Do you know that we flush 27,000 trees down our toilets every day? Also, manufacturers use an estimated 37 gallons of water to make a roll of toilet paper. In a world where we continue to deplete our natural resources and the earth suffers from environmental degradation, it is easy to see why our toilet paper use encroaches on our natural environment. What can we do to reduce the environmental impact of our daily movements, and why should we give toilet paper alternatives more than a passing thought?
In this article, we will look at the history of toilet paper, cultures that don't use toilet paper, as well as a list of various alternatives you can choose from.
When exactly was toilet paper invented? While findings are not exact, archaeologists have found that toilet paper dates as far back as the 6th century in China. The first toilet paper created in 1391 served the Chinese emperor and his family only. It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that toilet paper became widely manufactured and used widely.
John C. Gayetty created the first packaged commercial toilet paper. These toilet papers were loose, flat, and of inferior quality. They also medicated them using aloe. Toilet paper continued to develop, and by 1890, the Scott Paper Company invented the first toilet paper on a roll.
The Scotts brothers founded the Scott Paper Company, which became the leading toilet paper company in the world in 1921. The two-ply toilet paper was created in 1942 by the St Andrew Paper Mill located in England. It was the first of its kind with a softer and better quality. Two-ply tissue paper has become the standard in many countries.
Over the years, toilet paper has continuously improved with softer and firmer versions. Today, toilet paper is widely produced worldwide and has become an essential modern-day luxury, especially in the Western world.
Before the invention of toilet paper, people used many things to wipe themselves after using the toilet. Materials like sponges, broken ceramics, hemp, corn cob, leaves, grass, and water were among the many toiler paper alternatives used in different cultures.
The Romans used a sponge on a stick. This sponge was dipped in vinegar and used to wipe their bottoms. The Eskimos used moss or snow.
The ancient Greeks used broken pieces of ceramics to clean up after using the toilet.
In France, the wealthy class used laces, wool, and hemp to clean up themselves.
Interestingly, not all cultures use toilet paper even today. Some cultures have stuck to other ways of cleaning up after using the bathroom.
Most cultures in Asia and Europe use bidets in place of toilet paper. Bidets are a common fixture in their homes and hotels.
In countries like Singapore, the Philippines, and Spain, toilet pans are standard. People simply squat to pass out feces into these toilet bowls. Doing your business in the squatting position can also reduce the amount of clean-up required. Other cultures simply use running water and a bowl to wash after using the toilet.
Different cultures have their reasons for choosing not to use toilet paper. For example, in India, people believe toilet paper does not get the wiping job done thoroughly. Also, toilet paper could cause tears and bleeding, especially if a person suffers from chronic diarrhea. This can expose the skin and lead to other infections.
While many rely on the comfort of using toilet paper, it might not be the cleanest or safest option.
Manufacturers process toilet paper using chemicals like chlorine dioxide to whiten and soften them. However, these chemicals could be harmful to our health. Health experts have linked exposure to these chemicals to health issues like cancer, congenital disabilities, and infertility.
Also, excessive wiping can cause puffiness, tears, and bleeding.
Studies reveal scented toilet paper could also be attributed to health issues2 like cramping, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea. In women, scented toilet paper can distort the PH of the vagina, which leads to yeast infection. Also, wiping with toilet paper from back to front can cause urinary tract infections.
Not only is tissue paper potentially not the best solution for our health, but it also poses a severe threat to our environment.
Manufacturers use virgin wood pulp as a primary raw material in making toilet tissue paper and other products for skin care, such as facial tissues.
Every year, millions of trees are cut down from forests to make toilet paper. These forests absorb carbon dioxide and play a significant role in keeping the air clean and healthy. They are also a habitat for wildlife and often homes to indigenous people who live around them.
The deforestation of forests like the Canadian Boreal forest has contributed to global warming. It has also left the lands scarred and barren, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Animals have also lost their natural habitat as a result.
Sourcing the wood for making tissue papers is not the only harmful part of the process. The manufacturing process is further damaging to the environment.
