Which Is Greener: Toilet Paper or a Bidet?

Photo: Biffy Personal Rinse.

Over the course of a regular day, we might receive a dozen or so unsolicited product pitches. Some are useful; some are blatant greenwashing; and a few make us think.

Take, for example, this recent PR come-on:

"Hi, I was hoping you could incorporate the story below into your site/blog. It talks about a bidet invention that helps reduce toilet paper usage, helping the environment in the process."

Ah — the bidet. Common in parts of Europe and a few other places around the world, but a mystery to the majority of Americans. For most, a bidet is a novelty to be contemplated in the dark recesses of some French hotel room, not a component of greener living.

The bidet in question seemed nice enough: a bolt-on attachment for standard commodes that retails for about $100. That's a good value when compared to the rather hefty price people pay for traditional bidets. But it got us wondering: how green is this thing, really — especially when compared to recycled toilet paper?

A Touchy Subject

It's difficult to understand why environmentalists are so willing to discuss their bathroom habits with perfect strangers — or get those same strangers to start "greening up" by changing such an intimate aspect of their lives. With all the possible ways to lighten one's environmental footprint, you'd think potty time would be about the last thing on the list.

Sheryl Crow learned this the hard way, becoming the butt of late-night talk show jokes after calling for the rationing of toilet paper. Public reaction was predictable. Colin Beavan, a New York writer also known as No Impact Man, quickly discovered his family's abandonment of toilet paper was usually the first topic raised when interviewed about his year of low-impact living.

That being said, we're all about saving resources. Let's jump in.

All Those Trees

Biffy Personal Rinse — that's the one mentioned in the original PR note — leads with the idea of saving trees by replacing toilet paper with bidets: an admirable goal. The proposition is quite similar to that used by green household product manufacturer Seventh Generation when promoting recycled paper products:

"If every household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of 500 sheet virgin fiber bathroom tissue with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 423,900 trees."

That sounds good. And it would be true, too — if lumberjacks were marching into natural forests with the sole purpose of hauling trees to the Charmin factory.

In practice, things aren't that simple. Most tissue-grade paper is made from sawdust and leftover scraps of timber cut for other purposes. And while there are some outrageous exceptions, the trees come from vast stands of pulpwood forests, harvested like the vegetables you buy at the corner market.

That's not to say there's no negative impact to sustainable timber management: pulpwood farms grow where native forests used to stand, and their relentless monoculture disrupts all manner of wildlife habitat. It takes fossil fuels to cut and transport the trees, and paper mills make terrible neighbors. It would be better if we used much less paper, but virgin toilet tissue doesn't necessarily equal the destruction of virgin forest.

But Bidets Still Save Paper, Right?

Once again, it's not that simple. Let's say you've just finished using a bidet. Now you're sitting there with a very clean, very wet backside. What do you propose to do about that?

Using a washcloth would be somewhat taboo in the Americas, though it's really no different than if you were toweling off after bathing. Traditional bidet use can involve the use of soap — think about it as a small shower. But even in countries where bidets are common, people often reach for toilet paper.

So it's back to square one. Unless you're happy to air dry or don't mind using a washcloth, a bidet won't save much paper or many trees. That doesn't make the bidet a FAIL. Because, as usual, things aren't that simple.

It's About Water

This seems counter-intuitive, but we think bidets are good environmental tech because they save water. A lot of it. Yes, a bidet uses treated water, an increasingly precious commodity. But it uses less than that utilized in the production of even recycled toilet paper — and a fraction of the amount consumed by virgin pulp.

Paper making is incredibly water-intensive. Even if water used by a mill is locally sourced, rather than drawn from a municipal system, the effluent from paper production invariably finds its way back into the environment. That means a flood of organic waste and chemical residue which must be processed or, worse yet absorbed, after being treated and dumped into some unlucky river or ocean.

Which brings us back to the bidet. Is it green? Yes, though for more nuanced reasons than simply saving trees. It will be at its most effective if you go the washcloth route; should still conserve paper if you use toilet tissue for drying rather than cleaning; and will save water throughout its service life. It seems an affordable alternative to a full bidet, which would be expensive to retrofit in an existing bathroom.

Three Reasonable Alternatives

Let's bravely propose three Earth-friendly potty options. Choose the one that works best for you.

  • Use a bidet. To be most effective, dry with a washcloth. But you're still ahead of the game with paper.
  • Choose recycled toilet tissue. Recycled paper consumes fewer overall resources than virgin tissue.
  • If you prefer conventional paper, buy it on the largest roll your bathroom fixtures will accommodate. It uses less packaging.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2008