In this era of rising concerns about global environmental challenges such as ocean plastics, greenhouse gases, deforestation, and more, there is no shortage of voices calling for action. The challenge for all businesses is determining which voices to listen to. Companies frequently become either paralysed by the complexity, and do nothing, or try to do everything, and accomplish very little. Leading distributors, Building Service Contractors (BSC), and in-house service providers often face these same challenges when trying to choose the most sustainable paper products for their washroom operations.

Here’s the great news: You can take immediate steps that promise meaningful sustainability impacts, while not compromising the satisfaction or hygiene needs of your customers, nor adversely impacting your budget.

Use responsibly sourced paper

While certain forests are generally classified as low-risk basins in terms of deforestation, ensuring that the fibre in the paper products is responsibly sourced, remains vital. Not all paper products sold are responsibly sourced. In some cases, this contributes to global deforestation.

How can you help contribute to healthy forests? By making sure all your paper products have been certified

by a credible third-party organisation, such as SFI (The Sustainable Forestry Initiative); FSC (The Forest Stewardship Council); or PEFC (The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification). If responsibly managed, forests provide the world with a truly renewable and sustainable resource. Third-party certifications can also help ensure that other global social responsibility concerns have been addressed as well.

What about bamboo and other alternative fibres that are trending up? The reality is that many are not sourced locally and require long-distance shipping, which raises these products’ emissions impacts. When considering alternative fibre options, ensure the fibre is locally sourced and third-party certified.

Optimise and maximise recycled content

The paper in most commercial washrooms today incorporates some level of recycled content. To go from good to better, and better to best in your sustainability efforts, evaluate recycled content percentages and types across your paper portfolio.

Good: Using paper containing some recycled content is good because it helps provide a base level of demand and support that helps divert these materials from landfills.

Better: Using paper that exceeds the EPA post-consumer waste minimums (20% for tissue and 40% for towels) is better as the higher levels of post-consumer fibre create more demand for at-risk (of landfill) materials being diverted.

Best: Using paper that is 100-percent recycled fibre and sourced from materials more likely to have ended up in the landfill (i.e. more mixed paper and less old corrugated containers) is best. Across the United States, municipalities and material recovery operators are dealing with a glut of excess paper as supply greatly exceeds demand.

This has led to many municipalities either discontinuing paper recycling programmes, or continuing to collect paper, but ultimately shipping it to a landfill. Higher levels of recycled post-consumer content help support collection and recovery efforts for lower grade/at-risk materials like mixed paper.

Super Best: Going from best to super best is one of the easier steps you can take to elevate your sustainability efforts. Super best involves doing everything previously mentioned, but taking proactive steps to communicate your recycled content message to your customers and other stakeholders.

Signage, emails, website content, and the like, are effective ways to let stakeholders know about the great things you’re doing with recycled content. Another interesting and very impactful way to communicate and reinforce your sustainability commitment is to go brown.

Brown paper towels provide a visual cue that you are using a sustainable towel option. Studies show that consumers have a positive impression of products with recycled content and that 62 percent of consumers associate brown paper towels with recycled paper. Studies also show that using high-quality brown paper towels improved customers’ perception of the washroom.

Look beyond the content

Innovations in product design and packaging now allow operators to reduce overall packaging material waste by up to 90 percent. Some systems have gone coreless by eliminating the need for the inner core, which often ends up as trash. And a number of manufacturers have taken steps to reduce the amount of secondary packaging used with their products.

Innovations in dispensing systems offer yet another means of reducing washroom paper usage. In fact, some dispensers can reduce paper usage by 20 to 30 percent without impacting customer satisfaction or hygiene. In the pursuit of sustainability, some operators have replaced paper towels with air dryers, only to find dissatisfied customers. According to a Mayo Clinic study, air dryers create a less hygienic washroom environment.

By deploying the latest towel dispensers, you are better able to control usage and reduce change-out waste, while improving customer satisfaction and hygiene. Usage control results from your ability to adjust the size and amount of product being dispensed. Change-out waste reduction is due to new design and capacity features that help minimise and/or eliminate the need for staff to change out rolls of paper before they are fully used.

When discussing sustainability, the myriad of voices will continue. By ensuring your paper is from responsibly sourced fibre, optimising and maximising your use of recovered materials, and leveraging innovations to reduce packaging, usage, and waste, you will make a meaningful difference for your stakeholders, your facility, and the planet.

Abridged version of an article by Jeffrey R. Sturgis, vice president of Consumer Business Sustainability at Georgia-Pacific, leading the sustainability strategy development for the company’s retail and professional tissue, towel, napkin, and food service businesses.