Which sustainable toilet paper is the best? We tested them.

If you walk down the toilet paper aisle at your grocery store, you’ll likely see a selection of rolls adorned with planet-friendly claims, from promises to save hundreds of thousands of trees to promises of chemical-free products.

You can now find toilet paper made from recycled paper, bamboo or other virgin wood fiber alternatives, some of which can also come from felling old trees in crucial forests. Estimates suggest that clearing these forests for products, including toilet paper, could release up to 26 million tons of carbon annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

“This is just an incredibly important ecosystem that is literally being flushed down the toilet,” said Shelley Vinyard, who oversees the Natural Resources Defense Council’s corporate campaign to protect Canada’s Boreal Forests.

The NRDC annually assesses the sustainability level of dozens of toilet paper brands. We tested some of the top scorers for softness, strength and absorbency and found these varied widely. (See our methodology below.)

Washington Post climate reporters conducted a touch test to rank each toilet paper brand for softness. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Winner: Simple Truth (Kroger)

Our winner is made from 100 percent recycled paper with up to 60 percent recycled post-consumer material, or materials that would normally be recycled or end up in a landfill.

Our testers gave Simple Truth an average score of 5.5 out of 10.

How does that compare to traditional toilet paper rolls? Not so good. Our testers gave Charmin, one of the best-selling brands in the United States, an average score of 9.8.

But depending on how and where they come from, in many cases the softest toilet paper can be among the least sustainable according to some experts. They are usually made with fibers from the virgin forest, such as bleached kraftwood fibers from the north and Brazilian eucalyptus. The thin walls of these fibers make them more flexible and give the fabric softness. Although the Brazilian eucalyptus is a fast-growing tree and is generally considered a more sustainable source of new fibers, soft toilet paper also typically contains fibers from older trees that store large amounts of carbon.

All toilet paper products that received an F for sustainability from the NRDC were made largely, if not entirely, from forest fibers. Toilet paper made with 100 percent recycled material received high marks from the group. For example, Simple Truth got an A.

“Ensuring that post-consumer waste is recycled and reused as often as possible is critical to reducing demand on natural resources and diverting water, air and waste from landfills,” said Linda Walker, senior director of corporate engagement for forests. at the World Wildlife Fund.

Quarters were added to wet toilet paper sheets until they tore. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Winner: Roll paper (100 percent bamboo)

A wet sheet of three-ply Reel toilet paper could hold about eight quarters on average – two more than Whole Foods’ 365 toilet paper (two-ply), which came in second.

Like virgin hardwood, bamboo tends to have long fibers, which bond more easily to form a stronger sheet, says Richard Venditti, professor of paper science and engineering at North Carolina State University.

But bamboo can be less environmentally friendly than recycled paper from the US. Much of the bamboo comes from China, which is still heavily powered by coal, Venditti said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s bamboo. We didn’t have to cut down a tree,’ and so it’s good for the environment, but that’s not the whole story,’ he said.

Our strength test winner received a B grade from the NRDC, lower than many toilet paper rolls made from recycled material. Still, some experts say a bamboo-based product – provided most, if not all, of it is made from responsibly sourced bamboo – may be a better alternative to virgin fibers from mature or old trees.

Although the impact is not as low as post-consumer recycled products or alternative fibers from agricultural residues, such as hemp, jute and rice and wheat straw, bamboo – a type of grass – grows much faster than most trees.

Which was more absorbent?

0.5 ml of liquid was added to the folded toilet paper sheets to test their absorbency. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Winner: Whole Foods and Everspring (tie)

Whole Foods and Everspring, both made from 100 percent recycled materials, passed this test. The 0.5 milliliters of liquid that fell on the toilet paper passed through an average of eight sheets of paper for both brands.

Recycled fibers tend to be stiffer and contain higher amounts small fibers, creating paper that is less soft and absorbent than paper made from virgin fibers, says Burak Aksoy, associate professor in the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment at Auburn University. But the performance of recycled toilet paper, including its absorbency, can be improved through advanced drying methods, layering and embossing, Aksoy added.

The NRDC gave our leaders an A+ (Whole Foods) and an A (Everspring). The group said it gave higher marks to products with higher amounts of post-consumer recycled content. Other recycled toilet paper may contain manufacturing waste that does not end up in the store.

Reel, the bamboo-based toilet paper, emerged victorious. It scored highest for strength and most of our testers gave it average softness characteristics. Although, as we mentioned above, according to the NRDC scorecard, it doesn’t rank as highly as some of our other sustainability articles.

If you opt for bamboo-based toilet paper, experts say to make sure your products are Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, certified.

Regardless of which toilet paper you choose, there will likely be compromises in durability. For example, with the exception of Reel, which is wrapped in recyclable paper and comes in a cardboard box, all the other brands we tested were wrapped in plastic. Additionally, the production of some types of toilet paper may reduce CO2 emissions but could harm the environment in other ways, such as if the fertilizer used to grow crops ends up polluting nearby waterways.

Of course, there are other things to consider when choosing toilet paper, such as cost. Our winner wasn’t the cheapest, at $27.99 for 12 “mega rolls” (or about $2.30 per roll), according to Reel’s website. The bamboo toilet paper can be purchased for less at some stores, such as Target. The lowest price was from Trader Joe’s, about 40 cents per roll (or $4.99 for 12 rolls).

How we performed our test:

We tested six environmentally friendly papers. We based our picks on the Natural Resource Defense Council’s annual scorecard, which rates dozens of commonly available brands. These figures are based on a number of factors, including what rolls are made of, how they are processed and whether they have sustainability certifications or whether the companies behind them have made commitments to avoid sourcing them from old-growth forests.

The six brands we chose to test had scores of B or higher and were also among a list of top sellers in the United States, according to Circana, a Chicago-based market research firm that collected numbers from supermarkets, drug, mass market, convenience, military and select club and dollar retailers, covering a year ending November 2023.

The products tested included a mix of toilet paper made from 100 percent recycled material (all of which were rated A+ and A- grades) and bamboo fiber (B grade). We also tested Charmin, one of the leading brands in the United States according to Circana, which received an F score from the NRDC.

Our series of experiments included the following:

A test of strength: stretch a sheet of toilet paper over the mouth of a mason jar, wet the paper and stack quarters on top until the paper tore;

An absorption test: moisten 10 folded sheets with colored water and count how many layers the liquid has passed;

A softness test: We asked four of our colleagues to conduct a blind touch test and rate the toilet paper samples out of 10.

We ran the strength and absorption tests four times and averaged the results.