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Why Plastic-Free Isn’t Always Better For the Environment

Why plastic-free isn’t always better for the environment, and how to navigate this minefield.

My post last week on plastic-free toilet paper sent a few of you into a spin, when I found out that in terms of carbon emissions, recycled toilet paper that’s made in the UK/EU and wrapped in plastic has a lower carbon footprint that plastic-free toilet paper shipped from China. That includes the popular brand Who Gives A Crap.

What’s more, a recent study showed that a paper bag has to be re-used four times before it’s more environmentally friendly (in terms of carbon emissions) than a plastic bag, and a reusable cotton bag a staggering 131 before it has a lower carbon footprint (and therefore, lower global warming potential) than a plastic bag.

What this means is that sustainability is a lot more nuanced than just saying plastic is bad; and paper, glass, cardboard, cotton and other natural materials are good.

Similarly, a basket of plastic-free fruit and vegetables that are shipped all the way from Egypt or South America are going to, mostly, have a higher carbon footprint than seasonal UK produce wrapped in plastic, that’s often there in the first place to prolong freshness and prevent food waste. The carbon footprint of packaging is only about 10% of the food we eat. It’s a tricky one to get your head around that less plastic doesn’t always equal better for the environment.

Whilst plastic reduction is a great entry point to sustainability, as plastic is a very visible reminder of our impact on the environment, there’s also a whole lot more at play, and the problem at hand too important to allow plastic to be the limits of our work to reduce our impact on the environment.

Whilst reducing plastic is important for our physical environment, we also need to look at other issues in parallel – such as, in the case of toilet paper or fresh produce, the impact of shipping goods from the other side of the globe, and our consumption patterns and those impacts on climate change.

Not sure what this should look like? The WWF’s Carbon Footprint calculator is a handy guide to show us where we can take the most impactful changes to reduce our individual global warming potential. Note that reducing plastic isn’t on there, but it often goes hand in hand with reducing our consumption of stuff.

The other bigger problem, is that by saying sustainability is all about plastic, then that immediately dismisses and disengages the large percentage of people who due to disability can’t prepare fresh vegetables; or can’t afford the often costlier plastic-free options; or who don’t have access to plastic-free options, such as bulk shops.

By saying that sustainability is all about being plastic-free, then sustainability becomes an unwelcome tool to segregate and divide society, and a big blinking neon beacon of privilege, at a time when we need everyone to work together.

What does this mean in terms of decision making when we need to buy things? How do we navigate this minefield that sometimes plastic is bad and sometimes it’s good?

A single blog post how on how to navigate life would be overwhelming. But I thought that taking one bit of it – the bit I get asked about the most often – food shopping – might be helpful. And there might be lessons we can learn from the food that we buy that we can apply to other aspects of life.

So let me share my approach to lower carbon food shopping in a wholly imperfect food system, and then the lessons from that, that can be applied to life in general:

My Approach to Lower Carbon Food

I’m limited in what produce we can buy because I live in a less well-off area, that has a 35% child poverty level. This means no zero-waste stores, and no Waitrose stores.

The fact that 35% of kids live in poverty upsets me 100% more than the fact that there are no zero-waste bulk shops near me. I’d rather everyone could eat, and didn’t have to rely on food banks, rather than there being a zero-waste shop in our area that only a privileged few could afford to shop at. Wringing my hands over a lack of zero-waste places to shop seems like a privilege too far, so I don’t.

For me to visit a zero-waste shop would necessitate a 24 mile round trip to my nearest zero-waste shop. The time, money and extra fuel involved to do so means I don’t, so this is my approach to low carbon food at the supermarket. I’m not perfect, our food systems aren’t perfect, and your food shopping processes might look different depending on what you have access to, and on your capacity, but let’s give this a go:

Fruit and Veg

I try to buy loose seasonal UK fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. If there are only UK seasonal produce wrapped in plastic then I’ll opt for that because the carbon footprint of the plastic packaging is often (but, for added complication, not always!) far less than that of unpackaged fruit and vegetables shipped from places like Chile.

