What is Unbleached Toilet Roll?

To make any paper product you take a fibrous raw material, break it down, press it, and dry it. 

The basic facts of the process have been established for hundreds of years, and the steps above are essential. But in between these steps, dozens of tweaks have been made, and some of these tweaks have become convention. 

Today we’re talking about one of the most widespread conventions in tissue and toilet rolls, and one that separates Naked Sprout from many other products - bleaching the pulp to change the colour. 

Bleaching toilet rolls strips away some or all of the natural colour of the raw material, lightening the pulp before it’s made into tissue. But there’s more than one way to bleach a roll, and some people (like us!) would argue you don’t actually need to bleach them at all.

So, what’s the standard way of bleaching toilet rolls, what are more environmentally friendly methods, and do you really need to bleach at all? Time to grab our lab coats and take a closer look. 

What is bleaching?

First things first, how does bleaching work? 

The process we generally refer to as bleaching is the removal or alteration of lignin. Lignin, found naturally in wood, binds cellulose fibres together and gives wood its strength and its colour. To make light coloured tissue that won’t turn brown over time you want to remove lignin, and there are various ways to go about it. 

1. Elemental Chlorine Bleaching

Up until the 1990s, the standard way of bleaching paper was with elemental chlorine in the form of chlorine gas. This was a very effective way of removing lignin, but from the late 1980s researchers established a link between the use of elemental chlorine in manufacturing and dioxins, compounds produced in manufacturing that could have serious environmental effects. 

One particular point of alarm was the 1991 publication of a Canadian risk assessment report, which found 75% of Canadian paper mills producing bleached pulp were discharging elemental chlorine compounds at levels that were “acutely lethal” to fish, causing a “significant risk to the aquatic ecosystem,” and raising serious concerns about the possible impact on human health as well.

Reports like this propelled the industry to seek out safer alternatives. Enter method two: Elemental Chlorine-Free Pulp. 

2. Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF)

Elemental chlorine-free (ECF) bleaching represents a significant improvement over the traditional chlorine gas method. Instead of chlorine gas, ECF processes use chlorine dioxide as the primary bleaching agent. A manufacturer using ECF bleaching can leave their pulp in chlorine dioxide for a shorter time for a slight brightening, or for a longer time for a pure white colour. 

Chlorine dioxide allows manufacturers to target and remove lignins without forming the same levels of environmentally-harmful compounds, notably dioxins. Although ECF pulp is not entirely devoid of compounds, the environmental impact is considerably reduced. Because of this, ECF methods of bleaching have become widely adopted in the paper industry, with a 70-71% drop in the use of elemental chlorine in the production of Kraft paper between 1990 - 2005.

That’s the method we’d expect to see employed by most papermakers today, and some toilet roll brands sell more naturally coloured rolls that have been treated with bleach for a shorter time using the ECF method. But technology keeps moving forward, and since the late 1990s many environmentally-conscious papermakers have opted to cut out chlorine and chlorine dioxide altogether. 

3. Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) Pulp

TCF methods lighten raw pulp without using chlorine or chlorine dioxide. Instead, TCF uses oxygen-based compounds such as ozone, hydrogen peroxide, or oxygen itself to remove lignin without chlorine. 

TCF methods are not as widely used as ECF, but since their first development in the mid 90s they have become part of the picture for many companies, particularly in the more environmentally-conscious markets of Europe. Searching for TCF products online will yield results for nappies, tampons, and facial tissues, produced using this method. 

So Totally Chlorine-Free is the preferred method of bleaching for some, but even where TCF bleaching is used, it is still an additional industrial process with its own energy consumption, water consumption and chemical consumption. If the only intended effect is cosmetic, we think it’s worth considering; do we need to do this at all? 

4. No Bleach

At Naked Sprout we do not bleach or colour our rolls in any way. Our raw materials are broken down, cleaned, and formed into rolls without any attempt to change the colour. 

This is a big difference from bleached rolls, regardless of the bleaching method, and means that our tissue looks very different from tissue that has been lightened with an ECF or a TCF method. To show what we mean, here's a truly unbleached Naked Sprout sheet on top of a sheet of naturally coloured bamboo toilet roll that's been treated with bleach using an ECF method:

We’re happy to do things differently if it means cutting out cosmetic tweaks that introduce extra stages to the industrial process, and extra chemical products that would need to be manufactured, packaged, and transported to our factory. 

Some people have asked why, if our rolls aren’t bleached or dyed, they all come out the same colour? Materials like bamboo and recycled packaging aren’t completely standard in colour, so surely rolls made from them would be different colours as well? 

The answer is that actually our rolls do vary in colour slightly, but this variation can only be seen from box to box, not roll to roll. We need to make each batch of pulp into a very fine and smooth paste before we can spray it on to the huge drums that press and dry the tissue. So the principle is the same as it would be for tomato puree; different batches might be made up of materials containing different colours, but, once its been pulped and mixed with water, a single batch will have a uniform shade.

To borrow a quote, if you want Naked Sprout rolls, you can have any colour, as long as it’s natural! 


Okay we’re done. You can take off your protective goggles now.

Bleach and different bleaching methods are an important part of the story of paper. Moving away from elemental chlorine with ECF bleaching was an important step, allowing whitened products that didn’t release high levels of harmful chlorinated compounds, and some companies choose to avoid chlorine and chlorine dioxide completely, opting for Totally Chlorine Free processes instead. 

But we’ve chosen a more simple approach altogether. Whitening the raw materials we use would introduce an extra step of manufacturing and chemical processing, and it’s not necessary, so we’re not doing it. 

Want to try unbleached toilet rolls that break from the norm? 


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