In North America, toilet paper has been a bathroom staple since the mid-1800s, and judging by how quickly it flies off shelves in a pandemic, plush three-ply is clearly a must-have for many.
In fact, the U.S. loves TP more than any other country, consuming a grand total of 9.2 billion pounds a year, or about 28 pounds per person.
Judging by how quickly it flies off shelves in a pandemic, plush three-ply is clearly a must-have for many
But as TP (toilet paper) faces a reckoning over the environmental effects of producing it—including deforestation and significant energy consumption—bidets are making a splash as the more sustainable choice, promising a way to help reduce our household carbon footprint.
Spraying water to clean up after a bathroom break is actually an age-old practice, and it remains a popular method of personal hygiene in many parts of the world. But are bidets actually better for the environment? Read on to see if the claims hold water.
What is the impact of toilet paper on the environment?
A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) graded toilet paper for sustainability and flunked some well-known supermarket brands.
It found that major manufacturers clear-cut large swaths of forest for virgin pulp—mostly from the ancient Canadian boreal forest—without offering toilet paper made with recycled paper or tree-free alternatives, like fast-growing bamboo.
According to the NRDC, around one-third of the pulp that goes into making tissue products comes from this area—and the tissue sector is the fastest-growing market in the paper and forest products industry.
But the Canadian boreal forest is critical in our global fight against climate change, since it stores almost twice as much carbon in its soil as the Amazon rainforest does. Once cut down, the trees take thousands of years to grow back.
When you consider this deforestation, not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions caused by water-consuming pulp mills, toilet-paper packaging and product shipping, you can get a pretty good idea of just how much you’re flushing down the toilet with every wipe.
The NRDC found that if the amount of virgin forest fiber used to make tissue products was reduced by half, and replaced it with post-consumer recycled content, it would save 1.6 million metric tons of pulp annually.
That would equal a reduction in carbon emissions by 11.9 million metric tons per year—equivalent to taking 2.5 million cars off the road.
About one-third of the pulp that goes into making tissue products comes from the ancient Canadian boreal forest.
Not all toilet paper is made by clear-cutting old-growth trees, fortunately.
A growing number of brands, including Green Forest, 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods’ private label) and Seventh Generation, manufacture 100 percent recycled toilet paper, while companies like No. 2 and Who Gives A Crap sell bamboo-based rolls in Instagrammable packaging that’s just asking to be repurposed into eco-friendly gift wrap.
There are even companies repurposing agricultural byproducts, such as leftover wheat straw, for more eco-friendly paper products.
Compared to using 100 percent virgin tree fiber, making toilet paper out of recycled paper emits one-third of the carbon emissions, while bamboo-based TP releases 30 percent fewer emissions, the NRDC says. And it takes way less water to produce recycled toilet tissue than brand-new. (One study focusing on copy paper specifically showed that production of recycled versions used just half the H2O.
How do bidets work?
Bidets come in a range of styles, from the futuristic to the low-tech.
There are fancy Toto Washlets with heated seats, multiple nozzles, drying settings, and even background noises that allow you to do your business discreetly. There are elegant French-style fountains stationed next to the latrine. There are even portable handheld bidets you can fill with tap water when you need to go while on the go.
Despite the varying features, bidets basically all work the same way: cleaning you up with a targeted stream of water.
In Japan, 80 percent of households already have bidets, but North Americans have been late adopters.
Do most people have bidets?
In Japan, 80 percent of households already have bidets, but North Americans have been late adopters—possibly because the idea of splashing with a cold jolt of water sounds like the polar bear dip no one wants. Fortunately, you can find bidets designed for comfort, with nozzles and dials to adjust pressure and temperature.
Switching from TP to a bidet does take a little getting used to, but the experience is actually refreshing, like a gentle shower for your nether regions.
How much does a bidet cost?
Both companies make simple attachments you can fashion onto your current toilet setup, drawing water from the toilet supply line. Low-tech and low-cost (the Tushy starts at $99), these options don’t involve special plumbing or any electricity, and you can set one up yourself in minutes.
Are bidets better for the environment?
No method of cleaning is totally carbon-free, and bidet users still mostly dry off with toilet paper (though much less is needed).
Plus, they’re still using water, which must be filtered, treated and delivered. And the more features a bidet has—the heated seats, the warm gusts of air—the more electricity it takes.
All that said, a bidet isn’t causing ongoing deforestation. A bidet doesn’t require the energy-intensive and polluting manufacturing processes that go into your typical toilet paper, like chlorine bleaching (that’s how your tissues get so white). And a bidet doesn’t involve constant carbon-emitting transportation (think of the energy needed to get TP from the manufacturer to the store to your home) or regular packaging waste.
Installing a bidet is clearly a more environmentally friendly choice than running through endless rolls of toilet paper.
Bidets > toilet paper
So should you go out and get a bidet right away?
Every bathroom is different, and every bathroom user is different. If toilet paper isn’t something you’re ready to give up entirely right now, choosing eco-friendly hygiene products that don’t involve virgin tree fiber still makes a difference. But if reducing your carbon footprint at home is a priority, installing a bidet is clearly a more environmentally friendly choice than running through endless rolls of toilet paper.
For those of us aspiring to lead a more sustainable life, it’s one simple way to clean up our act (while cleaning up our act).
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