photo: Rhys Alton/Creative Commons
Yesterday we learned that Kimberly-Clark will be soon testing toilet paper that doesn't need an inner cardboard tube, all with the entirely admirable goal of cutting down on the million miles worth of tube waste thrown out annually. It really is pretty cool, and as Stephen Messenger says it is indeed "oddly revolutionary." But when you look at all the water used in toilet paper manufacturing, perhaps the most environmentally friendly solution to TP waste is actually not using toilet paper at all, but using a bidet.TreeHugger has covered the wipe or wash divide and the virtues of washing on a number of occasions, but some of the stats on our toilet paper usage bear repeating:
Using toilet paper uses water in not-so-obvious ways. First is the amount of water used in the flush, and then there is the embedded water use in a roll of TP (roughly 37 gallons per roll); this is ancillary byproducts of toilet paper production: chlorine to bleach the paper, the trees used to produce the paper, or the energy spent recycling the paper, packaging, distribution, etc.
Counterintuitive Perhaps, But Washing Uses Less Water Than Wiping
That works out roughly, as everyone's TP use varies, to as much embedded water in the toilet paper you use per bathroom trip itself as even your low-flow or dual flush toilet uses per flush. Even the most excessive cleaning via bidet isn't going to use well over a gallon of water.
If you're objecting that bidets are expensive, as TreeHugger has also pointed out plenty of times, you don't have to go in for the multi-thousand dollar heated, air-drying Japanese versions; there are plenty of retrofit models that cost less, and even inexpensive hand-held bidets that are essentially just the sprayer from your kitchen sink that can be installed. All get the job done.
Now, for US readers at least--millions and millions of Asians prefer washing over wiping, the bidet certainly enjoys a sizable European following--washing your nether region instead of wiping it takes some getting used to. But let me tell, from my personal experience, washing wins hands down on a hygiene level.
If you're worried that guests may prefer wiping to washing, keep a couple rolls of toilet paper around for them. Toilet paper is still useful for drying after washing, but that use is marginal compared to wiping.
Asking the Right Questions Crucial to Finding Right Answers
The point of all this is only partly to rehash our many posts on toilet paper versus bidets. The bigger point is that when evaluating the environmental merits of a given product or situation, much of the time the right question to ask isn't paper versus plastic, recycled toilet paper versus virgin toilet paper versus tubeless toilet paper, different aluminum cans or recyclable glass, it's a different question entirely.
Let's face it, despite popular green rhetoric to the contrary, the answer to the majority of our current socio-ecological problems aren't tweaks of the current system, aren't switching from product A to product B. The answers rest in changing that system itself and changing ourselves as well. Which obviously can't happen over night; it is a transition. But that transition can't start unless we ask the right questions, which sometimes includes addressing very personal, intimate questions and biases.
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More on Hygiene:
The Scat is Out of the Bag: The Adventure of Our Butts and Toilet Tips From TreeHugger
Bidets: Eliminate Toilet Paper, Increase Your Hygiene
Eco-Friendly Toilet Seat and Bidet From Brondell to Preserve Trees, European Custom
One Toilet Paper Company Decides to Ditch the Tube