An Essay on Toilet Paper

Toilet paper use has become an unnecessary habit with extreme consequences.

The ultimate test of modesty, honesty, and conscious awareness: How much toilet paper do you consume? Toilet paper over the centuries has become a commodity and staple product for every household since its large-scale production began to the point we have reached where large populations of people take it for granted. It is undeniably necessary to clean oneself off following defecation, and what are we supposed to use to get the job done appropriately? Historically, vegetable and organic matter was first used, eventually people upgraded to variations of a sponge on a stick, and finally toilet papers were finally produced. Thank God for toilet paper! It is the highest selling product at bulk giant Costco, which speaks to the product’s commodity status and largely profitable industry. Different cultures have established different habits for using the toilet, from sitting to squatting and washing versus wiping, which have given us comparable options. Regardless of this, toilet paper remains to have large impacts on our environment, our health, and our economy on a global level as an effect of high consumption rates worldwide.

Toilet paper can be any paper that is specifically designed to be used to wipe, clean, and sanitize your bottom after pooping. The first reported use of a toilet paper was in 1391 by a Chinese emperor. Of course it was a very luxurious item that only royalty used. The Chinese were also reported to create the first ever paper product out of bamboo in around 50 BC. Originally in the United States, paper was made from turning old rags into pulp which came from materials such as cotton and hemp. 1690 was the year the first papermaking mill was established in America, and by 1857 the first packaged toilet tissue became available for sale in the US. Tree pulp and wood fiber started being used for the production of paper in the early 1900`s as more resources were needed to allow the market to grow. Toilet paper as a manufactured product was originally available to purchase as sheets in stacks until 1890 when it started being produced on a roll. Since this time, the major paper making companies have competed with each other for market share by introducing new varieties and variations of the product. We have seen everything, not limited to but including coloured toilet paper, scented, unscented, 2-ply, 3-ply, 4-ply, pre-moistened, toilet paper with added lotion, aloe, and other herbs, 100% cotton, quilted, organic, printed, bamboo and biodegradable papers, recycled, unbleached, toilet paper with coreless rolls, and of course softer, more absorbent, stronger, and fluffier options.

In accordance with population growth and evolutionary standards to maintain cleanliness and hygiene, the flushable toilet became a very useful invention to be marketed to the public over time as well. The fifteenth century was the period when people re-established the use of flowing water (since Roman times) to remove waste by channeling a flowing river into a pipe that would fill a tank with a plug which could be lifted after the shitting process was complete to clear it away. When it was a new system, it was not yet perfected and therefore expensive, smelly and required a constant flow of water which was not very common at the time. Around one hundred fifty years later, in ~1775, the first ever patent for a toilet was granted. It had all of the basic mechanisms of a modern toilet, although over time was eventually improved upon. Even though toilets became an option to purchase and install, it took time for the masses to convert to the system of owning a flushing toilet. ‘The Great Stink of 1858’ as it is known, was the breaking point for dumping raw sewage into rivers in England, and the growing issue of contamination and hygiene motivated the establishment and construction of sewer systems, originally considered to be a luxury. The 1880`s brought about distinguished manufacturing of toilets that allowed the fixtures to become a common feature across the world. Due to the expense to make the upgrade, public restrooms charged a fee of one cent and included urinals with bull’s-eye targets. Up until the 1960`s, having a shared family toilet in the courtyard was common to be shared between one to three other families.

If it were not for the invention of common flushing toilets, and the modern convenience of toilet paper to be flushed down them, then how would people go about doing their unspeakable business? According to a religious text, the ‘Vishnu Purana’, one should not defecate one hundred fifty feet from a water source or fifteen feet from a house. A bible text states that you should dig and cover your specimen outside of camp. Hindu verse says to fire an arrow and only allow your bodily fluids to flow as far as the arrow should land. In Roman times, a sanitation system was established that allowed the flow of excrement to be drained into a channel with a secondary channel of flowing water to clean one self. The wiping method at this time was a sponge on a stick which was communal and no one was privy to privacy. The main channel used for pooping was actually ‘grey’ water which was directed to these channels as a last stop before flowing out of the city. At the time, this system was not accepted in other cultures due to the strict view that water is a pure substance and should not be contaminated in this regard. Some gravity toilets were common in medieval times around the thirteenth century which comprised of sitting on a hole over a chute and later shovelled out of a moat. Tudor times (16th century) introduced household toilet rooms, also known as cesspits, and otherwise used chamber pots which were just small portable pots specially used for collecting the personal dung. In common times, if you are not using a flushable toilet, you most likely have a composting toilet installed, an outhouse, or you end up in nature digging a hole. Newer systems have been created for individual households using self containing systems that do not require additional water, and there are also flushing composting toilets available.

