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It’s important to recognise that the root of the problem goes back to the production process, in particular the bleaching process used for these products. Most of the cellulose fibres contained within these products will have been bleached using a technology known as Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF). The name is slightly misleading as ECF uses chlorine dioxide, which poses various dangers [1], both to human health and the wider environment.


One of these risks is that the ECF bleaching process can leave a chlorine ‘footprint’ in the final product (tampon, menstrual pad, diaper, napkin or toilet paper) in the form of trace amounts of dioxins. These chemical residues will stay embedded in the product throughout its entire lifecycle. The use of ECF also generates other chlorinated compounds during the production process such as AOX (Adsorbable Organic Halides) emissions and more acute toxic substances like chlorophenol. These are often discharged into waterways as effluent, causing pollution and further harm to wildlife and eco-systems [2].

The solution is for pulp mills, the producers of these fibres, to switch to a safer bleaching technology known Total Chlorine Free (TCF). Instead of using chlorine, TCF supplements the bleaching process with oxygen, ozone and/or hydrogen peroxide. It remains the cleanest technology available for bleaching, and products made with it can be considered genuinely chlorine free. TCF also delivers wider ecological and social benefits as it eliminates the risk of toxic chlorinated compounds escaping into waterways, helping to safeguard eco-systems and local communities.


TCF can also save water – this is significant when you consider that on average, 10 litres of water are required to make one A4 sheet of paper [3]. TCF technology can lower water usage by a factor of two compared to the ECF bleaching process. One TCF mill operator in Sweden has reported that its total wastewater effluent volumes are half that of typical modern ECF discharges [4]. 


Despite TCF being good from both an environmental and health perspective, and an established technology, it still remains a niche solution among pulp mills and manufacturers. Unless consumers start to demand toxic-free tampons and diapers, the producers of these products won’t make the switch to TCF.    


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TEF/t of pulp (on EC50)



Comparison of the measured toxic effects from ECF and TCF production, expressed as TEF (Toxicity Emission Factors), for the three organism groups commonly used in the characterisation of forest industry wastewater in the laboratory [5]

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