Once manufacturers harvest the trees from the forests, they take them to pulp mills, where the wood is chopped and then chemically processed to produce wood pulp. The wood pulp then goes through more chemical processing to whiten and soften the tissue paper. The chemicals used are toxic to the environment and contribute to air and water pollution.
Also, manufacturers consume natural resources, using gallons of water to produce a single roll of toilet paper.
The process from harvesting to manufacturing and disposal harms the environment. As such, it is pointing to the merits of alternatives that cause less harm to the environment.
Related: We have a deeper dive into the environmental impacts of toilet paper here for further reading.
In 2020, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, people began to panic-buy, which led to a toilet paper shortage on store shelves across most developed countries1. This telling indicator highlights the scale of our reliance on soft tissue for those moments throughout the day when nature calls.
However, toilet paper isn’t the only option for wiping your sensitive parts. We have curated some of the best paper alternatives, from devices to clothing to more natural and safe alternatives. Whether dealing with a shortage or pursuing a greener wipe, our picks look to natural, cleaner toilet paper options and the potential for reuse.
You can also check out our article listing some of the best eco-friendly toilet papers you can shop for today.
Bidet attachments are a great alternative to the toilet roll. They are seats you can affix to a standard toilet or separate bathroom fixtures commonly found in many countries in Europe.
A bidet is an oval-shaped basin for washing your bottom. It uses a stream of water to get the wiping job done. Bidets are hygienic and clean thoroughly, stack up well for the environment, and are a cost-effective alternative to toilet paper.
Modern bidets typically come with their in-water supply and drainage. For those looking for a more luxurious experience, fancy bidets have everything from heated seats to warm water, air dryers, and even a remote control. They are also easy to maintain and clog less. You can also find cost-effective attachments that rely on water pressure and are easy to install.
There are various types of bidets you can choose from. Some of them include:
If getting a bidet is perhaps an expensive option, you can opt for a water bottle. All you need to do is gather a few empty water bottles and fill them up with water. Cut a small hole through the water bottle cap to create a stream of water. You can then use these as a spray bottle to clean up after using the bathroom. Ensure you dispose of worn-out plastic water bottles properly for recycling and sanitation.
Reusable cloth/ family cloths are fabric clothing you can use in place of toilet paper. They are thicker and can wipe just as effectively as toilet paper. You can make a family cloth using various fabrics, from old clothes, t-shirts, washcloths, towels, blankets, socks, and rags.
Whereas reusable cloth might at first seem off-putting, with attention to hygiene and care, you’ll find it works a treat. One way to address the psychological barrier to reusable washcloths for our ablutions might be to compare them to reusable diapers. If we can for the baby, we can for ourselves.
Further, sometimes people struggle with what to do with used cloths after the wipe. You can store them in a diaper pail or sealed bin suitable to prevent odor leaks and keep nasties out of sight.
The good part is you can wash and reuse your reusable toilet cloth and reduce paper waste. However, it is important to note that a reusable toilet cloth could harbor bacteria, causing infections that can be transferable to family members.
Ensure you wash dirty cloths thoroughly using a washing machine, sanitize them with a few drops of bleach or baking soda, and dry them properly on a hot cycle before using them again. Store alternative toilet paper cloths properly in a basket containing only clean ones. Reusable toilet paper cloths will also save money in the long term and reduce waste.
Baby wipes are a great toilet paper alternative, especially if you have sensitive skin. They have a soft texture and do not irritate the skin.
Some wet wipes contain water or a little alcohol. Others come with disinfectants. It is important to note the ingredients of your wipes to avoid using the ones that come with disinfectants.
Wipes are generally more expensive than tissue paper but are still as effective.
You shouldn’t flush your wipes. Even wipes labeled as flushable wipes do not break down in a sewer system. After using your baby wipes, ensure you dispose of them in a garbage bag. Of course, look for sustainable options; otherwise, you may end up with the same environmental impact as standard toilet paper.
In a scenario where there is a shortage of toilet paper, a cloth diaper could be a practical option. Unlike disposable diapers, you can simply wash, sanitize, and dry them after each use.
