Why should I avoid paper products?

Why should I avoid paper products?

Photo: Unsplash.com / @diana_pole

Paper products like napkins, paper towels, tissues, and toilet paper are omnipresent in our lives. Did you spill your coffee on the kitchen counter? No problem, just reach for a paper towel and it will absorb the mess in no time. Then you throw away the paper towel and voilà, clean-up is done! Paper products are often convenient, easy to use, and can be discarded quickly.

North America is one of the biggest paper product consumers worldwide. At the turn of the millennium, consumption of paper products had doubled since the 1960s. However, paper products come with devastating consequences. The pulp and paper industry manufactures paper products out of pulp, which comes from wood fibres. The industry has been linked to many environmental issues such as deforestation, air and water pollution, landfill overflow, as well as social conflicts and human rights issues. There have also been some concerns about the negative impacts paper products have on our health because of by-products such as harmful chemicals. Read on to learn more about these issues and what you can do to break up with paper products and embrace alternatives.

What harmful toxins are found in paper products?

1) Chlorine bleach

Paper products are made from pulp, a mix of wood chips and chemicals. Wood pulp is naturally brown, so it needs to go through a bleaching process to become white. The bleaching process also disinfects the pulp. According to the American Forest & Paper Association, there are three types of bleaching stages: Elemental Chlorine Free, Process Chlorine Free, and Totally Chlorine Free.

  • Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) which, not to be deceived by the name, is not “chlorine-free”. It uses a chlorine compound called chlorine dioxide (chlorine and oxygen) to bleach and disinfect instead of chlorine in its elemental form (a gas) which was officially banned because of the number of toxic by-products and pollution it created. Using the chlorine compound to bleach only reduces pollution to a “safe” level.
  • Process Chlorine Free (PCF) is a stage where recycled wood or paper fibres have not been re-bleached. PCF is often used when recycling paper products into new paper products.
  • Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) means that there was absolutely no chlorine involved in the bleaching process. Most paper products on the market are bleached by ECF.

Chlorine itself is not a concern for health because it’s a gas that dissipates quickly and has little chance of remaining in paper products. What is concerning is that the by-products of bleaching paper pulp with chlorine include dioxins.

2) Dioxins

According to the World Health Organization, dioxins are “highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.” Dioxins bioaccumulate, meaning that once they are absorbed they are stored in fat by the body and can stay stored for many years, contributing to the accumulation of toxins in the body.

There are a lot of mixed opinions regarding chlorine bleaching and dioxins. Some sources say that bleaching with elemental chlorine (which is now banned in North America) produces the most dioxins and that ECF poses no health or environmental threats. A research paper concludes that replacing elemental chlorine with chlorine dioxide in ECF pulp bleaching eliminates the formation of dioxins. However, this research was ironically financed by Procter and Gamble (P&G), the company that makes Bounty paper towels and Charmin toilet paper. Other sources are skeptical that ECF bleaching eliminates dioxins. They are convinced that it is a matter of how levels are measured. ECF only reduces amounts of dioxins to detectable levels. Even coming in contact with the tiniest amount of dioxin could affect you.

3) Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a colourless, toxic, and flammable gas created from methanol, (a form of alcohol). It is found in coatings of paper products like paper towels amongst many other things. In the paper industry, formaldehyde is used primarily to improve the strength of the paper when wet.

The US Department of Health and Human Services officially considers formaldehyde to be a carcinogen. It does not bioaccumulate as it is not stored in fat, therefore does not contribute to the accumulation of toxins in the body. Formaldehyde irritates tissues like the skin when in direct contact or touching items that contain it in small amounts. It’s important to note that some people might be more sensitive to formaldehyde than others, even if in contact with small amounts.

4) BPA

BPA (bisphenol A) is an industrial chemical used in plastic and paper production. It is found in thermal receipts, magazines, napkins, newspapers, paper towels, and other paper products. Traces of BPA are higher in paper products, like toilet paper and napkins, made from recycled materials. Recycled paper products may have been contaminated with BPA during the recycling process, as different types of paper make up the recycled product.

BPA is a hormone disruptor, so it will imitate a hormone and alter hormone activity in the body. It can contribute to reproductive problems, some cancers, and obesity. BPA can bioaccumulate in the body. For these reasons, the use of brown napkins made of recycled materials should be limited.

Is using paper products harmful to the environment?

