How did you all come up with the idea for PlantPaper?
About five years ago, we learned that toilet paper wasn’t always made from trees. The first commercially available toilet paper was made from something called manila hemp, from the leaf of a kind of banana tree. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that Scott Paper Co. began turning timber into toilet paper, buying up and then clear-cutting hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin forest in the process. That was what first piqued our interest: the discovery that toilet paper hadn’t always been—and probably would not always be—made from trees.
We subsequently learned that making white, fluffy paper from wood requires huge amounts of energy, water, and harsh chemicals, including a handful of known carcinogens. Unlike cosmetic products and foods, toilet paper has not been closely regulated by the FDA, perhaps because we seem to interact with it in only a superficial way. But the fact is that the presence of these chemicals in toilet paper, even in trace amounts, has material impacts on the health of our bodies. Studies have linked the use of conventional toilet paper to hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and vulvitis. What’s more, those chemicals find their way into our waterways and sewage systems, where they are known to form persistent organic pollutants—toxic compounds that, once created, are not easily eradicated.
We started PlantPaper on the basis of an idea: ecology is intimate. We realized that the decisions we make in the bathroom resonate in the natural world, and what we do to the natural world has profound impacts on our bodies and health. We wanted to make a toilet paper rooted in this understanding. A toilet paper that would protect, not destroy, our most precious and vulnerable environments.
How long did it take to create PlantPaper, we imagine the process was long, given the complete shift from how toilet paper is traditionally made?
The whole process took almost three years. The first year or so was spent trying to make toilet paper from hemp. We ended up with a very soft, very strong 100% hemp paper prototype—but the supply chain just wasn’t there. So we pivoted to bamboo. From there, it was another year and a half of working with a number of manufacturers to try to find the right recipe, the right technique.
The actual process of making bamboo toilet paper does not differ fundamentally from that used to make paper from wood. It’s just breaking down cellulose into pulp, rolling it out, and then cutting it up. It’s just that bamboo requires far less energy in the form of heat, water and chemicals to break down that cellulose into a slurry. Most bamboo toilet paper, like tree paper, is bleached, but from the outset, we were set on eliminating all unnecessary chemical processing. Most manufacturers would tell us that the bleach not only served to whiten the paper, but also made it feel softer. What we discovered, however, was that there were other parameters we could control to achieve softness and absorbency without needing to rely on bleach. We pushed our manufacturers to use their equipment in ways they hadn’t before, to tinker, to tweak. We knew that if our toilet paper was going to succeed, it needed not to feel like a trade-off from the Charmins and Cottonelles of the world. It needed to feel like a trade-up.
You are very vocal about why we should not be cutting down trees to make toilet paper. Why is this so important to you and what are some facts we should know about its implications?
Most tree paper sold in the US contains a significant percentage of pulp derived from the Canadian Boreal Forest. This old growth forest, which spans Canada (and the rest of the northern hemisphere) just below the Arctic circle, is the world’s most important carbon sink. It stores more carbon than all of the world’s gas, coal and oil reserves combined, and removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere equivalent to the annual emissions of 24 million passenger vehicles. It is also home to hundreds of indigenous communities and endangered wildlife species. If you were to think of the most wasteful, most perverse use of this irreplaceable natural resource, you might think of something like toilet paper—a product whose useful lifespan is a matter of seconds.
The paper and forestry industries like to say they plant more trees each year than they cut down, but not all trees are equal. Replanting tracts of clearcut Boreal Forest no more restores the original ecological complexity or capacity for carbon storage than a bald man taking Propecia restores a full head of hair. It would take hundreds or thousands of years for these forests to regain their original state; the forestry industry cuts the trees it plants between 20 and 40 years after planting.
In addition to trees, what other ingredients were important for you to avoid when creating PlantPaper? Also, why isn’t PlantPaper white?
The number one and two ingredients we wanted to avoid were bleach and formaldehyde.
There are a lot of ways to whiten toilet paper, some of them worse than others. Twenty or thirty years ago, most toilet paper was whitened using chlorine, a toxic gas which combines with lignins in wood to produce carcinogenic compounds called dioxins. In the 2000s, the work of environmental groups led to regulation that forced the major paper manufacturers to switch to a process called ECF, or elemental chlorine-free. This is a much cleaner way to whiten paper than with chlorine, but it still uses chlorine dioxide—a more stable, though still toxic compound.
We wanted to make a paper that was free of bleach and whitening agents of any kind. As a result, PlantPaper has a warm, natural tone that reflects the color of the bamboo pulp from which it is made. Given how intimately toilet paper is used, we just felt bleaching should have no place in that process.
As for formaldehyde, it’s in a lot of household products, including most toilet paper and paper towel, where it’s used to improve wet strength. It’s well known that formaldehyde is a skin irritant, and that in higher concentrations, it’s carcinogenic. We knew there had to be other ways to get the strength and durability people required of their toilet paper—and there were.
Tell us about your decision to use bamboo as the primary ingredient.
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth, and one of the most sustainable fibers. It requires less water to grow than trees, stores more carbon, and releases more oxygen. The more regularly it’s harvested, the faster it grows. While trees require 20-40 years to reach maturity before they’re cut, bamboo needs less than a year and it’s capable of growing up to three feet in 24 hours. Bamboo’s long fibers means it produces stronger, softer paper requiring less intensive chemical processing. Stronger, softer paper means you use less on every trip.
