Even the little details matter when it comes to the overall sustainability of a building. Those smaller, easily overlooked everyday items can have a significant environmental, health and social impact over time, and still have an impact on building performance.

For instance, consider the sustainability of the humble paper towel. A recent article in The Conversation demonstrated just how in-depth the sustainability question can be when examining a product’s overall impact across its entire life cycle. Suddenly, the question of whether it’s more environmentally-friendly to use a disposable paper towel or the energy-consuming hand dryer takes on a whole new level of complexity (and, what’s more, there is no clear answer to the question.)

The details of our basic, essential, everyday products still matter. So what is it that makes paper towels, tissues and toilet paper ‘sustainable’?

The most obvious issue to begin with is where the raw materials are sourced from. There is a clear environmental benefit in choosing products made from recycled materials – why should we source brand new ‘virgin’ fibre for a single-use disposable product? When this option isn’t available, choosing products made from certified sustainably managed forests or from treeless sources (such as sugar cane or bamboo fibre) is still better than the alternative.

Bleaching is another known issue for paper products – if elemental chlorine is used, it can release compounds such as dioxins and furans, which have a negative impact on aquatic life. They also impact human health, affecting our reproductive and immune systems, and some are possible carcinogens. There are, however, alternative options. Elemental chlorine free bleaching uses a different derivative of chlorine, process chlorine free methods don’t use any chlorine-based or chlorine-derivative-based bleaching processes, and totally chlorine free pulp has never been bleached with chlorine or its derivatives, which usually results in brown products rather than white.

A group of substances called alkylphenol ethoxylates can also cause problems as they produce alkylphenols upon breaking down. These could be found in any paper-based hygiene product that is either already wet (a moist towelette or wipe) or designed to clean up liquid (such as dry paper towels). Alkylphenol ethoxylates are endocrine disruptors (interfere with hormones) for fish, birds and mammals, and they are slow to break down once released into the environment.

Some dyes, pigments and coatings – such as those used to make colourful printed patterns on paper towels and toilet paper – can pose a slight health risk if they contain phthalates and heavy metals. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and some have been linked to fertility problems, among other health concerns. Heavy metals are associated with toxicity concerns relating to both humans and the environment.

So what’s the best way to choose the most sustainable paper towels, toilet paper, napkins and tissue products? Finding out where the raw materials are sourced from is the first step. Recycled materials or products made from certified sustainably managed forests are obvious sustainability ‘wins’ in this regard. Also, look for any information about the bleaching process used (if any) and opt for the one with the least amount of chlorine.

Avoiding coloured patterns is an easy way to eliminate any dye-related concerns of hazardous substances – just choose plain white tissues, paper towels and toilet paper products. Determining what other hazardous substances may be present could be a little more of a challenge.