TP or not TP?
That is the question many of are asking as we contemplate shelves empty of toilet paper.
Even though the use of toilet paper hasn’t increased because of the coronavirus crisis, there’s been panic buying, hoarding, empty shelves at the stores and even reports of theft from rest stops and restaurants, when they were still open.
There shouldn’t be a shortage.
Manufacturers say they’re churning out toilet paper as fast as they can. Yet U.S. sales of toilet paper soared 213% for the one-week period ending March 14 compared with the same week a year ago, according to the Nielsen market tracking company.
That’s probably why we’re seeing DIY toilet paper alternatives surface.
In one recent YouTube video, an “old truck driver” takes a roll of paper shop towels and cuts it to the same dimensions as a toilet paper roll. (“I’ve been doing this for years,” he says.)
On the “Survival Dispatch” channel, there’s a video titled “How to Make Toilet Paper in a Crisis.” The trick is to crumple phone book pages until they’re nice and soft. (You remember phone books. You probably have one right next to your landline.)
Polar explorer Aaron Linsdau recently posted a video describing how to make four rolls of toilet paper last three months. In Antarctica, you use chunks of snow and ice to do the “primary cleaning,” Linsdau explains. (Darn. If only it were still winter here.)
Away from the polar ice caps, you can get by with soap, water, wet wipes and a couple squares of toilet paper a day, Linsdau claims.
You can also find survivalist websites suggesting the use of a reusable, washable “family cloth” or recipes for homemade toilet paper, which involve boiling sheets of newspaper with grass and leaves until you get a pulp that you can roll out, dry and cut into strips.
Unfortunately, you can’t flush away these toilet paper alternatives.
Store-bought toilet paper is engineered to dissolve in water. Local sewage and plumbing experts say it is the only thing you can safely put down the toilet, aside from pee and poop.
If you try flushing paper towels or even facial tissues, you run the risk of clogging your toilet, your pipes or even the municipal sewage system.
“You could end up having backups,” said Elizabeth Wefel, who does environmental lobbying for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
“Paper towels, phone books, newspapers, God forbid, socks could be a big problem,” said Adam Gordon, a manager with Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, which operates wastewater lines and treatment facilities throughout the Twin Cities.
Even wipes that are labeled flushable don’t disintegrate as well as toilet paper and should be kept out of the toilet because they cause expensive problems to the sewage system, said Gordon.
“We’re a bit upset they could even get away with marketing (them) as flushable,” he said.
Concern about what people are flushing led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to recently issue statements reminding people that only the three Ps (pee, poop and toilet paper) are safe to put down the toilet.
The PCA even has a web page, www.pca.state.mn.us/wipes, devoted to the headaches disposable wipes are causing municipal sewer pipes and wastewater treatment facilities.
So what’s the answer if you run out of toilet paper and have to resort to using paper towels or, say, the Variety section?
Just use and throw it away.
“Those are things that are easily put in the garbage,” Gordon said. “It’s no different from cleaning up after a baby. We throw out diapers every day without thinking about it.”
If you feel squeamish about having a waste can full of soiled toilet paper alternatives in your bathroom, consider investing in an odor-controlling Diaper Genie pail that conveniently seals up your waste in a plastic bag that you can toss, suggested Joe Whitters, owner of Drain Busters, an Eagan, Minn.-based drain cleaning company.
Or wash instead of wiping with a bidet toilet seat or bidet attachment that can spray water. You can find one as low as $25 at Home Depot. Whitters has even seen people rig kitchen sink sprayers to their toilets to create a makeshift bidet.
Barry Kudrowitz, an associate professor of product design at the University of Minnesota, praises the $200 bidet toilet seat that he uses at his house; it lets you adjust the water temperature, heats the seat and blows warm air to dry you off.
“Those are fantastic. It cuts significantly the amount of toilet paper we use,” said Kudrowitz, who has written about the history of toilet paper and its alternatives.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a bidet will reduce the impact on forests and uses less water than cleaning with toilet paper because of the amount of water used in the manufacture of toilet paper.
Of course, Kudrowitz understands that many Americans think it would be weird to use anything but toilet paper.
“It’s taboo to use anything else,” he said. “People don’t like change.”
And make no mistake, Americans love their toilet paper.
Studies have shown that the U.S. leads the world in toilet paper consumption, flushing away nearly three rolls per person per week.
Maybe it’s because we don’t eat enough fiber, suggests Bogna Haponiuk, a civil engineer from Poland who recently created an online “Toilet Paper Calculator” to try to reassure people that they have enough toilet paper and don’t need to hoard.
“The less fiber you consume, the more toilet paper you need to wipe,” Haponiuk said.
“The American diet is infamous for the high amounts of sugar and fat, and low amounts of fiber. So, if you want to reduce the amount of TP used — try changing your diet habits!”
Maybe all those beans we’ve been stocking up with might help.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TOILET PAPER
Barry Kudrowitz, a toy designer and associate professor and director of product design at the University of Minnesota, finds toilet paper so interesting that he’s written an online history of the product.
His research includes data on back-to-front vs. front-to-back wiping, paper under or over the roll, and wadding vs. folding.
Here are some of his highlights on how humans have cleaned themselves down there over the years:
Pre-50 B.C.: Sticks, leaves, stones, water and snow are the preferred materials.
50 B.C.-Middle Ages: There’s an upgrade to cloth, wool, hay and a sponge on a stick.
Late 14th-late 19th century: Corn cobs, coconut shells, Sears catalog, Farmers Almanac.
1857-1999: The toilet tissue age, including the perforated roll (1890), “splinter-free” paper (1930), two-ply (1942), scented rolls (1964).
1999: The “paperless toilet” is introduced in Japan that can wash, rinse and blow dry.
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