The other day while my husband shaved his face in the sink, I sat upon the pot (we have an open door policy).
“When do you get off work today?” he asked.
“Probably two-ish, but I also teach ballet tonight. What do you want for dinner?”
“Whatever you want to cook for me. I’ll be at the gym until eight,” he said as he blotted his smooth neck with a washcloth, wiping away shaving cream remnants.
I reached for the toilet tissue, wound the roll around my hand a couple of times, and tore my section off. He noticed my “wadding” technique.
“Huh,” he said. “That’s a lot of toilet paper you’re using there.”
It was almost as if, at that moment, he thought I would stop, unwad my TP and return a few
The conversation that followed surprised me— enough so, even, that the exact wording is lost in my mind. But I think that the main points of discussion went something like this:
“Okay,” I said. “Are we conserving TP? I didn’t know I needed to ration.”
“Hmm. I guess I never thought of it like that.” I retorted as I pulled up my pants and stared for a moment at the mountain of tissue that looked like I had wadded up a white pillow case and dropped it in the potty.
And then I began to think: maybe my husband is right. Maybe we should ration our TP. If everyone took toilet paper for granted, could a shortage ensue? And if a shortage arises, would we be forced to follow in our ancestors’ footsteps using leaves, animal pelts, or even stones to take care of our business?
Most cultures eat and shake hands with the right hand because they “clean up”—or in the past have cleaned up—with the left. The first form of toilet paper— paper created specifically for derrière wiping— only dates back to fourteenth-century China, when emperors ordered paper in rectangular two-feet by three-feet stacked sheets. Around the same time, the French invented the bidet to clean potty parts without the use of paper. But in many countries things like bidets and toilet paper are still only accessible to rich people; the rest use their hands.
America’s I germophobia would surely prevent this from happening—even in a modern world full of anti-bacterial soap and hand sanitizer. I’d even venture to say that some Americans would put TP before food or water in an emergency situation, based on a comparison between the size of a toilet tissue aisle and a bottled water aisle. In 1973, America even reached a peak TP crisis when Tonight Show host Johnny Carson jokingly made a comment about a toilet paper shortage: people panicked and hoarded TP, and thus caused a mini- TP deficiency.
Our ties to TP are long and deep. In the eighteenth century, Americans began using the first kind of toilet paper: newspapers and magazines. The most popular choices for posterior paper were the Sears catalog and the Farmer’s Almanac, which even came with a hole specifically designed to hang in an outhouse. In 1857 Scott Paper Products invented rolled toilet paper, and over the years several producers have perfected the toilet paper we now see in our local stores.
Today, our TP choices are endless: shelf upon shelf, row after row of white cylinders wrapped in plastic. We can get one roll or six rolls, twelve or twenty-four rolls, single-ply, two-ply, three-ply, four-ply. Quilted, cushioned, soft, ultra soft, aloe infused, regular, big, double, jumbo, ultra strong, scented
“Have you ever tried Bare Bum’s Ultra Absorbent?” one customer might say to another.
“No,” the other customer would respond,“but I
Despite the hush-hush nature of toilet paper shopping, TP continues to play a fundamental role in the culture of the United States. Americans buy 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper each year, which equates to about 15 million trees that are pulped for our cleaning convince. And while toilet paper is certainly not the least expensive item we purchase at the grocery store, many of us don’t think much of its cost. We associate buying TP with buying gas: we have to have it, so we buy it and try not to get upset over the price. We are all aware of fuel tax. I was surprised, however, to learn toilet tissue is also taxed. In 1991, President Clinton taxed each roll of TP six cents. In more recent events, the “Water Protection and Reinvestment Act of 2009” has proposed a tax on “bottom wipe” at a manufacturer level, but as we know, what starts at the manufacture level will eventually trickle down to the consumer level.
After some Internet browsing, I began to feel guilty about my greedy and selfish toilet paper utilization. Everyday 270,000 trees—approximately 1,837 acres or the equivalent of 2.2 Central Parks—are flushed down the toilet or tossed into the trash in the form of bathroom tissue. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), many US tissue suppliers, such as Charmin, rely on “virgin pulp,” or freshly cut trees, from North American forests. Kimberly-Clark, a leading supplier of tissue products, such as Kleenex, Viva, Scott, and Cottonelle, uses so few recycled resources for its grocery store brands that buying the “Naturals” line is like befriending a convicted felon because—although present at the crime scene and not willing to stop the crime—he wasn’t the trigger-man.
For me, offering recycled content in one line of products doesn’t make up for the mass amount of other products that don’t provide any earth-friendly promises: especially if that tissue company has a policy of clear-cutting forests and destroying half a million acres of Canada’s old growth boreal forest each year—that’s the equivalent of approximately a quarter of Yellowstone National Park. However, if I replaced one of my soft, fluffy rolls of virgin pulp toilet paper with a toilet paper (500 sheets) made from recycled paper products, I could potentially save 423,900 trees.
But toilet paper consumption isn’t just ruining trees, says Richard Kujawski, a columnist for Living Green Magazine. TP, writes Kujawski, “is the greatest industrial cause of deforestation in the world, which causes more global warming pollution than all the combined emissions of cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and ships.” In fact, bathroom tissue companies are “the third greatest industrial