What would the modern bathroom be without toilet paper? This common household staple has fundamentally transformed our bathroom habits. Toilet paper not only satisfies our innate need for cleanliness, but it also pampers us at the same time. Perhaps that’s why this peculiar wiping habit has become so firmly ingrained in our culture. We can’t imagine life without it. Usually, of course, we take our toilet paper for granted. We hardly notice it until, eventually, it runs out.
Though it’s hard to imagine, people have lived without toilet paper for most of history. Prior to the 20th century, people improvised other solutions to their bathroom hygiene issues, which range from the obvious to the downright bizarre. Those who could afford finer toiletries often used wool and hemp as paper substitutes. Commoners, however, often resorted to whatever they had lying around: old rags, corn cobs, sponges, animal furs, and even their bare hands. Modern toilet paper was a hard-sell at first, since it was considered wasteful to use such elegant sheets of paper for the unclean act of defecation. Many Americans used newspapers and mail-order catalogs instead (1).
From an ecological perspective, toilet paper is extremely wasteful because it can’t be reused. Each new roll of paper requires trees, water, and electricity to produce. Chemicals are used to bleach brown paper to a pure, white color. The New York Times reports that Americans use 23.6 rolls of toilet paper per person per year. That’s an extravagant amount of energy and natural resources flushed down a porcelain bowl.
As wasteful as toilet paper is, it’s difficult to devise a sustainable alternative that is both hygienic and socially acceptable. One blog suggested using reusable cloth wipes in place of toilet paper. Instead of throwing the cloth away, you simply collect the wipes in a bag, then wash periodically. Others suggested using bare hands to cleanse yourself, then washing with plenty of soap and water afterwards. Both techniques certainly work, but I can’t imagine them being popular solutions in our Western culture. Who would volunteer for the dirty job of washing the cloth wipes? Could you shake hands the same way again?
The problem with either method is that once something becomes soiled, it is extremely unpleasant to wash. The solution, then, is to build a toilet that sprays water directly instead. These fixtures are known as bidet toilets, and they are popular in Continental Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. These cultures realize that spraying water is gentler and more hygienic than wiping with paper. Coincidentally, bidet toilets help conserve water, since bidets use less water than is used in paper production. Bidet toilets, then, provide a sustainable and hygienic alternative to toilet paper.
It’s unfortunate that bidet toilets aren’t popular in America. This is probably due to cultural attitudes and our unusual affection towards fluffy, white paper. However, it is possible to retrofit an existing toilet with an attachable bidet that hooks up to your shower or sink. Low-end models are very affordable, starting as low as $50; portable bidets start at just $20. Lastly, if the idea doesn’t bother you, you can always just shower after using the toilet. Bidets are worth investing in, since you’ll recoup your investment with money saved on toilet paper.
I’ve given up toilet paper for about a week now, and I don’t think I’ll go back. This experiment made me realize that, sometimes, the forces that hold us back from green living have nothing to do with convenience or comfort. At times, cultural attitudes make all the difference.
Is anything holding you back from living without toilet paper?