As far as wiping is concerned, paper was a rare commodity in general up until the seventeenth century, however toilet paper was being used as early as the sixth century AD. Before the production of toilet paper, many and almost any creative options were used as alternative wiping devices by various cultures depending on status and availability. English royalty used paper from inexpensive books. French royalty used lace, wool, or hemp; some even had access to a type of bidet. Americans used rags, corn cobs and newspapers; most famously phone books, as well as department store catalogues, and farmers almanacs. Coastal areas used mussel shells. In cold climates, naturally chunks of ice can be a very efficient source of water for cleaning purposes since it will slowly melt when it touches warm skin, while still remaining mostly solid to provide a physical barrier to the hand. Eskimos are reported to have used snow and tundra moss. European settlers used frayed rope. Ancient Greeks used stones called ‘pessoi’ in addition to pieces of clay. Hawaiians used coconut shells. In medieval Europe, raw materials such as hay, straw, scrapers and grompf sticks were used to wipe. The royalty of this time period also used woven flax and wool that were died with soothing plants such as madder and wade. Even banana peels, wood chips, charcoal, and animal skins have been mentioned throughout history. The first complete paperless toilet system came out in Japan in 1999.

As a species, we have tried to develop more sanitary, and efficient systems to do our business. Toilet paper provides a physical barrier between fecal excretion and the hand. It can be used as an extension of disinfection since it can remove the mess and simply be discarded of. If you do not clean yourself, the excess excrement would stay on your skin and stick to your clothing. In general, human feces contains bacteria, microbes, in addition to possible viruses, fungi, and protozoa. At least sixty different species of bacteria have been found living in human feces, which is only representative of a fraction of the natural intestinal flora, not including the non-bacterial microbial flora of a regular stool. It is equally important to properly wash your hands just as much as it is to wash your bum post defecation in order to avoid transmission of enteric infection by the fecal manual oral route regardless of the medium and system used as an important infection control measure. As it turns out, closing the toilet seat actually serves a purpose. Besides preventing things from being dropped inside the toilet, the lid also serves to contain the spread of bacteria as the toilet is flushed and also from lingering in the air afterwards.

Although it is currently convenient in most places, toilet paper can be said to absorb lingering bacteria, cause rashes, and take more time to wipe versus just using water pressure to quickly wash it all away. It is pretty clear why we flush the toilet and do not wipe out the toilet with paper. In the end it all gets flushed and washed away with water, so some would argue that there is no reason to also clog up the drains with excess tissue if it could be managed without.

The issues that toilet paper have created are very unique to our species who over populate the earth at this point in time. No other being that we currently share the planet with has even considered using and dealing with such a product or system. When it comes to domesticated animals such as various breeds of dogs, most are not able to clean themselves resulting in their owners having to take responsibility for giving them regular baths. Smaller animals poop out pellets which are not messy enough for their butts to have to be wiped. Sometimes cats or dogs will get poop stuck on their fur and are able to slide their butts along the floor to remove the specimen. Cats generally do not like having baths but are able to clean themselves with their tongue and saliva which actually has anti-bacterial properties. Luckily for cats, it is just in their nature to be able to clean themselves so efficiently. Wild animals, in addition to cats, groom eachother and their babies. Since they do not live in settlements, wild creatures are free to roam the forests where waste management is also not an issue. Other species also do not wear clothing and therefore have the added benefit of exposure to natural elements such as water and air which make it unnecessary for regular wiping. By contrast, the human species is an evolved bipedal being with butt cheeks and has adapted to climates and cultural appropriation with the production and common comfort of wearing clothes. Diet and anatomy play a main role when it comes to the necessity of regular hygiene maintenance. In previous times, people were not as commonly concerned with hygiene and preferred to use powder and perfumes to cover up their stench which allowed for diseases to be spread such as black death. Thank you to history for this valuable lesson.

