recycled alternative. 

“Recycled” (post-consumer recycled, that is)

Verdict: yes this can reduce emissions by 70% because of trees don't need to be cut down and turned into soft paper. Just make sure that it’s post-consumer recycled and as close to 100% as possible. Companies often only add some recycled materials or use scrap paper from other parts of their supply chain, so don’t be fooled! Just because their operations are inefficient and they're recycling that inefficiency doesn't mean greenhouse gasses are reduced.

Limitations and assumptions

While a LCA is an accurate method for estimating emissions of a product, there are limitations and assumptions we want to point out. 

  1. We calculate our percent changes by identifying a baseline product representing an example of the most commonly used product in that category. For example, for tissue products we used virgin wood since it is most commonly used by the world’s major paper-producing companies. 

  2. We also focus carbon emission equivalents from the product to better understand the climatic impact, which doesn’t take into effect impact on other aspects of the environment like biodiversity, pollution, etc.

  3. Our data model estimates carbon emissions and therefore isn't 100% accurate, That said, we believe empowering you with enough information to reduce emissions without knowing with 100% accuracy what that reduction is. If you’re a consumer or manufacturer who thinks we’re wrong, let us know or better yet prove us wrong by showing us your emissions. Furthermore, we can’t see into company supply chains, but as they become more forthcoming, this limitation will lessen. Lastly, we know that science changes day by day. As new products, technologies, and methodologies are developed, we will also evolve. This means our ratings and methodology will be continuously improved to reflect the most up-to-date research and so you can continue making a difference. 

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