How Toilet Paper Works

Is the Future TP Free?
The various functions on the Toto Washlet — including a water spray for the butt — are displayed. Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Could we envision a future where toilet paper is seldom used? It may be hard to imagine in the U.S., but some critics have been concerned about the millions of trees felled each year to make toilet paper and say changes should be made. But what kind?

The first thing to remember is that toilet paper use is not universal. Bathroom customs vary widely around the world. In many places, particularly in developing countries, it's still common for some people to wipe with whatever's handy, although others will use toilet paper.

In Muslim countries, people cleanse with water. It's part of the Muslim faith, which says the anus must be washed after defecating. People often use a small hand-held container that looks like a watering can (called a lota) for this job — or the toilet may be equipped with a handheld sprayer. Some people follow up by drying with toilet paper [sources: Cromwell, Akbar].

In Japan, the Toto Washlet reigns supreme — this is a specially designed toilet with a self-cleaning wand and a remote control. By pressing the right buttons on the remote, the adjustable wand will shoot up a spray of water that cleanses you in all the right spots. The Washlet also has features that allow you to dry and/or heat your bum. (Some experts say water is the best way to clean yourself, even better than paper.)

A less-expensive, but also environmentally friendly method, is to use recycled cloths (aka "family cloth"). You cut up squares of old flannel sheets or towels and keep them in a pile by the toilet. After each use, they're dumped in a bucket half-filled with vinegar (to keep odors down) next to the toilet. Every few days, the bucket is tipped into the washing machine with a strong solution of bleach and detergent [source: Winter].

Sounds gross? Proponents say it's no worse than laundering baby diapers.

Replacing toilet paper with any of these alternatives in the U.S. would require a cultural shift of porcelain-shattering proportions. For now, TP is here to stay.

Author's Note: How Toilet Paper Works

As an ultramarathon runner, I'm extremely familiar with gastrointestinal distress in inconvenient places. That means I've used many (but not all) of the primitive wiping methods mentioned in this story. Suffice it to say, I have an extreme appreciation for modern toilet paper. I will admit, though, that wet wipes are even better.

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