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Why almost all toilet paper is white? Why are manufacturers bleaching it?

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Posted December 2, 2018

Paper is typically white, but it is made from trees that are not white – of course bleaching is involved. It makes sense – on a white sheet of paper we can easily see what is written, it works with pretty much all colours of ink, it looks clean and nice. However, toilet paper is also white. Why are we bleaching paper that is designed to be thrown away immediately after use? Why isn’t it a natural brownish-grey?

Nice and white – manufacturers are bleaching their toilet paper to please your eyes and your butt. Image credit: Elya via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is not just a question of necessity. Bleaching processes cost money and are not environmentally-friendly at all. In other words, non-bleached toilet paper could be cheaper (or at least less costly for the manufacturer) and its production would be a little less harmful for the environment. So why manufacturers are not choosing this win-win way? Well, there are several ways of answering this question – it is not that simple.

Trees are able to grow that tall and rigid thanks to lignin, which is a complex organic polymer providing most of the structural rigidity for the plant and, later, to its lumber. Lignin is great when you need that rigidity, but not so great when you want something soft and comfortable for your behind. To make toilet paper a little nicer to use manufacturers have to strip the material of all its lignin and bleaching is a process of choice. At the same time the paper turns pretty much white. Maybe entirely white would not be necessary for the comfort purposes, but white also sells better. It is a neutral colour, which we are associating with cleanliness.

But aren’t we making toilet paper from recycled materials that are already stripped off of lignin? Well, not at all. Most of toilet paper is made from a fresh batch of pulp. It is estimated that every year toilet paper industry requires around 10 million trees. Nothing compared to other industries, but quite something when you think about what happens to this product – it is thrown away immediately after use. But, of course, there are still manufacturers that are using mostly recycled materials in their production lines.

But guess what? Their toilet paper is also white. This doesn’t just occur by accident – they are using various egg cartons and newspapers – this mash of trash is not white. And neither this eco-friendly toilet paper would be if they didn’t bleach it. But they do and only to please your eye – bleaching makes this paper a bit more uniform in colour. However, these manufacturers typically use a little less harsh chemicals to bleach their product, but the fact remains the same – it doesn’t have to be white.

And now you know. Toilet paper is white in order to please your butt and your eyes. It is costly, but a nice appearance sells. Nowadays a lot of brands go as far as printing tiny little ornaments on their toilet paper – it makes it a little nicer, which is worth that additional cost.

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