For us, bamboo is the starting point, not the endpoint. We love what we’ve been able to do with bamboo to this point, and we love how sustainable it is. But we’re hard at work on prototypes made from other sources of pulp, including various agricultural waste streams. Stay tuned.
We love how soft and strong PlantPaper is. Can you give us insight into how you achieved this feel?
An unwillingness to take no for an answer from our manufacturers. We kept pushing them to try different things, use their equipment in different ways. They grew tired of our perfectionism—the markets for which they normally produce have very different expectations in terms of how toilet paper should look and feel—but in the end, even they had to agree that we’d achieved something special.
Why the dotted matrix?
Most toilet paper is embossed because it’s a way of getting multiple plys to adhere better to one another. That’s why you won’t see embossing patterns on the single ply toilet paper you’re likely to find on dispensers in public bathrooms.
While the embossing you see on most toilet paper brands made for home use does help with their ply adhesion, it doesn’t do much for the actual texture of the paper—or the resulting performance.
When we first started designing our rolls, we felt there had to be a way to get more out of the embossing process. Was it possible, we wondered, to give toilet paper two different textures—one on each side of the sheet? And could these two textures actually be functionally different?
After lots of trial and error, we finally landed on a solution. The result is our signature pebbled dimpling pattern. On the outside—the side you see in the image above—PlantPaper is silky. On the inside—the hidden side—PlantPaper is grippy.
Can you explain a bit about why PlantPaper is superior to recycled toilet paper?
It’s true that toilet paper made from 100% recycled pulp requires no new trees to be cut down. That’s a great thing, but it’s not the whole story.
With increasing rates of paper recycling around the world, the recycling stream contains a wider range of waste paper than ever before, which in turn means a broader range of potentially harmful chemicals and toxic metal residues in the feedstock—over 150 of them, according to one study.
In turning waste paper into recycled paper products, factories then apply a host of other harsh chemicals in the de-inking and bleaching processes, including ozone and halogenated hydrocarbons, which remain in the waste water from the production process.
But even these intensive processing techniques are unable to completely eliminate the hazardous compounds found in the original waste paper. These compounds, including phthalates, parabens and phenols contaminate our sewage systems, poison our waterways and harm our bodies--and they’re present in recycled paper products of every kind.
Repeated exposure to chemicals like BPA and BPS, both known endocrine disruptors, has been linked to cancer, liver and thyroid problems, birth defects and heart disease.
The amount of such compounds contained in any single roll is very small, it’s true. But over the course of a year, a decade, a lifetime, it adds up to a practice that is less sustainable than it first appears.
Everything with PlantPaper has thought and intention behind it. Tell us how your packaging speaks to your commitment to sustainability?
It amazes us that companies like Seventh Generation, companies that have huge budgets for packaging R&D, still wrap their paper products in plastic.
We made the choice early on to be entirely plastic-free throughout our supply chain. That meant packaging all of our rolls in 100% recycled, recyclable paper and chipboard. It also meant ensuring our shipping and warehousing partners avoided using plastic in the palletization and transportation of our products. We discovered that most fulfillment companies wrap stored inventory in plastic, so even if the consumer doesn’t see it, it’s still there. We’ve been fortunate to work with partners who were willing to go the extra mile for us. Equally, we’ve been fortunate that our customers have been willing to pay a few cents more per roll to help us achieve this commitment in a way that is sustainable for the business.
We appreciate that some other ecologically conscientious toilet paper companies are avoiding plastic by wrapping all of their rolls individually in paper. What we did instead was create a box from recycled paper stock to house our rolls so that we could avoid all that individual wrapping.
Your branding is completely different from more traditional toilet paper brands on the market, who have been known to use animated characters and speak in euphemisms. Why was it important for you to take a more honest approach?
Toilet paper marketing has a fascinating history. The target buyer was always the woman of the household, and early toilet paper branding and marketing was designed to minimize any sense of embarrassment she might have when purchasing the product--hence the profusion of euphemisms. At the same time, this habit of speaking only very indirectly about what toilet paper really is and what job it’s meant to do has conveniently allowed the major toilet paper companies to keep people from thinking too long and hard about what really goes into their toilet paper.
Our approach was to push back hard in the other direction, to very explicitly encourage people to make connections between the product they’re buying and the impact it has on their bodies and the planet. We felt strongly that the taboos of yesteryear weren’t serving anybody except the big toilet paper companies themselves.
While we’ve worked hard to draw attention to the political, ecological and human health dimensions of toilet paper using all of the visual storytelling tools at our disposal, in the end we also wanted a brand and product that were discreet enough and universal enough to fit seamlessly into people’s homes and lives. And so you see us avoiding bright colors and flashy, decorative graphics in favor of a more utilitarian, if still graphically bold approach.
What do you see in the future for PlantPaper? Where do you want it to go?
For us, PlantPaper is about building a platform that utilizes thoughtful product design and engaging storytelling to show people how the choices they make on a daily basis really do matter, and that making better choices need not require a sacrifice in personal comfort, quality or performance. PlantPaper exists as much to promote this new paradigm as it does to actualize it in the form of new products. Innovation requires education, and we’re looking forward to finding new ways to connect, inform, and inspire.