Are sugar cane tissues worth sneezing at?

What is a sustainable tissue?

Many bosses supply facial tissues to their staff. I am not sure exactly why, perhaps it’s to prevent the spread of germs throughout the office. Perhaps they are expecting their staff to cry a lot? Either way, a responsible purchaser would beg the question: what makes a green tissue?

If you have ever been bored enough at work to start reading the tissue boxes, you might have noticed that some tissues are made from sugarcane and bamboo. Are they sustainable?

At face value, sugar cane or bamboo fibre is potentially a sustainable option for facial tissues but as with most things the devil is in the detail.

Sugar cane paper is really made from ‘bagasse’ - the left over cane stalks from sugar making. Thousands, if not millions of tonnes of bagasse are produced each year around the world and making use of it can be a challenge. The more uses that can be found, the greater the economic value of bagasse would be, increasing the incentive to collect it. In Australia, despite bagasse being used for energy production, only about 50% is collected.

The environmental benefit of using bagasse instead of trees to make paper boils down to what the bagasse would have been used for otherwise. If the bagasse was only gong to marginal uses, or being left on the ground, then paper making is a great use for it. It’s harder to determine a benefit if using bagasse for paper production reduced its availability for energy production and therefore means alternative energy sources needed to be found. Bagasse is considered a low carbon energy source.

However it is a safe bet (based on some studies I have read) to say that there is probably spare bagasse out there even after some has been used for energy production by the plant.

To put it another way it’s better from an environmental perspective to use bagasse for paper production and potentially save forests than leave the bagasse on the ground.

Bamboo component is a bit less straightforward in the sense that we don’t know the impacts of growing the bamboo. Although anecdotal evidence says that growing bamboo has an inherently low impact compared to other fibre sources, we can’t apply these assumptions to any one particular product. Was habitat cleared for the bamboo cultivation? What environmental standards exist to ensure bamboo growing does not impact other habitats?

If I was buying paper made from bagasse and bamboo I would want to see:

  • A breakdown of bagasse vs bamboo component
  • Greater transparency on sourcing of bagasse waste
  • Certification of bagasse waste (I am not aware of any relevant certifications)
  • Certification of bamboo (it’s a type of forest so can be certified)
  • Details on how it is bleached. 

The products on the market currently don’t include this information.

So if you are going to purchase facial tissues for staff work use, ask the questions above to be sure that they are sustainably sourced. Or buy them a hanky.