Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Fighting water (consumption) with water: contemplating the bidet

Bidets are commonplace in other parts of the world, but here in the U.S. they're, well, foreign. The reality is that these devices offer a lot of environmental advantages.                                             

Seventh Generation Bathroom Tissue, 2-Ply Sheets, 500-Sheet Rolls (Pack of 48) [Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging]

I hate toilet paper. This hatred isn't rooted in any environmental concern, although I know that there are environmental reasons for hating it. No, this hatred stems from the fact that I'm a clean-freak fighting a losing battle: what will I clean today given the limited hours in a day? My ass would be one of them (if you'll excuse my English... no, really... "ass" comes from "arse," which in turn comes the Middle English "ars," and then from the Old English "ears." "Ass," as it refers to a donkey, stems from the Old English "assa," which ultimately comes from the Latin "asinus." See how I take a moment that could otherwise be considered profane and make it educational? But I digress...). As gross as it is to talk about--bear with me here--I think we all secretly hate the smearing action we're perpetuating on our backsides. How could that be considered making us clean? And how much paper do we waste in wiping for perfection?

So yes, my major concerns are and have been selfish. But, being who I am, I latched onto that last question: How much paper are we wasting?

That's a complicated question. I mean, the simple answer is that we're using a lot. But what does it mean to waste paper? It breaks down fairly readily compared to plastics and metals, so when I ask "How much paper are we wasting?" the implied question is "What impact is my toilet paper usage having on the environment?"

Let's take a step back though and think about how much paper we're actually using. I haven't been counting, but I can make some rough estimates that I think will put us in the ballpark. Let's assume a person averages about 20 sheets (that is, 20 squares) of toilet paper per bowel movement (I imagine the number should actually be a bit higher, but let's be conservative, shall we?) Then, let's assume that Americans are healthy (am I funny, or what?) and their exceptional diet and exercise routines have their digestive systems running optimally, and thus they have about 3 bowel movements a day, or once per each of the standard American meals (this is a liberal estimate, but together with the conservative estimate about TP use, I think it balances out pretty well). That means 60 sheets per day. We (my roommate and I) use Seventh Generation toilet paper, and it has 500 sheets per roll. With our (that is to say, my) estimates, that means a person is going to go through a roll every 8.33 days, or, roughly one roll a week. I have a roommate, obviously, so that means roughly 2 rolls a week for our entire household. That seems to mesh pretty well with how often I seem to change the roll, so the estimates seem pretty good. In one review I read about a 4 or 5 person household where they claimed to be going through half a roll a day, which also fits with my calculations. Households in America, then, are probably using somewhere between 2 and 4 rolls of TP a week, or 104 and 208 rolls a year. I can't make any specific environmental claims based on these numbers, but I can point out a thing or two about cost: at these rates, assuming they are typical for an American household, those same American households are paying between between $108 and $217 each year on toilet paper if they're trying to be environmentally friendly and buying a 100% recycled paper like the Seventh Generation brand (and if you're using toilet paper, and you're reading this, one could assume that that's very likely).

Luxe Bidet MB320 Double Nozzle Fresh and Warm Water Spray Bidet Toilet Seat AttachmentDo you want to know what costs less than toilet paper? A bidet. Or, I should say, a bidet attachment, since in many parts of Europe and other locations around the world, a bidet is actually separate from the toilet. But because most American bathrooms don't come with bidets (spell check isn't yelling at me, but I have a suspicion that that isn't the proper way to pluralize "bidet"), there have sprung up several manufacturers that have created bidet attachments that install right on your toilet. There are lots of options, but even one of the most expensive and highest rated models on Amazon comes in at only $99, which means it's still cheaper than the annual toilet paper costs for a two-person household (given all of the aforementioned assumptions). But I'm a pretty simple person and I don't need all of the bells and whistles that come with the more expensive models. The model I'm considering has also received rave reviews, but without all of those bells and whistles it comes in at only $41.50. At this price, even if I was living alone, recycled toilet paper would cost me more.

But what about the environmental costs? I already told you that I can't give you any specific numbers because, as you might imagine, most companies don't advertise how much they waste. I'm not about to fabricate numbers in order to scare you into believing what I do. In fact, if you believe otherwise and have some information I don't, please set me straight. What I can do, however, is describe the paper manufacturing process in general terms, and we'll see if that's sufficient to paint a picture of the kind of waste that occurs.