Toilet paper was first marketed in the United States in 1857 and sold as medicated paper advertised to aid in managing hemorrhoids. As opposed to using scrap newspaper and printed advertising that could have poisons in the inks, a major selling point for the product of toilet paper was that it was pure plain paper, new and clean. Since sewage was becoming more common in addition to flushing toilets, in 1905 toilet paper usage was authorized by the United States surgeon general wherever sewers were connected. Updated drainage systems, and the need for sanitary environments allowed the use of toilet paper to grow. Currently in 2018, markets, consistent with the population, are expected to continue increasing. Due to the massively profitable industry that has been created due to our reliance on toilet paper, the manufacturers continuously develop new packaging and product options to peak our interest and convince us of a more desirable, more valuable and essential product.

The product of toilet paper currently provides an estimated thirty billion dollar market annually. International pulp prices are rising and this has in the recent past brought scare of a shortage in Taiwan. This year as the cost for consumers goes up, people have gone into a buying frenzy to stock up. As the price for the base material rises, so does packaging and transportation costs which lead to higher prices for the consumer. The main reason for this is because Taiwan is a country where local producers have not used much recycled content for their products and therefore rely on the base resource of pulp fiber from trees. This economic example is proof that collectively as humans we are over consuming a product at a level that is not sustainable until options such as renewable and recyclable materials and energy are included in the production and manufacturing. It also shows how reliable a nation has become on such a product to the point at which they have surrendered their control and buying power. Supply shortages could essentially happen anywhere at anytime due to political influence or environmental disasters.

As far as being a necessity, it is just paper. It is soft, it is comfortable, it is disposable, it is widely available, and is a convenient option for wiping. Toilet paper has been marketed very well since its invention and become a life style product that has turned into a commodity based on established bathroom design and construction as well as habit. Personally I was born into a household where I was potty trained and taught how to wipe and flush since I was a toddler and have never been told anything otherwise or given any other options, unless I have put myself in a situation where no such facilities are available. We are all in some way victims of circumstance; however one thing we can learn from history is that change is constant, and on the other side of fear is freedom. Do not be afraid of a day when you try to go and buy toilet paper and there is none available. Free yourself from this habit, the earth will provide, and you will learn to adapt. Prepare for the future now.

The United States alone kills up to 15 million trees, uses 500 million gallons of water, 253 tonnes of chlorine (for bleaching), and 17.3 terawatts of electricity to meet annual demand of toilet paper just for manufacturing operations. Approximately 150 million trees are cut down every year just to be transformed and sold as toilet paper throughout the world. The toilet paper and tissue product industry is reported to be a serious factor in the destruction of Canada’s ancient forests which contain trees lingering around the two hundred year old mark. As a culture and as a consumer we are directly destroying habitats of wildlife and endangered species. Handkerchief anyone? We are living amidst what can be termed a ‘throw away society’, using and consuming products only once just to throw them away and create garbage. Considering and becoming aware of other options besides toilet paper allows us to take a step towards taking responsibility for the overwhelming amount of trash each person creates. The constant use of take-out containers, plastic water bottles, plastic straws, plastic bags, and pretty much everything plastic is something that needs to be curbed if we wish to live sustainably. Unfortunately a lot of these objects also end up in our sewer systems that end up causing expensive infrastructure damage and consequently the environment. Simply if we care for the planet, the earth will continue to provide and care for us symbiotically. What affects the earth, affects us all. Scientists have been quoted, “No forest of any kind should be wiped out to make toilet paper.” Based on the ecology of trees, the time they take to grow etc., there are way more efficient and cheaper options that are environmentally more sustainable. Statistically and historically speaking, we are overall not doing a good job of taking care of our health or the planet’s health and there is a lot of work that needs to be done as a result of this over consuming habit. Simple changes can be made if you commit to them for your own wellness and find personal solutions to match your lifestyle.

Specifically ‘scented’ toilet papers really just contain additional chemicals; and ‘fluffier’ options are almost completely produced using no recycled content due to established manufacturing processes developed with the need for longer fibers in the raw material which naturally come from fresh tree pulp. More options and new varieties of toilet paper that cater to comfort and health are continually coming on to the market which give us the choice to buy a recycled and forest friendly toilet paper, or tissue products being sourced from biodegradable materials and alternative plant fibers, but of course have still gone through the rigorous processes of manufacturing. Even recycled toilet paper is treated with chemicals for most brands. It may be possible to find toilet paper that is unbleached using only oxygen or ozone, and may be marked ‘TCF’ which stands for totally chlorine free.