If there are wonky fruits and vegetables available, then, regardless of where they have come from and how they are packaged, then these are a good buy because these are fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be discarded (i.e. binned) because they are not deemed “perfect” enough for consumers.

With fruit that comes in a bunch, e.g. bananas, I buy the single ones, rather than immediately reaching for the ones already in a bunch. It’s been found that shoppers are less likely to choose single bananas, and these often get left behind and binned. Bananas have a surprisingly low carbon footprint (told you it’s complicated!).

We often buy canned vegetables, such as mushrooms, as we found when we bought fresh mushrooms these often went off in the fridge as we didn’t use them all in time. Now when we make vegan chilli or stew we use a whole can of mushrooms with no food waste.

If you need to opt for pre-prepared vegetables wrapped in plastic because of circumstance then you do that and do not ever feel guilty. Those of us who can prepare fresh vegetables will do the heavy lifting on this one.

Packaged Food

Vegan food packaged in plastic has a significantly lower carbon footprint than meat that you can buy unpackaged from the butcher. Particularly beef and lamb. I try not to buy too much, but vegan soft “cheese” and vegan yoghurt often feature in my shopping trolley.

The reduced section is a great place to buy any food, even meat if you eat it, particularly at the end of a day, because a) it’s generally very cheap and b) if you don’t buy it then it’s probably going to go in the bin. Not composted. Just straight in the bin, where it will create methane, that has a global warming potential that’s around 28 times higher than that of CO2. Of course, it’s only a good buy if you are actually going to eat it. Either make sure you eat it that day or check the label to see if it’s freezable, and freeze and eat another day. If not, leave it for someone else who may appreciate it more.

As a working parents, we don’t always have time or energy to cook every meal from scratch. In the frozen section, a lot of vegetarian and vegan produce comes in cardboard boxes. I like to keep boxes of Quorn vegan fishless fingers to hand, for example, for those evenings.

At the moment I am buying staples such as pasta and rice in plastic because of a lack of other options. I try to buy the biggest bags I can to reduce plastic in that way. Sometimes I find Barilla pasta that comes in a cardboard box, but otherwise, I don’t sweat it.

Other Food & Shopping Tips

Taking my own bags and produce bags* and remembering to use them is super important – remember it takes 131 uses before a cotton bag has less global warming potential than a plastic bag,

Meal planning is king – having an idea of what you are going to cook is a good idea so you only buy what you need.

Repurposing leftovers – having them for lunch the next day or dinner the next evening, or freezing for later, is key to avoiding waste, and saving money. If food waste were a country, scarily it would be the third largest behind the US and China in terms of global warming potential.

With that in mind, getting creative with food-waste is a good idea (including this!) and composting anything unused and leftover, if possible,

We bought a cheap slow cooker* a couple of years ago – this makes cooking from scratch a whole lot easier on the days when we are both at work. We can pop it on in the morning, if we’re not running around like headless chickens trying to get everyone out of the door and to the right place on time, and return home in the evening to a home-cooked meal that’s low on packaging. If there are leftovers then that’s lunch for the next day, or a meal for the freezer.

I’m not always the best at this, but following on from this, taking lunch to work means I can make something vegan (vegan takeaway options can be hard to find in the town where I work), and save on packaging.

I’m sure there are a hundred thousand other tips on low carbon foot and eating. It’s easily a subject for an entire book, but this is my general philosophy towards food.

