Discovering the potential of toilet paper to be more circular
For the last decades our economy has been linear. This means we take raw materials and process them into products that are thrown away after usage, ending up in landfills or incineration plants. The take-make-waste philosophy is the core of the linear economy.
As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains, the circular economy is a new way to design, make, and use things within planetary boundaries. Designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
The primary aim with this project is to make the lifecycle of toilet paper more transparent as a way to raise awareness on the circular potentials of daily products.
Starting with the PRODUCTION we take a closer look onto the raw materials and their origins, the manufacturing process and the transportation.
Scrolling down to the USAGE we will talk about figures. Can you imagine how the global consumption of toilet paper or even your own looks like?
Out of sight, out of mind?
Let's understand better what is happening to our toilet paper AFTER THE FLUSH and how valuable resources can be reused.
Let’s trace the toilet paper back to its roots. What is toilet paper made of?
The raw material source of fresh fibers are trees. Long fibers give the paper strength and come from softwood trees like southern pines and douglas. Hardwood trees like maple and oak have shorter fibers that make the paper soft.
Toilet tissues made from recycled paper are mainly made from discarded paper materials like old newspapers. It is generally cheaper and more environmental friendly. Recycled fibres can be used up to six times. Reusage reduces wood consumption!
of the total amount of imported short-fibre chemical pulp comes from the Brazlian forests and is used for the production of toilet paper.
What is happening to the fresh fibers in the pulp mill? How is the timber of the trees processed?
Trees are felled and cut into logs
Logs are debarked and turned into wood chips
Chemical process removes lignin and other natural adhesives from cellulose
Chemical bleaching process whitens the pulp
The bleaching process releases elemental chlorine gas, a highly toxic substance, as a by-product into air and water impacting people, animals and our environment.
As a result from each cooked batch, we get usable cellulose fiber, called chemical pulp.
Maritime transport emits around 940 million tonnes of CO2 annually and is responsible for about 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Chemical pulp is mixed with water to produce paper stock
Paper stock is transferred to a heated cylinder to press and dry the paper
Paper is creped to make it very soft and give it a wrinkled look
Paper is wound on jumbo reels and wound on long thin cardboard tubes
The paper logs are cut into rolls and wrapped in packages.
Every year thousands of trees are lost to create products like toilet paper – instead, recycled toilet paper is made from post-consumer waste, such as newspaper, textbooks and office paper.
To give you a little guide for your next toilet paper shopping, here are some labels you could be aware of.
Cradle to Cradle Certified™ is a globally recognized, but mostly unknown measure of safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy. Cradle to Cradle wants to close the circle: From product to new product without loss of the material quality. The certification evaluates five sustainability categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. Next to a lot of other Cradle to Cradle certified products, you will find the "Satino Black" toilet paper.
The German ecolabel guarantees that the toilet paper meets high standards when it comes to its environmental, health and performance characteristics. The product is always evaluated across its entire life cycle. The awarded products are reviewed every three to four years.
They guarantee low use of energy and water in the manufacturing process and products made from 100% waste paper and particularly low level of harmful materials.
FSC is an international, non-profit organisation that promotes the ecologically and socially responsible use of forests. The wood raw material of FSC-labelled paper comes from certified wood and from controlled sources or waste paper. However, no environmental criteria such as energy and water consumption or the use of chemicals are taken into account during production.
The label stands for an international certification system of organisations from the forestry and timber industry. Papers with the PEFC label are produced from fresh wood fibres that come from certified forestry. A proportion of waste paper can be added.
Lower ecological and social criteria are applied to the label and it does not say anything about the chemicals used.
Wood-free does not mean wood-free! It should actually be called wood pulp-free. Mechanical pulp (lingnin) is a paper based material that causes paper to yellow more. So the word wood-free only means that the paper does not become as yellow as it would otherwise.
Chlorine-free gives the impression of an environmentally friendly product. At best, it is leading to less water pollution - but in no way does it preserve the rainforests.
Estimates from the Statista Consumer Market Outlook show that, in comparision to other countries, Germany is the second in the ranking when it comes to the use of toilet paper.
Toilet paper rolls per person in 2018
You can download our report as a pdf, stick it next to your toilet and start tracking
The goal of the report is to reflect on our own toilet paper consumption as an example of a daily product that has a linear life cycle and we loose track of once we flush it. A limitation of the survey is that it only refers to domestic consumption (the toilet paper we use at work, university, school, etc. is not counted).
We asked 23 households to track their toilet paper consumption with the Toilet Report and found out that in average the reporters used three and a half toilet paper rolls a month. The answers we received ranged from 1 to 8 rolls a month, which could be explained by many factors, like the difference between the hours the reporters spent at home.
