A toilet paper entrepreneur proves that it’s possible to pamper your posterior, save Canada’s boreal forests, and offer toilets for the developing world – all at the same time.
Derin Oyekan is the kind of friend you wish you had right now. Not just because he laughs easily and lives a life of purpose, but also because he can hook you up with toilet paper.
Chalk it up to pandemic priorities, but toilet paper is suddenly the hottest commodity out there. As we hunker down and shelter in place, we’ve all become acutely aware that the bathroom might be the most important room in the house.
Unless you don’t have a bathroom, of course.
For 2.4 billion people in the developing world, that’s the daily reality, and growing up in Nigeria, Derin understands that reality in a way that most Westerners can’t. So when he started looking for a way to invest a career’s worth of know-how in consumer marketing, he decided that toilet paper would be his vehicle for making the world a better place.
With co-founder Livio Bisterzo, he launched Reel Paper with the goal of providing toilets in the developing world. For every roll of bamboo toilet paper that’s sold, Reel donates a single-use disposable toilet to a nonprofit working in one of Kenya’s most hopeless slums.
You might need to read that previous sentence a couple of times to get your head around it. Bamboo toilet paper? Single-use toilets? There’s a lot to unpack in Reel’s mission, so here goes…
The Sanitation Mission
For millions of people in urban slums and refugee camps around the world, even the most rudimentary toilets are an unimaginable luxury. Human waste runs in the streets, releasing billions of harmful pathogens that are spread by insects, animals, and other people.
If you can bear to think about that for a moment, it’s easy to understand why one child dies every 15 seconds, on average, due to contaminated water from human excrement.
In places like the teeming Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, permanent toilets seem like a far-off dream. Even if funds were available, the infrastructure improvements and behavioral changes would take decades — and would likely come with a host of unintended consequences.
That’s why Reel has worked for the last two years with a local nonprofit that distributes biodegradable toilet bags in Kibera. The bags are coated with a powder that quickly kills off pathogens to allow for quicker, safer composting. The compost helps to improve farmland and reduce food insecurity, and a circular economy has developed around distribution and collection of the bags, helping to provide income for a host of micro entrepreneurs.
Reel customers have already helped to provide well over 20,000 toilets just by shifting their spending patterns on a product they use everyday. And as the company grows, Derin is looking for ways to extend its social mission.
“We’d like to support multiple organizations with multiple approaches,” he says. In fact, Reel is just weeks away from announcing a second partnership that will take an entirely different approach to increasing toilet availability much closer to home.
We’ll update Cause Consumer readers in our newsletter.
The Sustainability Mission
Sustainability is where Derin started his search for a mission.
“We knew we wanted to build a brand with a heart. We wanted something that was good for consumers and enabled us to have an impact in the lives others, but first of all it had to be good for the environment. That was the starting point for us.”
Traditional toilet paper definitely does not qualify as good for the environment. We Americans use an average of three rolls per week, according to a recent study, and almost none of that paper is recycled. That’s right, nearly all the major brands you can think of — Charmin, Angel Soft, Northern, and more — contain zero recycled paper. All that stuff we’re flushing down the toilet comes from clear-cutting the boreal forests of Canada.
Recycled toilet paper has been around for a long time, but it’s a slow seller because it’s perceived as rough and hard — and let’s face it, we like to baby our backsides.
So rather than asking consumers to compromise on softness, Derin set out to find a more sustainable plant stock for producing paper. Both sugarcane and hemp looked promising, but those are “novelty fibers” that can’t be produced at scale. The most practical and sustainable option, Derin decided, was bamboo.
In southwest China, bamboo forests stretch for thousands of square miles, and more land is being cultivated for bamboo as demand increases. Bamboo can grow as fast as 3 feet per day, and when it’s cut down for harvesting, bamboo simply grows again like grass — no replanting required. Another plus: a bamboo forest puts out 35 percent more oxygen than a hardwood forest, so it’s more efficient at reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
But, But, But
One big downside is that commercial-scale bamboo forests are so far from the US market, and long-distance shipping creates additional carbon emissions. But Derin says Reel is studying the best ways to offset its transportation impact while also investing in communities where the bamboo paper is produced.
“We’re not greenwashing,” he stresses several times. “This is at the core of our brand.”
Of course, the other big “but” is comfort, and that’s where experience outweighs any explanation. If you’ve never tried bamboo paper, consider this: bamboo is also used in textile manufacturing, and bamboo sheets are so soft that they are often mistaken for silk. At the same time, bamboo paper is naturally stronger than paper made from wood pulp, so in many ways, it’s the perfect fiber for using in the bathroom.
All of which begs the question: “Why aren’t we using bamboo toilet paper already?” Derin says the novelty is a combination of cost and supply. With no domestic manufacturing of bamboo paper, supply is constrained, and that means higher costs .
But this is where consumers can make a difference. “The more demand we create through education and visibility, the more costs will come down, and that’s a good thing all around.” With enough demand, Derin believes that domestic production of bamboo toilet paper is possible, reducing both long-distance shipping and clear-cutting in Canadian forests.
With more bamboo paper available, you might even say we’ll be “flush” with options.
Reel Paper is typically available for home delivery at $29.99 for a box of 24 rolls. Currently the company is sold out due to coronavirus and is not accepting orders. Subscribe today to the Cause Consumer newsletter, and we’ll let you know when Reel Paper is back in stock — plus, one lucky subscriber will win a free box with our compliments!