1) Paper products are single-use items

Paper products are intended to be used only once. Tissues, paper towels, and napkins cannot be washed and reused- they must be discarded after use. Therefore, consuming paper products contributes to the overflowing of landfills. Problems associated with landfills are of serious environmental concern. When items break down, they can leach toxins into the soil and groundwater and release methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. Items in landfills take a very long time to completely decompose and will be a persistent issue for generations to come.

2) Pulp and paper mills cause pollution

Did you know the pulp and paper industry is the third most polluting industry in North America? Pulp and paper mills are facilities where wood chips are manufactured into fibres and transformed into paper products. These facilities have a significant role in polluting the air, water, and soil. They also negatively impact their surrounding communities.

a) Toxic waste products are released into the environment

The pulp and paper industry uses many chemicals to process wood into paper products. Pulp and paper mills release dangerous gases into the air, mainly as a by-product of wood pulping and pulp chlorine bleaching. These chemicals can be threatening to the environment and workers producing paper products inside the mill.

Toxic emissions can include:

  • Dioxins and furans (known carcinogens and hormone disruptors)
  • Formaldehyde (a known carcinogen)
  • Acetaldehyde (a known carcinogen affecting the respiratory tract)
  • Ammonia (which is irritating and corrosive to humans and highly toxic to animals)
  • Arsenic (a known carcinogen).
Photo: Unsplash.com / @unstable_affliction

Most commonly, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are released into the air. It is important to note that the pulp and paper industry is economically linked to companies that manufacture chlorine chemicals. Both industries depend on each other and are well integrated, which makes it hard for pulp and paper producers to move away from the use of these chemicals.

The pulp and paper industry uses a large amount of fresh water to produce paper products. It is the largest consumer of water in all other industries. Not only does it use loads of water, but it also pollutes waterways that are surrounding pulp and paper mills. Chemicals like chlorine dioxide compounds are discharged in nearby bodies of water. These toxic effluents are harmful to fish and their ecosystems. Pulp and paper mill effluents are known to alter the reproductive systems of fish and can even kill fish. Effluents are dangerous to ecosystems because they threaten plants and aquatic life and disrupt the food chain.

In the 1990s the pulp and paper industry faced a lot of pressure from environmental groups and communities to reduce their pollution. The Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations were adopted in 1992 by the Canadian government to limit the toxic effluent produced by pulp and paper mills and released into waterways inhabited by fish. As a result of these regulations, effluent water is now treated in two parts: a primary treatment removing solids in either a pond or a tank, and a secondary treatment where bacteria break down biodegradable and toxic components. These treatments meant to lower toxicity levels of wastewater have helped reduce the pollution of 90 Canadian pulp and paper mills by 50% to 90% since the 1990s. However, 70% of mills still harm fish and their habitat.

b) The pollution impacts communities

Photo: Unsplash.com / @thenutcrackerguide

The pulp and paper industry is affecting humans who live in communities surrounding a mill. Not only is the air and water pollution threatening to the health of people who live near a mill, the pulp and paper industry also has a history of human rights violations. It has been involved in social conflicts with indigenous and local groups who are protecting their traditional land from deforestation and the development of new pulp and paper mills.

Boat Harbour in Nova Scotia is only one of many examples of this issue. Before 1960, Boat Harbour was a refuge to the local Pictou Landing First Nation community who depended on this body of water for fishing and food, swimming, and other activities. The water was salty, the ecosystem was thriving, and the lagoon was a sanctuary for the First Nation community. This was until a pulp and paper mill set base in the harbour and polluted the entire area with toxic effluent. Everything turned grey. Plants, fish and other aquatic life died. The Indigenous people of Boat Harbour lost their refuge and suffered from health conditions associated with mill pollution. Intergenerational trauma is still present amongst the community to this day. After years of conflict and pressure, the government of Nova Scotia passed The Boat Harbour Act in 2015 to shut down the pulp and paper mill and cease the toxic effluent into Boat Harbour. Plans to clean up and restore Boat Harbour are currently underway.

How can I stop using paper products?

1) Stay informed and vote with your money

Although paper products are convenient and widely available, they may impact your health. Materials used in paper products are so highly manufactured that they may be contaminated with different ingredients in the process. This is not well regulated by governing bodies and organizations, so companies are not obligated to disclose complete lists of ingredients to the consumer. You could be sensitive to a component found in tissues or toilet paper without even knowing it! Also, paper production is damaging to the environment, with air and water pollution impacting ecosystems and communities. It is important to do some research and stay informed about the products you consume.