Have you ever made paper before? I have. You can make paper from virgin plant materials, and you probably would if you took a college level paper making class, but all of the paper I've made has been from reclaimed paper, thus, all of the paper I've made has been recycled just like Seventh Generation toilet paper. Seventh Generation claims that they're saving trees because they're using 100% recycled materials. From what I've gathered, that isn't entirely accurate. Most of the toilet paper that is made from virgin wood is actually made from saw dust, a waste product of the lumber industry. It is possible that were lumber usage to decline trees would be harvested solely for making toilet paper, but that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment. No, the real environmental benefits of using Seventh Generation paper are that it requires less water and energy to manufacture products from recycled materials versus virgin materials: all of the initial processing that the wood goes through has already been done.

But creating recycled paper still requires water, and in a factory setting, it's also going to require electricity. To make new paper out of old paper you shred the paper up and soak it in water to make a pulp (I don't know if a blender was utilized the first time I made paper, but it certainly has since then). A bin contains your paper pulp and a fair amount of water, and a fine screen is dipped into the water to gather up some of the paper pulp and allow the water to drain. Excess water is pressed out and the sheet is allowed to dry. Because you're using used paper, most of it probably has pen, pencil, or printer ink, and even the paper itself might vary in color. All of these dyes and inks end up in your paper pulp, so your paper will inevitably end up a nasty gray color. This is fine for a DIYer--the paper is perfectly usable, and the gray color isn't all that unattractive once you get used to it. But paper you buy at a store is a nice, pristine white or off-white color. To achieve this, paper manufacturers have to bleach the paper. Generally, they use the obvious: chlorine bleach. Some companies try to distance themselves from such toxic chemicals and sport labels that say things like "whitened without chlorine," etc. I believe that the most common alternative to chlorine is hydrogen peroxide, but I'm not familiar with how the process works (extra credit to whoever can tell me).

So, now there is chlorine or hydrogen peroxide (or some other chemical) in the waste water on top of all of the inks, graphite, and dyes. Add to this that at least some papers (mostly artsy papers, to my knowledge) also add a glue to the paper to help hold it together. I'm taking a printmaking course right now, and you soak your paper before you print on it. Because some of that glue leaches out of the paper, the water tends to get slimy and nasty after a while--you definitely know the glue is in the paper. So not only is a lot of water being used to produce these paper products, but a lot of other chemicals are thrown out with that water... and that's even with recycled paper. Also add in all of the fuel used to transport the finish product, and then the fuel used to go to the store and buy these products. Even the most environmentally responsible companies, doing the best they can to balance consumer demand with environmental responsibility, are still wasting a lot of resources. That's just the nature of the beast plain and simple.

It does seem counter-intuitive to think that using water would save water, but I do have an edge because I have a sense of how many gallons are wasted to make just a few sheets of paper. And I'm not the only one who has come to this conclusion. I found an article on the Mother Nature Network that tackles this same problem. "Use a bidet" seems to be the consensus. The amount of water used in manufacturing toilet paper outweighs the amount that is used in operating a bidet, and the bidet also avoids the use of other manufacturing chemicals. And if I can reduce my environmental impact and feel cleaner, it seems like a winner to me.

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live ItIt does raise a question about water use in the bathroom, however. In a roundabout way a bidet saves water, but it is still using water. And in a traditional bathroom setup you're flushing a lot of water needlessly down the toilet. As someone who rents a small apartment my options are limited, so a bidet attachment is one of the best compromises I can make. But, if you've been reading for a while, or you've gone back through the archives, you'll know that when I first started this blog I wrote a piece on compost toilets. Compost toilets are a flushless, waterless toilet system for hygienically processing human waste for use as an organic fertilizer (if you have no idea why you would want to do that, definitely read my old post). You can make your own compost toilet, and John Seymour's The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It provides plans for doing so, but you can also buy a commercial model. Well, a commenter over at suggested combining compost toilets with a bidet (since most people with compost toilets are still using toilet paper to wipe). I vote yes on this idea. Unless you're wiping with leaves, this is the best you can do. And because you're using no water to flush, and significantly less water with a bidet than with toilet paper, it's all kinds of win. Granted, if you want to use leaves, I would certainly encourage it... I'm just not at that point in my environmental evolution yet. Baby steps... baby steps.

Okay. Now back to my torture session. I shouldn't have even taken a break to write this, but I'm having withdrawals. Two more weeks and I'll be free of school, and then barring other time sinks, I'll be able to write more often for your reading pleasure. Until then, if you hear from me, you likely shouldn't.

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