My sister-in-law, a registered nurse, describes the nest she builds. She loads the toilet seat up with toilet paper to protect her bottom from touching the same area as other people’s bottoms. This weekend traveling, I noticed the immense size of leftover nests being built by many just like her. Toilet paper draped over toilet seats, on the ground, seat covers emptied out and thrown aside, and paper towels that never dispense just one, I wondered how our bathroom habits are connected to the environment.
It turns out it’s all very connected. The soft fluffy mainstream toilet paper in the grocery store is made from old growth virgin trees. Old growth tree fibers are longer than recycled fibers, giving them the soft characteristics we’ve become attracted to. Old growth trees have taken hundreds of years, in some cases, to reach maturity storing carbon in their fibers. Felling old growth trees is a double edge sword that increases carbon in the environment in two ways. Not only does cutting a tree down release carbon back into the environment, but you are also removing another plant capable of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if we didn’t use so much toilet paper. The average American uses about 23.6 rolls of toilet paper per year. Most of what we buy at home is not made of recycled content, only five percent of what we buy is recycled and about 75 percent of what we use outside of the home is recycled content. And don’t be confused; recycled content does not mean recycled used toilet paper, it means recycled paper, newspaper and other paper products. When the only option to use is recycled toilet paper, we use it, but we resist the same style at home.
Toilet paper has some other environmental issues. Here in the U.S., when toilet paper is flushed, our wastewater treatment plants break it down where the organic material of the wood is eaten by bacteria. Toilet paper does not only contain paper. In many cases chemicals, such as bleach, are used to dye the paper. This bleach and other chemicals are not as easy to remove at water treatment plants and can enter back into our rivers and lakes. Toilet paper also takes water to process and produce, and some estimates go as high as 37 gallons for each roll. The packaging for toilet paper also eats up resources, so much so, that some companies have gone to removing the cardboard center to reduce waste.
Toilet paper is a $9 billion industry. Each decision we make in the grocery store adds to this industry, and we, as consumers, are part of shaping the future of the industry. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states, “If every household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of virgin fiber toilet paper (500 sheets) with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 423,900 trees.” The NRDC has a list of the environmental ratings of household tissue paper on their website, of which a few low cost brands, such as Best Value and CVS Earth Essentials, made the recycled content cut. Find out more at nrdc.org/land/forests/tissueguide/ratings.aspx.
Are there other options? Yup, but they take another precious resource … water. A bidet takes the place of toilet paper in several European countries, yet culturally isn’t accepted here in the States. The WorldWatch Institute emphasizes, “‘Wet’ cultures (those using water for cleansing) can achieve health standards every bit as high as ‘dry’ cultures relying on toilet paper.” But is using water in drought stricken Texas better than toilet paper?
And as for the nest builders, the toilet seat is surprisingly clean compared to other surfaces in the bathroom. Studies have found you are more at risk of picking up bacteria on your hands in the bathroom than on your bottom. In one study, the floor contained the most bacteria followed by the sanitary napkin trash can. It’s better to keep your purse off the floor, forgo the toilet paper nest and reduce your carbon footprint while still maintaining your hygiene.
As seen in the Katy Trail Weekly.