Key Lessons

How this discussion on food fits in to the wider issue of environmentalism is that I hope it shows how a bit of pragmatism is needed, and this pragmatism can be applied to all aspects of life:

  • Consuming only what we need is probably the biggest thing we can do, in all aspects of life, to be more sustainable.
  • Thinking about where an item has been made and shipped from and the emissions involved is an important consideration. This can be complex – I found this book* incredibly helpful.
  • Plastic-free doesn’t always mean better – it’s a great place to start but our environmental activism can and should extend beyond just a focus on plastic.
  • This doesn’t give us carte blanche to go mad on plastic – reducing plastic where we practically can is still important because of it’s impacts on the physical environment and marine life.
  • Reusing what we have and reducing waste, particularly food waste, is incredibly important and should not be underestimated.
  • Just because something doesn’t look perfect doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
  • Remember that not everyone has equal access/opportunities/abilities so everyone’s actions will look different.

It’s certainly all food for thought but I hope that these tips will guide you through any purchasing decisions.

Maybe you have any other tips you would add? Maybe you have some you disagree with? Maybe I’ve fried your brain? Either way, let’s chat!

Health & Beauty, Home, Home and Garden, Life & Style

Which Is The Best Plastic-Free Toilet Paper?

best plastic-free toilet paper

This post contains affiliate links

I get lots of emails a day, and lately many of them seem to be on the topic of bums.  Specifically, on which is the best plastic-free toilet paper for our bums and for the environment.  

I’ve got young kids, so I’m used to speaking about bums on very regular, sometimes too regular basis.  Frankly, it’s refreshing to be asked about the environmental credentials of toilet paper rather than fielding such classic questions as “Mum, why do we fart” and “Mum, where does poo come from”. 

To be honest, we were using supermarket own brand recycled toilet paper until the start of this year, so this is an area fairly new to me.  I hadn’t given loo roll much consideration before.  It turns out, however, softness aside, there are a whole host of environmental and social factors of toilet paper to consider.  From what the paper is made of, where it’s made, how it’s packaged, and how it got to your bathroom, and more.   

I’ve been able to find three plastic-free toilet rolls.  Let’s dive in and take a look at the environmental credentials of the various plastic-free toilet paper brands available in the UK:

Which Is The Best Plastic-Free Toilet Paper?

Greencane Plastic-Free Toilet Paper

greencane toilet roll

Cost: £25.20 for a box of 48 rolls (53p per roll)

UK shipping cost: £4.44

Roll size: 300 sheets of 2 ply paper

Made in/ships from: Southern Asia

Packaged in: Cardboard Box, rolls arrive ‘naked’

Greencane was my first foray into plastic-free toilet paper.  I ordered a box at the end of January and was delighted when, a few days later, a box of 48 toilet rolls arrived unwrapped in a cardboard box.  I loved the fact that the box was sealed with paper tape.  In fact, the only plastic that I found was a small bit of plastic on the outside of the box containing the invoice.

The only thing I hadn’t accounted for was the fact that 48 toilet rolls would be arriving on my doorstep.  Let’s just say that this is a little bit more than the pack of nine toilet roll that I normally bought from the supermarket, and I hadn’t anticipated what 48 rolls would actually look like.  We had to get a bit creative with where we would store all this toilet roll.  Something to consider before you order!

Greencane isn’t the softest toilet paper I’ve ever tried – it’s no 3-ply quilted luxury loo roll – but then again, it’s not scratchy or worse, like tracing paper.  It simply does the job perfectly fine, and I’ve had no complaints from any of my family.  

Greencane toilet paper is made from a mix of materials.  70% is made from a mix of recycled sugarcane and bamboo fibre (bagasse), a byproduct of the sugar refining process.  The other 30% is wood pulp, which is added for softness.  Greencane says this wood pulp is certified but don’t say what this certification is. 

Greencane does bleach their toilet paper to make it white, but say they don’t use chlorine in the bleaching process.  They don’t say what they do use in its place and ambiguously state that “we believe that the assurance of having ISO14001 Environmental Certification ensure correct and safe bleaching & environmental manufacturing“.  

