Updated: Feb 21, 2020
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By SW board member Betsy Dudash
I don’t remember when Mr. Whipple entered my childhood, but his admonishment to ladies to please not squeeze the Charmin seems to have set a modern American standard for toilet paper: irresistibly soft and thick. Today, the brands used by many are responsible for a “tree-to-toilet” pipeline, in which huge swathes of Canada’s boreal forest - an irreplaceable terrestrial carbon sink - are destroyed to meet the American demand for ultra-soft toilet paper and tissues. The average American uses 141 rolls of toilet paper per year, more than anyone else in the world, and toilet and tissue paper are a roughly $32 billion market in this country. Your clean behind is big business.
We have many options, however, that don’t involve the systematic destruction of old-growth forests: products made from recycled paper and bamboo, bidets or bidet attachments, or even washable cloth wipes. I’ve been using recycled toilet paper for several years. My favorite is from Trader Joe’s. Since we don’t have one in the valley, I’ve had to try a couple of other brands. One has been pushed to the back of the storage closet for emergency use only, but the other—made by one of the top names in sustainable household products—is my current favorite.
Bamboo is an incredibly sustainable plant. It grows like a weed and can be reharvested every year or two. I started researching bamboo toilet papers a couple of months ago, but I’m still not convinced that our almost-100-year-old plumbing could handle it. Some of the new bamboo (plus other fibers like sugar cane) toilet papers come with catchy names and regular subscriptions. There are plenty of online reviews to help you decide which factors - softness, strength, lack of lint (don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about!), waste-free packaging, coreless, or roll size - matter most to you.
I’ve been seriously thinking that we should get a bidet attachment for our toilet to help reduce our toilet paper use. I saw bidets when traveling in Italy long ago, but honestly just used them to wash my dusty feet after sightseeing in sandals. My Italian friend had one in her bathroom; I remember the bidet cloth hanging next to it for drying your tush afterwards. Every member of the household would have to have their own cloth, or you could use a stack of washable cloth wipes (see below). Bidets and bidet attachments come in a range of styles and prices. Our small bathroom has no extra space, but a bidet attachment that connects to the sink’s water supply would be workable.
I reached out to someone locally who has a bidet and here’s what she had to say: “Since our family got our bidet, we have all said we’d never want to go back to the “old way” again. Not only do we use significantly less toilet paper (in a recent experiment, we established that a single roll lasts on average 21 days in our house), but it also results in a much cleaner, fresher feeling. Some units, ours included, are equipped with an air dryer so the process can be completely hands-free and the use of a small amount of toilet paper is a matter of preference. The unit attached to our existing toilet and was easy to install - no plumber required. Many homes in the Sunnyslope area, where we live, are on septic systems, so in addition to generally enjoying the process more, we are hopeful that the bidet use will result in less strain on the septic system.”
Washable cloth wipes (AKA family wipes) are a more-radical option that could replace toilet paper completely. Made out of soft rags like flannel, they can be used wet or dry then tossed into a closed container, just like dirty cloth diapers get put into a diaper pail, and washed in hot water on a regular basis. Whatever option you choose, your bathroom habits don’t have to contribute to deforestation.