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Choosing toilet paper: should we use special or bio-degradable toilet paper when a home is connected to a private septic system? What kinds of paper or toilet tissue may damage the septic tank or leach fields?
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TOILET TISSUE? - Are Special Toilet Tissue or other Special Septic Products Needed for Homes Connected to a Private Septic Tank & Drainfield?
In a conventional septic system using a tank and drainfield, ordinary toilet tissue does not harm the septic system. The tissue remains in the septic tank, kept from flowing into the drainfield by septic tank baffles.
Actually lower-cost toilet tissues such as the Rite-Aid bathroom tissue shown at left perform better (break down faster and more completely) in septic tanks than some plush extra soft brands containing softening additives.
Eventually (we think) toilet tissue breaks down in the septic tank and is not a solid bulk problem at normal levels of usage (See TOILET TISSUE TEST for details).
But as we discuss just below at What About Putting No Toilet Paper into the Septic Tank At All?we're not sure about the ultimate breakdown of cellulose fibers from toilet tissue, and the break-down of toilet paper may vary depending on the type of paper and its composition.
Certainly, other types of paper or paper products (writing paper, newspaper, magazine paper, bills and private letters) should not be flushed down a toilet. See WHAT CAN GO INTO TOILETS & DRAINS?.
That document explains how to extend the life of the septic system by being careful about what goes into it.
Toilet paper made from recycled paper is recommended
However, because the manufacture of fluffy soft toilet tissue requires the use of new wood fibers from trees, we recommend that consumers purchase and use toilet tissue made of recycled paper. Not because soft toilet tissue hurts our septic system, but because ultra-soft tissue brands mean we're flushing our forests down the drain unnecessarily. Look for toilet tissue that is made entirely or at least in part from recycled paper. It won't hurt you.
In February 2009 Greenpeace joined the ranks of associations who recommend against flushing our trees down the toilet.
In some areas toilet tissue is not flushed into the septic system at all: Our photo (left) shows a home-made toilet paper dispenser in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. In many areas of Mexico custom is to avoid flushing toilet tissue into the septic system at all. Instead a waste container is provided near each toilet, and the user disposes of tissue therein.
Inspecting the interior of septic tanks in other areas of North America, we don't observe large volumes of visible toilet tissue forming a big percentage of the solid waste retained in the septic tank. But our Mexican neighbors might be on to something.
While we think that toilet paper "dissolves" in septic effluent, preliminary results of our own laboratory test of the break-down of toilet tissue in tap water show that fine particles of cellulose may be discharged to the drainfield, possibly adding to soil clogging there. But our lab test is incomplete, and has not yet considered the effects of bacteria and water-borne fungi in cellulose decomposition in septic systems. See TOILET TISSUE TEST.
What is Toilet Paper Made From?
Toilet tissue with a high percentage or even 100% of recycled paper is less soft and fluffy than other brands, but we agree with Dr. Allen Heskowitz, senior scientist and waste expert at the Natural Resource Defense Council who, according to a 2009 New York Times report, said "No forest of any kind should be used to make toilet paper." The Times reported that American "... obsession with soft paper has driven the growth of brands like Cottonelle Ultra™, Quilted Northern™ and Charmin Ultra™" brands of toilet tissue.
Producers of "Soft" Toilet Tissue
Proctor & Gamble produces soft toilet tissue sold under the Charmin Ultra™ brand. Kimberly Clark produces soft toilet paper produces soft toilet tissue sold under the Cotonelle™ brand. Scott™ produces soft fluffy toilet tissue as well. Georgia Pacific is the parent company of the toilet tissue brand Quilted Northern Ultra™. Some of these manufacturers also produce other toilet papers made from recycled paper. (See below).
What is Used to Make Soft Toilet Tissue?
The manufacture of these ultra-soft toilet papers (and similar soft tissue sold under other brands) requires the use of paper made from live, standing trees. According to the Times article, 25% to 50% of the wood pulp used in toilet paper comes from tree farms in South America and the U.S. The remaining 50% to 75% of toilet paper wood pulp is cut from old growth forests including Canadian old growth timber. Some of these boreal forest trees are 200 years old, and all of them were functioning as an important carbon sink.
Use Recycled-Fiber Toilet Tissue
Toilet paper made from recycled paper fibers also uses less chlorine-based bleach, reducing groundwater pollution, and it produces less landfill volume as well. Using recycled paper-based toilet tissue also means that the volume of toilet tissue in private septic tanks will actually be reduced, possibly slightly extending the time between septic tank pumpouts.
Where to Buy Toilet Paper made from Recycled Paper
Greenpeace recommends these toilet tissue brands as "most green": Green Forest, 365, April soft, Earth Friendly, Fiesta & Fiesta Green, Natural Value, Seventh Generation, Trader Joe's.
Marcal Small Steps and Earth First are also made of 100% recycled fibers but with low percentage of post-consumer content. High post-consumer content toilet paper brands are less likely to have come from ancient forests.
Marcal Corporation markets recycled paper-based toilet paper through Walgreens at prices below the "soft fluffy" brands.
Kimberly Clark Corporation was reported in the Times as not philosophically opposed to recycled products and the company uses them in products sold to restaurants, offices, and schools.
Bio-degradable toilet tissue is recommended in certain cases
Where a chemical toilet is in use, such as on a boat or recreational vehicle, special toilet tissue which dissolves rapidly is recommended.
These other kinds of paper should never be flushed into a septic system
Use of Recycled Paper - Based Toilet Paper, US EPA Recommendation, vs. Septic Tank Enzymes
Readers have often asked if it is necessary to add a septic tank treatment chemical or enzyme to reduce septic system clogging problems due to use of toilet paper.
No septic system additives are needed for system maintenance, and some are illegal in some states and in all of canada all of them are illegal, as we discuss in this article (see above).
See our article TOILET TISSUE CHOICES for a discussion of recommended kinds of toilet paper to use in homes connected to a septic system. Even regular toilet tissue breaks down to fine particles quickly (see our article TOILET TISSUE TEST) .
But in our OPINION (and that of the US EPA) we recommend using recycled paper-based toilet paper because of the benefit of saving trees - it’s too bad to chop down and grind up new trees to make toilet paper.
The data below quotes from the US EPA's information on Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) products, including types of toilet tissue and tissue vendors: [Bathroom Tissue - US EPA's comprehensive bath tissue procurement guidelines (CPG): the following quotes from the US EPA]
Commercial/ Industrial Sanitary Tissue Recommendations from the US EPA
Sanitary tissue products include bathroom and facial tissue, paper towels, napkins, and general-purpose industrial wipers. They are generally sold in rolls or sheets and are used in personal care, food service, and cleaning applications. The grades of sanitary tissue products covered in the CPG are manufactured for use by restaurants, hotels, schools, government agencies, and other similar commercial and institutional buyers. Some recycled-content sanitary tissue products are softer, stronger, and more absorbent than others.
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