Our box from January is still going strong, and as of the end of May, we have enough rolls for one to two more weeks.  We’re a family of four, and in this period went through potty training our littlest and having builders (sometimes as many as five) in for 6 weeks – so I’d guess normally a box could last around 5 months.  

Who Gives A Crap

who gives a crap toilet roll environmentally friendly

Cost: £36 for 48 rolls of recycled toilet paper (75p per roll) or £40 for 48 rolls of bamboo toilet paper (83p per roll)

UK shipping cost: Free over £20

Roll size: 400 sheets of 3 ply paper

Made in/ships from: China

Packaged in: Cardboard Box, Each Roll Individually Wrapped in Paper

In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t used Who Gives A Crap before, beyond a single roll of the recycled paper that I bought in a bulk shop for what felt like a hugely expensive £1 for a single roll of toilet paper, mostly because I’ve always been pretty skeptical about Who Gives A Crap.  

Who Gives A Crap sell two types of plastic-free toilet paper in bulk boxes of 48 –  one made from virgin bamboo and the other made from recycled paper, with each roll being individually wrapped in jazzy paper.  As well as being plastic-free, 50% of Who Gives A Crap profits go to clean water charities such as WaterAid Australia and WaterAid America.   

I know what you’re thinking here – what’s not to love Wendy?  I do deeply admire the charitable giving nature of Who Gives A Crap, and of course the plastic-free element.  What doesn’t sit well with me is the fact that each roll of toilet paper is individually wrapped.  That’s a lot of unnecessary paper from one box of 48 toilet rolls.  

Paper, whilst plastic-free, isn’t environmentally neutral.  A recent study showed that a paper bag has to be re-used four times before it’s more environmentally friendly (in terms of carbon emissions) than a plastic bag.  Whilst people do say they re-use the paper wrappers to light their fires, or to wrap gifts, how you can get four uses out of a toilet paper wrapper to make it more environmentally friendly is likely to be a stretch.  

Who Gives A Crap say that the individual wrappers are for both hygiene reasons and to keep the paper moisture free, however, if Greencane can manage it then it’s a bit of a hollow excuse.

I had a feeling there was probably more to it, then I found the answer in the Who Gives A Crap FAQ:

“We think they look cute. They work wonders as an online product because they’re eye-catching and shareable. We know this because our customers are constantly sharing snaps of their deliveries on social media, and gifting rolls to friends. This is really important because the more people share what we’re doing, the more we can grow and the more toilet-building and sanitation projects we can fund! (plus, it’s cheaper than paid advertising)“.

So what they are saying is that individually wrapped rolls are a marketing and money making decision, framed as a fundraising decision.  Businesses, have to be profitable to be viable, but I think other planet-friendly advertising options exist that don’t require every single roll to be individually wrapped in paper.  

There is also the argument that because Who Gives A Crap are double length, that you need to buy a lot less, so it may have a reduced environmental impact in that sense.  Indeed, Who Gives A Crap are double length – 400 sheets – compared to EcoLeaf’s 200 sheets.  Greencane sits in the middle with 300 sheets.  

As I haven’t used Who Gives A Crap beyond one roll, I did a highly scientific poll on Instagram – asking Moral Fibres followers who used Who Gives A Crap a) how big their family is and b) how long a box has lasted them. 

I received a load of responses (thank you if you responded), with on average a box lasting a family of four around 5-6 months. – maybe an extra month compared to Greencane. 

In terms of quality, I didn’t notice a difference between Who Gives A Crap 3 ply paper, compared to the others, which are all 2 ply.  The paper didn’t feel any softer or harder than the others either. After trying multiple types of toilet paper, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all a much of a muchness in terms of paper quality in the recycled eco-friendly toilet paper sphere.  

