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Toilet paper. We use it every day, but often take it for granted. Do you even know what happens to it after you flush?
PhD candidate Suellen Espindola helps to create jewellery out of wastewater. (Photos: TU Delft TV)

Toilet paper. We use it every day, but often take it for granted. Do you even know what happens to it after you flush?

PhD Applied Sciences candidate Suellen Espindola does. “The toilet paper we flush travels through long sewerage pipes and eventually ends up at a sewerage treatment plant.” One of these plants is located in the Beemster, North Holland. Here they collect over 860 kilograms of toilet paper, other fibres and fine solids per day. “The end material actually kind of looks like the initial toilet paper and is currently being used for the production of bio energy,” says Espindola.

TUTVWaste04.jpgSuellen Espindola with some of the collected pulp at the sewerage treatment plant. 

New recycling method
To broaden the ways of recycling toilet paper, Espindola researched how we can mine resources from wastewater and further boost the circular economy.

“We found a novel application for this kind of waste. Toilet paper consists of cellulose fibres. Knowing this, we developed a new way to clean the sieved paper,” she explains. “This method consists of two procedures. The first procedure is an alkaline step to sanitise the pulp. The second procedure is a mild bleaching step. The end product is a white material that is 80% cellulose. Which means we have made paper again!”  

But that’s not all. Espindola believed she could do even more with this resource and looked into the production of novel high-end materials. “We transformed the 80% cellulose material into a high end material called nanocellulose. Nanocellulose is a nano size version of cellulose and can be obtained by controlling the cleavage of the fibre.”

This is usually a chemical process and one that is highly selective. “But it did allow us to only obtain the crystal parts of the cellulose.” After polarisation, the nanocellulose displays all sorts of light catching effects. It’s no wonder people often remark on its resemblance to pearls.

It’s exactly this resemblance that made Espindola consider the production of jewellery. But with one big difference, because this jewellery comes with a bigger message: sustainability. “To find such precious materials in waste water gives us inspiration and motivation to search for many others. We think that several other green materials can be produced from this waste whose potential is yet to be unlocked.”

TU Delft TV shot a short documentary on the recycling of toilet paper. Make sure to watch it below.

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