Sustainable By Design: Make A Splash…Green Your Rest Rooms

By Anne Cosgrove

Published in the October 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

When it comes to transforming a conventional facility to a more sustainable one, strategies that promise significant reductions in energy, water, or material consumption are often at the top of the list. Lighting retrofits, HVAC system overhauls, and aggressive recycling programs are just a few types of projects that can deliver a substantial impact.

But facility managers should not forget that smaller changes can have significant benefits as well—and may be more feasible than larger projects when budgets constraints are an issue. One area where this applies is the purchase of sanitary paper products, which includes bathroom tissue, paper towels, facial tissues, and cleaning cloths.

There are numerous issues to consider when seeking to improve the environmental footprint as it relates to these products, but prime factors include recycled content of the product, certification of the product by a third party, and the type of manufacturing process.

Recycled content in paper products can be post-consumer or pre-consumer. In the industry, it’s widely agreed that post-consumer content is the more significant figure when seeking to lessen environmental impact. This is because post-consumer material has been used by a consumer, returned to a manufacturing source, and used again for another generation of product.

Pre-consumer content is comprised of materials recycled at the point of manufacture. An instance would be scraps from a manufacturing run that are placed back into the loop for a next batch. Recovered fiber refers to the total amount of post-consumer and pre-consumer combined.

In its procurement guidelines of sanitary products in federal facilities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) specifies post-consumer content of at least 20% for bathroom tissue and 40% for paper towels. These figures (see chart) can serve as a baseline for facility managers who are comparing products.

In addition to the amount of recycled content, product certifications can provide more information. (Third party certifications, as opposed to first party or second party, are the most reliable for objective evaluation of the product.) “The advantage of third party certification is it confirms a company’s claims,” says Stephen Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, a Bloomington, IN consulting firm for green cleaning end users and vendors. “It makes green purchasing easier. If facility managers use certifications as a requirement for purchases, then they know the product meets their health and environmental requirements. From there, they can use traditional decision making based on performance and price.”

Organizations that perform third-party certifications for sanitary paper products include GreenSeal, Environmental Choice (with EcoLogo), and the Chlorine Free Products Association (CFPA). While testing methods vary, all of these organizations take into account where a company sources its paper pulp and what its manufacturing process entails.

For those concerned with environmental health, a hot button in paper manufacturing is the use of chlorine to bleach wood pulp. When chlorine is combined with a carbon based substance, such as wood, it produces by-products called chlorinated organic compounds, including dioxins and furan. These compounds, which were identified in the 1980s by the EPA as carcinogens, can be released into the ecosystem through air and water.

Since the time the EPA released this information, many paper mills have responded to concerns by ceasing the use of elemental chlorine gas for bleaching and began using a chlorine derivative, primarily chlorine dioxide. ECF (elemental chlorine free) denotes a product made from virgin paper that has been bleached in this way. Chlorine dioxide significantly reduces the emission of organochlorines; however, it does not completely eliminate the production of these toxins.

There are also processes to bleach paper without the use of any chlorine. Products manufactured this way may bear the labels PCF (processed chlorine free) or TCF (total chlorine free). PCF indicates the product uses recycled paper in which the recycled content is unbleached or bleached, without chlorine or chlorine derivatives. TCF means the product is made from virgin paper, but is unbleached or is processed without chlorine or chlorine derivatives.

In 1996, the CFPA introduced a certification program to recognize PCF and TCF products. Currently, two manufacturers—Seventh Generation and Cascades Tissue Group—have earned the PCF certification for tissue products from CFPA. Archie Beaton, executive director of the association, explains that certified companies must be audited every two years in order to remain certified. “Our overall goal is to identify companies that implement technologies that have the least impact on the environment,” he says. “We need paper products, but we should do it in a sustainable way.”

Ashkin advises, “It’s useful to think of green products as being on a continuum. In applying that concept to purchasing, facility managers should ask themselves, ‘How do we keep moving in a direction on that continuum that will continue to reduce health and environmental impact?’ By comparing products and strategies, facility managers can figure out the best option.”

In weighing the options, facility managers will, of course, want to make sure the product performs to the facility’s standards and that users will be satisfied with it. “There is often a misconception that paper with a high percentage of recycled content will be scratchy and uncomfortable. That may have been true in the past, but not anymore,” says Ashkin. “And, while each facility may have different performance requirements, there is a quality threshold which will be acceptable to most occupants.”

If facility managers want to test the waters before changing product lines or vendors, Ashkin suggests obtaining samples from a variety of suppliers. These samples can be placed in one or two bathrooms, and the facility manager can see if they receive any comments—positive or negative.

When considering their next steps in the sustainable journey, facility managers may find re-specifying sanitary paper products to be an effective choice. With the huge amount of these products consumed daily, it may not be such a small thing after all.

Information for this column was compiled in part with interviews with Ashkin and Beaton. For more information, visit,, and