Ecoleaf

ecoleaf toilet paper plastic-free

Cost: £4.39 for 9 rolls (49p per roll) / £21.96 for 45 rolls (49p per roll)

UK shipping cost: £3.95 (also available in shops)

Roll size: 200 sheets of 2 ply paper

Made in/ships from: UK

Packaged in: Compostable Wrapper

Ecoleaf toilet paper is made in the UK from 100% recycled fibre sourced exclusively from the UK.  Suma, the workers cooperative who produce Ecoleaf, have a long history of ethical trading and an equal pay policy for workers.  

Ecoleaf is available in packs of 9 toilet paper rolls, and is packaged in a compostable bag.  The bag is not home compostable – you will need to pop it in your kerbside food waste bin if you have one, and your local council allows you to place this type of material in your food waste bin.  If your local council does not collect this type of material it will have to go in landfill, where it won’t probably won’t ever compost

As well as a pack of 9, you can buy Ecoleaf toilet paper in bulk sizes – you can get 45 rolls for £21.96.  This is delivered in 5 packs of the 9 rolls.  Whilst I haven’t bought it in bulk, reviews on both Ethical Superstore and Amazon do mention that the bulk rolls come packaged together in a plastic bag.  It would be great if Suma could find a way to do away with this plastic bag, as it does negate the compostable wrapper.

We have only just started using Ecoleaf so I couldn’t tell you how long it lasts for,  but I will update this post on our experience in due course.    The paper is neither super soft nor scratchy – again telling the difference between Who Gives A Crap and Greencane, or picking a clear winner, is simply too difficult.

The downside to Ecoleaf is that as it made of recycled paper, then, like all recycled paper (including Who Gives A Crap), is that it may contain trace amounts of BPA – bisphenol A – an industrial chemical with potentially negative impacts on health.  This article on Grist provides a good and well-balanced overview on why BPA from recycled paper only accounts for 2% of our exposure to BPA compared to the 98% from food packaging, and why choosing recycled paper over paper made from virgin trees is overall better for us and the environment.  

Other Plastic-Free Toilet Paper Options

If none of these options sound particularly environmentally friendly to you then there is the reusable route – sometimes ‘delightfully’ known as ‘the family cloth‘.

That’s All Great Wendy, But Which Plastic-Free Toilet Paper Do You Buy?

plastic-free toilet paper

Oh you, with your tricky questions!  Each toilet paper definitely has its pros and cons that I don’t think it’s possible to say with any certainty which is the most environmentally paper type of toilet paper.  Hopefully, this post encourages people to think about their options.

Personally?  I’ve tried all three, the quality of each is much the same, and so I’m sticking with Ecoleaf.

Both Greencane and Who Gives A Crap are both manufactured and produced in Asia, and shipped on boats to the UK, which depending on where you read is terrible in terms of carbon emissions or incredibly efficient in terms of carbon emissions.  Either way, shipping a product all the way around the world to simply use once to wipe our bums and then flush down the toilet, seems to me such an incredible waste of resources.  

Whether that fact that Who Gives A Crap rolls are 100% longer than Ecoleaf; and Greencane 50% longer than Ecoleaf; and thereby require fewer shipments makes them more environmentally friendly, I do not know.  

What I do know is that there are huge unregulated issues with human rights when it comes to shipping and the people who work in the shipping industry – including abuse, slavery, and unsafe working conditions which are beyond the control and scope of both Greencane and Who Gives A Crap.  Although sourcing everything in the UK isn’t always possible, where there is a UK alternative that I can afford then I’d rather support it.     

The other key factor for me is money.  When the default zero waste option involves spending quite a bit of money up front, it’s hardly intersectional. Not everyone has the financial ability to buy 5 or 6 months worth of toilet paper in one go.   I personally can’t always afford to buy toilet paper in bulk, or even always find space to store it, so from the point of view of being able to pick up a pack of nine at a local shop is often a more doable option.  

Whilst I really like the charitable element of Who Gives A Crap, donating directly to clean water charities such as Water Aid is always an option.

Have you found other types of toilet paper?  Or do you use family cloth?  I have to admit, I’m quite some way off introducing my family to this concept…!