Before purchasing a paper product, ask yourself these questions:

  • What materials are in this product?
  • How is this product made?
  • Who makes this product and who is affected by its production?
  • Is this something I want to support?

Buying products that align with your values, therefore voting with your money is a powerful way to bring about environmental and social change.

2) Compost, compost, compost!

Photo: Unsplash.com / @pavalerio

I cannot say this enough. If you absolutely must use paper products like tissues, paper towels, and napkins, put them in the compost bin! These items break down easily and composting them gives them a chance to be turned into something that benefits the earth: nutrient-rich soil! Opt for composting your paper products instead of throwing them in the trash.

3) Invest in alternatives

a) Bidets (yes, they are cool!)

If you are worried about chemicals in toilet paper and think you might be sensitive to them, bidets are a great investment. I promise you, they are way cooler than they sound. Bidets are easy to install and can be added to your existing toilet. You simply remove the lid and the seat to attach the bidet, connect it to water, and put the seat and lid back on your toilet. Ta-da! Easy-peasy. Some people will have washable cloths by the toilet to pat dry after using the bidet, but waiting a moment to air dry works too. With a bidet, you can save loads of money on toilet paper and feel so much cleaner.

b) Bamboo toilet paper

If bidets are not your jam, bamboo toilet paper can be a good alternative to conventional toilet paper. Bamboo toilet paper is usually not bleached and BPA-free. Bamboo is also a good renewable resource. It grows quickly even after being cut down and needs little to no pesticides for harvest.

If you must use conventional toilet paper I would suggest buying cheaper, thinner, and grayer coloured brands of toilet paper which usually means fewer chemicals were added. Most chemicals are used to produce plushy, thick, and very white toilet paper which is often more expensive. However, toilet paper made from recycled material is not recommended because it might be contaminated with BPA.

c) Cloth products

Photo: Unsplash.com / @melpoole

Alternatives to paper products are the way to go! There are plenty of reusable products out there to replace paper products, from cloth napkins and wipes to “unpaper” towels. Reusable napkins and towels create a lot less waste, can be washed and used again multiple times and kept for years. Some of them are made with organic and sustainable fabrics, so you know the product you are using has minimal impact on the environment.

Reusable cloths can be kept around the house and even in a purse or a bag if you are on the go. Some “unpaper” towels come pre-rolled or can be rolled around an old paper towel roll for the same, easy-to-grab effect. Or, they can be kept folded in a drawer. From cloth napkins to reusable paper towels, check out these eco-friendly must-haves at Change Market!





All in all, paper products are pretty bad! They are single-use items that are produced using harsh chemicals. The pulp and paper industry is one of the biggest polluters worldwide, releases hormone-disrupting chemicals, toxic emissions and effluent, and negatively affects the ecosystem and communities in its vicinity. Ditch paper products for reusable cloth items – the Earth will thank you.

expert resources

5 daily items you didn’t know had toxins in them
Agency for toxic substances and disease registry
Boat harbour remediation project
Chronic vulvar irritation: could toilet paper be the culprit?
A chronological history of Boat Harbour, Nova Scotia 
by Michael Trombetta and Seyitan Moritiwon
Dioxins and their effects on human health
The effect of the transition from elemental chlorine bleaching to chlorine dioxide bleaching in the pulp industry on the formation of PCDD/Fs by Peter Axegard

Environmental impact of pulp and paper mills by Dan Gavrilescu et al
Facts about the use of bleaching agents in tissue and paper towel manufacturing
Formaldehyde and cancer risk
The hidden danger in recycled toilet paper by Maia James

Industrial environmental performance metrics
New though pollution standards would apply to norther pulp effluent pipe, say feds by Brian Higgins
Pulp and paper effluent quality
Pulp and paper industry
Pulp and paper industry-based pollutants, their health hazards and environmental risks by Mandeep et al
Pulp and paper toxic emissions
The problem with landfill
The pulp pollution primer by Delores Broten and Jay Ritchlin
There’s something in the water
Toxins & tampons by Rachel Thompson
Widespread occurrence of bisphenol A in paper and paper products: implications for human exposure by Chunyang Liao et al


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