In the graphic, the y-axis shows the number of reporters (people participating). 48 people living in 23 households of different sizes took part in our survey. The x-axis shows their average consumption. Five reporters have used in average only one roll a month while three of them used 8. The majority of reporters, 13, used 3 toilet paper rolls during that month.
Due to the limitations of our survey and the small amount of answers, the Toilet Report was not representative but a tool for reflection. We were impressed with the feedback we got from our reportes, which expressed being more aware of their consumption thanks to the Toilet Report.
*The different result compared to the Statista analysis is explained by the fact that Statista probably starts from the sales figures. In contrast, we could only determine the consumption at home.
The toilet paper flows down the drain into our canalization…
...and arrives at the sewage treatment plant, where it is going to be treated with all the other things we flush down.
In the mechanical wastewater treatment the water is raked and anything larger than 8mm is removed. Afterwards a fine suspended matter settles as sludge on the bottom, which is then sucked off and transported to a digester. 30 % of the pollutants have now been removed
Microorganisms, take up the dissolved organic substances as food, therefore it is called biological cleaning process. The wastewater is now 90 % purified. By adding a chemical solution, the residual dirt settles as sludge, which is fed into the digestion tower.
During the cleaning process the sludge comming from the different cleaning phases is gathered and transformed into…
In the septic tank, the sludge is subjected to a fermentation process under exclusion of air and supply of bacteria. At the end the digested sludge is burned.
Recycling phosphorus from the ashes of sewage sludge produces a mineral fertilizer that can be used in agriculture.
In the current state, the flushed toiletpaper is understood as a waste product.
How can toilet paper stop being waste and become a secondary raw material?
Transitioning to the circular economy principles, we want to recycle the currently so-called waste products at the end of their service life into new products.
And that is exactly what two Dutch companies (KNN Cellulose and CirTec) invented: the Cellvation® technology, by which cellulose is recovered from sewage water and waste is transformed into a resource. The technology is installed directly after the rake in the mechanical cleaning process.
The first steps are similar to our regular sewage plant.
After removing hair and other contaminants the sewage water flows through the so called Salsnes Filter.
The sievings are transported to and dewatered by the "CellPress".
The sievings are hygienised at 140ºC, ensuring a clean and safe product.
The dried product is turned into fluffy cellulose or compacted into pellets.
The end product is called Recell® - recycled and sustainable cellulose.
The filter system is a PLUS POINT for every sewage treatment plant and our environment, because:
Recycled cellulose has perfect thermal insulation properties. It has a good acoustic and moisture control properties compared to other insulation material.
It is available as blown-in cellulose insulation material and also as cellulose plates.
Paving bikeways in toiletpaper a 1 km long bike roadway connects the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden to the town of Stiens and has the distinction of being the world’s first bicycle lane paved with toilet paper.
More bicylce pathways can be made with recycled toiletpaper
Recell® Biocomposite is a alternative to traditional plastics and finds its application in flower pots, cladding, decking, and garden furniture.
Mixing recycled cellulose (Recell®) with (bio)polymers results lower CO2 emission and environmental costs.
Fecal Matters is a research project from the Greenlab at Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin looking into design potentials and possible applications for recovered cellulose. Within the project, they designed possible ways to create new products: extrusion, spreading, moulding and 3-D printing.
Fecal Matters created yarn from the recycled cellulose (virgin cellulose is already used to produce yarn, such as viscose or modal).
To extrude long threads, which do not break, they found that "the cellulose had to be grinded to an extremely fine cellulose fluff to be able to combine smoothly with the natural binder" (like pectin coming from apple waste)
It is possible to 3D print plates and other tableware with recycled cellulose.
A mixture of grinded cellulose fluff, water and using Xanthan as a binder and a bit of anti mold substance gives a solid result - stable and very lightweighted.
During our journey we discovered that previous waste products can be turned into new materials while saving resources. This means a change of our current system and a transformation towards an urgently needed circular economy. If even toilet paper can, what else?
For a holistic evaluation, we need to consider, if the recycled material can stay in a loop as well and how durable the new products really are - compared to ones we currently use.
We will keep these questions open for now.
LOO|P is an applied research project by students of the FH Potsdam
(Clara Lozano, Design MA. and Lena Blüggel & Chantal Schöpp, Urban Future MA.).
Mapping Cities – Making Cities by Prof. Dr. Marian Dörk
University of Applied Sciences Potsdam
21/02/2020 (winter semester 2019/2020)
Julia Eckert, Cradle to Cradle NGO
Fecal Matters team, Kunsthochschule Weißensee
Yme Flapper, Recell from KNN Cellulose
Arne Kuczmera, Berliner Wasserbetriebe
Carlijn Lahaye, CirTec
Christian Remy, Kompetenzzentrum Wasser Berlin