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I like to imagine that several decades from now we will look back on the absurdities of Modern Western civilization and find one towering above the rest: toilet paper.
In today’s supposed age of carbon-footprint awareness, the mere idea of toilet paper should be offensive. We chop down trees, mash them up, bleach them, press them into sheets, roll them onto cardboard, wrap them in plastic, place them onto trucks, drive them to supermarkets and then pay money – actual money – for them.
I am well aware of the irony of raising such a complaint in a newspaper. But consider: toilet paper is not even close to being effective at what it is meant to do. We wouldn’t wipe any other part of our body with dry paper and deem ourselves clean, yet somehow this is what we expect from toilet paper. (And no, sewer-clogging wet wipes – which were labelled “the biggest villain of 2015” by The Guardian, are not a more desirable alternative.)
This is why four months ago I decided to remove toilet paper from my life completely. I now step into the shower after using the toilet and use nothing but water (a miraculous cleaning agent) and my own hand, which I wash afterward with soap. The process adds maybe 10 seconds to my shower. Since making the decision to quit, I have not used a square of toilet paper on my body, and I have never been more clean.
What has been a relatively simple decision for me has traditionally not been so simple for humans throughout history. Since forever, we have found wiping to be as perplexing as our deepest existential quandaries.
We have variously used fur, sand, shells and stones. According to the book The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet, the ancient Romans used sticks with sea sponges attached. Medieval monks used cloth from old clerical robes, and French royalty used necks of geese. Until fairly recently, in many parts of rural United States people used corn cobs.
The ancient Chinese did use paper for bathroom hygiene, but most sources attribute modern-day toilet paper to Joseph Gayetty, who in 1857 developed Gayetty’s Medicated Paper in the United States. In An Irreverent and Almost Complete Social History of the Bathroom, author Frank Muir astutely labels the development of toilet paper as “an excellent example of a go-ahead company creating public demand for a product for which there was no need.”
Many cultures have realized that the simplest answer – in this case, water – is usually the best one. In Islam, water must always be used after going to the bathroom; this is usually done with a pot known as a lota. In bathrooms across India, water and a bucket are often the only provided cleaning tools. In Japan, bidet-style toilet seats are a common household item (these highly efficient gadgets, which can be attached to regular toilets, are the best way to quit toilet paper).
When I tell people about my decision, I become an immediate joke. Everyone within earshot wants nothing more than to convince me that I am insane. The question of using public bathrooms in this country always comes up, to which I say: they are quite obviously best avoided, but in an emergency, water can be brought into the stall without much difficulty.
Then comes the inevitable counterattack. “You are wasting water,” says everyone, as if creating toilet paper does not consume resources. It is, in fact, an environmental nightmare.
A report in Scientific American indicates that producing a single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water, 1.3 kilowatt hours of electricity and 1.5 pounds of wood. Bleaching toilet paper uses high amounts of chlorine, the article continues, while flushing toilet paper “adds a significant load onto city sewer systems and water treatment plants.”
Creating toilet paper also destroys trees – 27,000 per day, as reported by National Geographic. In 2006, Greenpeace reported that some types of toilet paper and other tissue products are a “serious factor in the destruction of Canada’s ancient forests.”
Shortly after quitting toilet paper, feeling smug, I found myself needing to blow my nose. I reached for a tissue, and then stopped. Surely, I do not need to gift-wrap my nasal fluid before throwing it away? Now, when I am alone, I hunch down over a sink and employ the centuries-old technique known as “the snot rocket.” Certainly a handkerchief would be classier, but I’d rather just use nothing to compensate for so many years of using too much.
Thus began a journey into hyper-awareness of my own waste. It has become clear to me that toilet paper is merely a symptom of a much larger problem, one that has been popularly dubbed the “throw-away society.” As a culture, we are addicted to the too-good-to-be-true breeziness of using things only once.
This manifests itself in countless ways: in the continent of garbage that is the result of every single takeout meal, in our ludicrous reliance on bottled water, in the inexplicable fact that plastic straws exist at all, in the crinkly collection of plastic bags that we all hope will somehow disappear from our cupboards one day and in the fact that we buy corn on the cob set atop Styrofoam and wrapped in cellophane.
We all seem to know that we have gone too far, but none of us know what to do about it. Least of all me. My strange journey into a world without toilet paper has been mostly an experiment, one that I don’t expect anyone to follow, but one that I have found useful.
I am convinced that a simple pause, a moment of consideration, is all we really need to become more self-aware in our habits of consumption. Do I need to use this thing right now? Will I need to throw this thing away? Am I able to use less of this thing?
We would do well to question our attachment to our daily habits. I wonder, though, if we are mature enough to have the discussions needed to solve our problems, or if we will just hope that everything will work out in the end.
Jon Sufrin lives in Toronto.