Regardless of what type you decide to buy, it all has to go somewhere. Toilet paper can be used effectively for wiping, but it still needs to be cleared away. Where there is flow, there is cleanliness. Without water, there is no flow. Based on this logic, I would have to agree that water is the more important factor in the equation than the paper is itself. As far as removing the solid excrement off of the body, either a material is used or the hand. As an example, we can compare using deodorant, dry shampoo, hand sanitizer and sprays to the effect of showering, a procedure which becomes necessary every two days at minimum should you choose to only use toilet paper to wipe.

I have noticed without even thinking about it, but by habit over the years I have started to wet the toilet paper with my saliva to increase the effectiveness, comfort, and efficiency of the product without even considering wet wipes or spraying my behind with water. Without a doubt, toilet paper used in this way becomes more convenient, sanitary, and effective. Should we only be able to manage its conservation and manufacturing processes better, than we would be able to find a better balance in creating a sustainable and clean way of managing our effect on the environment. Sewage systems on the other hand would become more manageable if the waste were to be processed on a smaller scale by establishing independent and self maintaining cycles.

Water is recycled, where as toilet paper is not always. The habit of using toilet paper and flushing articles of waste down the toilet puts pressure on our environments through the consumption of toilet paper products which mostly come from pulp fiber that originate from cutting down trees, as well as the extensive processes of sifting through sewage at various stages, a percentage of which is allowed by each municipality to go back into our waterways untreated. It can really make a difference how much toilet paper is actually used per use, however more resources are consumed by choosing to use the manufactured product of toilet paper versus washing with water alone. Not only should we consider the fact that trees are being cut down just for humans to wipe their asses with, but the production and manufacturing of the product itself requires energy to be consumed and chemicals to be used which creates further environmental impacts. In addition to flushing the waste, the toilet paper also needs to be flushed along with it anyways which overall requires more water to push it down the drain instead of just using a portion of that water to wash with. In this comparison, there is now a bigger load that needs to be processed additionally to the feces which has become a very large and expensive industrial operation and economic issue that requires constant infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. Many times people also try to flush things down the toilet that are not even supposed to be flushed including non-flushable wipes, and this can lead to major issues including blocked sewer mains and pipes, backup of sewage, and untreated sewage leaking into the environment unregulated. The effects can lead to further health concerns and costs to the municipality of multiple thousands of dollars in bills required in order to fix the damage. Sewage treatment is a lengthy process that essentially produces clean filtered water in the end for liquids, and bio-solids used for fertilizer or compost from the leftover sludge of everything else. These however are just the usable by-products of sewage systems. Firstly, large objects are filtered out, which is pretty much anything that can get into a sewer or get down a toilet pipe before it gets clogged or blocked. Then following the original filtration process, organic compounds are separated, skimmed, and clarified; followed by multiple stages of filtering and breaking down components through which more chemicals are used. In some municipalities, septic tanks are used which house a place for ‘black’ and ‘grey’ water to rot and eventually filter through the soil. These also require maintenance and need to be cleaned out every so often depending on usage and municipal standards.

Sewage treatment systems are very important to have in place based on the current societies we live in. Lack of basic sanitation is linked to at least 280 000 deaths per year worldwide, and one of the biggest challenges in child survival rates is sewage disposal as reported by the United Nations. There is a current struggle in Bangladesh India where open defecation is common. People have started to build cheap concrete toilets over the last five years, however there is still a need to improve education to assist in breaking the lifestyle habits linked to poor health including the importance of hand washing. The USA, has the highest reported E.COLI contamination, a bacteria which grows on excrement. To add to the health issues of not having proper sanitization methods in practice, constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, and urinary infection can all be linked to living in a consumer culture and being victims of circumstance that have been created not just from eating a poor diet but also from the physical act of sitting on a toilet and wiping with chemically processed tissue. Squat toilets have been the norm in Japan until recently the people there have also adapted the sit down version. It has been proven that squatting actually provides easier, faster, and more complete bowel movements. So why do the majority of toilets predispose the act of sitting? It is simply only due to ease and habit. This fact alone shows how vulnerable we have become as a nation to bad habits, and the capitalist giants of colonialism that continue to sell these expensive units. Another issue that has been recently studied is the lack of available restrooms in public, forcing some people to ‘hold it in’ which can further lead to health complications. Some great ancient advice states to “Keep your eyes, ears, and bowels open”. If it wants to come out, let it out. If is no longer serves you, than no longer hold on to it. Stay clean, stay healthy, let it flow!