If you have enough cotton balls lying around, they can make good alternatives to toilet paper. Cotton balls are soft and highly absorbent. With the right amount, you are sure to get a clean wipe.
Many refer to the mullein leaves as nature’s toilet paper. They are soft, woolly, and highly water-absorbent. We can find these leaves almost anywhere in the world. They grow in North America, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia. However, you want to make sure you are picking out the right leaves. The last thing you want to do is wipe your bottoms with poison ivy.
If you’re looking for something natural, banana leaves are one of the best alternatives to tissue paper. They are flexible, smooth, and big enough for your use. You can simply tear out the right size and use them to clean up after using the toilet.
Mosses are non-flowering small plants that you can find in damp environments among trees and rocks. They are soft to the touch, making them a great natural alternative to tissue paper. However, mosses are home to moisture-loving insects. You want to make sure you inspect the mosses thoroughly before using them to wipe.
Maple leaves come from maple trees. Its leaves are broad and thick, making it a great natural alternative to tissue paper.
Corn husks are the outer layers of the cob of corn. You want to make sure you gather them when they are still green to avoid scratching. We usually throw them away, but these soft green leaves can make an excellent tissue paper alternative.
Traditional toilet paper rolls typically come wrapped with cardboard tubes. To make the cardboard tubes a little soft and comfortable, you can soak them lightly in water before using them. If you have a finished toilet paper roll, you can use it as a toilet paper alternative.
However, avoid flushing paper products so as not to clog your pipes or septic systems.
Do you know that during the great depression, people used the Sears catalog as an alternative to toilet paper? People simply gathered this paper and used it to clean up after using the bathroom. Today, you can gather old newspapers and phone book pages and use them to wipe. You might want to soak them lightly in water for a softer feel.
If you have a couple of coffee filters lying around, you could use them as a toilet paper alternative. They are also cheap to buy, and you can store them in large quantities.
Today, some eco-friendly toilet paper companies use tissue paper to wrap their toilet paper roll instead of the typical plastic wrap. You can store these papers once your TP runs out and use them as an alternative.
Women typically use sanitary pads during menstruation. However, its thick and absorbent material can be a great option in place of tissue paper.
Avoid flushing sanitary pads down the toilet to avoid clogging. Simply dispose of used sanitary pads in a trash bag.
Sponges are soft and highly absorbent and can make a great alternative to tissue paper. However, you want to avoid sharing a sponge with anyone. Wash them thoroughly and sanitize them after each use.
This might be uncomfortable for many people, but interestingly, some cultures still use their hands - usually the left hand. If you use your hand, make sure you are extra hygienic. Properly clean out your fingernails. Wash both hands thoroughly and sanitize them as much as possible.
Toilet paper dissolves much quicker than other alternatives. For proper sanitation and personal hygiene, it is essential to dispose of the alternatives properly.
Avoid flushing materials like wipes, paper towels, and sanitary pads. These materials are thick and could contribute to clogging your drains or septic system.
Dispose of all used toilet paper alternatives in a trash bag or container. You might want to invest in an enclosed trash container for proper sealing. Gather dirty toilet cloths and napkins in a container. Add some drops of bleach and separately wash them using a washing machine. Sanitize and dry your cloths properly and store them in a clean cloth basket or storage.
Avoid sharing toilet cloths with any family or friends. You could use different colors to differentiate one toilet cloth from another.
If you find yourself searching for ways to stop flushing loads of trees down the toilet every day, the good news is that there are several alternatives to tissue paper that you can choose from today.
During the evolution of tissue paper for our ablutions, our ancestors used various non-paper alternatives for wiping. We have also looked into cultures that use alternatives to the ubiquitous roll of toilet paper, the health and environmental concerns of tissue paper, as well as a list of some of the best toilet paper alternatives you can choose from today.
You can get creative and try out any of these tissue paper alternatives. Remember to dispose of them hygienically.
Garbe, Lisa & Rau, Richard & Toppe, Theo. (2020). Influence of perceived threat of Covid-19 and HEXACO personality traits on toilet paper stockpiling.
Anne Steinemann (2017, March) Health and societal effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products, Preventive Medicine Reports, Volume 5.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.