The reality is that we are subject to the circumstances that society dictates, the systems we are born into and fall victim of based on the location we are born and where we choose to live, but of course we always have a choice. We are a part of our society. What are your options if you are presented with toilet paper in a washroom at a toilet with no bidet installed? Some people who have committed to going paper free would say this scenario is best avoided, however it really is not practical or clean to only use water especially in public stalls. What if you are in nature and you are not prepared? In this case, you are alone and at the mercy of whatever nature has gifted around you. Yes, the options are limited, but essentially the message is simple: wash your body with soap and water to maintain your hygiene as often as necessary. Every single day we live as humans, it is natural to sweat and regenerate skin cells as part of a natural cycle to eliminate dirt and toxins from the body that are accumulated from eating and breathing. A healthy person also uses the toilet every day. If we wash our skin, which is a major organ, every time it comes into contact with toxic feces, we can eliminate the use of and environmental burden that relying on toilet paper creates. Myself, as a human, am victim of my habits. Changing the way we have been doing something our entire life is not easy by any means, but if we just try something different one time then we can open the door to possibilities of creating conscious change. A ‘LOTA’  for example is a simple pot of water connected to a hose with a nozzle that is used as a portable shower. It is a very inexpensive option and easy to adapt into any washroom. One time I ran out of toilet paper at home and just reused dried tissues from the garbage bin. Perhaps there are even more creative options uniquely suited for each individual and each washroom.

In some cultures, people use water to clean themselves off using the left hand only, and reserve the right hand exclusively for eating. Just having a bucket of water beside the toilet is apparently common in many regions of Asia. The most common substance for washing has always been water. Paper is a precious resource and medium used for education which some people actually find inappropriate for wiping their bottoms with. Alternatively, there are options to install ‘bum guns’, also know as bidets [bi•deI(s)] which spray up only water and some even have an option to air dry. Built in versions may also offer extra features such as heating the seat or sound effects. There are also what are known as ‘soft spray’ bidets, which are easily mounted onto a toilet and cost less than $100 each, and additionally suggest keeping a personal drying cloth handy, which is much more sanitary and requires less maintenance than using re-usable toilet wipes only. Some households have established a do it yourself re-usable bathroom wipe system which requires the cloths or rags to be collected in a separate bin, sometimes with bleach, and washed separately, which overall requires more energy and maintenance to be washed and upkept. The re-usable option is not recommended primary because it involves contaminated materials sitting around and in itself is a toxic hazard that should logically be avoided.

Water is a symbol for purification. It is used for ritualistic cleansing. Water is the only option for proper and effective cleansing. If you are using toilet paper, it becomes more effective when it is wet because it allows for a cleaner wipe. Water is used in hospitals in their critical care units as a method to eliminate the germs. It really is a matter of health. When it comes to water versus paper, the paper allows for scrubbing where using different proportions have different results depending on the mess of course and if you choose to wet the paper or not. The paper can also help to keep your hands and fingernails clean, should you resort to just using your hand. In either case, water is always necessary where paper is not, even though some may say that it is ideal to use for both comfort and cleanliness which overall help to maintain sanitization in shared bathrooms. It is possible for this view to change, however not without major infrastructure changes in public bathrooms that would still allow for privacy and cater to cleanliness at each stage which has to be looked at as the most important factor based on other societal health issues and the increasing population.

Even though toilet paper use is unnecessary, it is still very efficient and practical in some situations. We should always make a conscious choice based on what is available to us. At some point, people determine that they are going to continue to use the product and make a decision to acquire it and have to decide what is the most important factor for their lifestyle. It breaks down to comfort, efficiency, environmentally friendly, health conscious/sensitive, and price. Some products can fulfill all of these duties but may not be conveniently available in your local store. Depending on where you live, it is always worth checking what could be conveniently delivered right to your home as an alternative solution.

I believe history and knowledge of various cultures have shown us that we do have options and perhaps we do not need to rely on this common household staple. Based on the consumer culture we live in and considering the environmental toll the product has, maybe it is time to explore some of these options. The impact that this large industry has on our personal health and as a nation should be taken into consideration as well every time we use or purchase each square or roll of toilet paper. Having the awareness of knowing where it comes from, where it goes, the damage being done to the environment, how much energy goes into the process of having it available to us, and the physical impact it has on us is an opportunity to choose from several alternatives to make a conscious change to help lessen the load that constantly consuming the product of toilet paper poses. If you really think about it, it is not too difficult to cut down on your toilet paper use and reduce your environmental footprint. Weather you use less, make a simple switch to recycled paper, or decide to pick up a portable shower and a pot, you are good to go; number one or two. Thank you.

Originally published on November 16th 2018

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