American derrieres are spoiled for choice. Supermarkets across the country shelve a comical number of toilet-paper products, inundating shoppers with more deals on two-ply than any consumer actually needs. On a typical day, the biggest dilemma shoppers face when it comes to the fluffy stuff is whether to swear allegiance to Charmin or Cottonelle.
Anyone who’s been to the supermarket lately knows that the toilet-paper aisle is decidedly not typical, however. Across the United States, and around the world, shelves once puffy with toilet-roll clouds are now post-pandemic deserts where loofahs might roll by like tumbleweeds.
The joke, now, is that there’s no one to blame for the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 but ourselves. It’s not the coronavirus that’s causing the suddenly empty shelves but a Black Friday-like fever.
As more drastic measures are being enforced to curb the coronavirus outbreak, people are panic-stockpiling emergency items in anticipation of quarantine: canned goods, disinfectants, and, inexplicably, toilet paper. Yet unlike hand sanitizer and surgical masks, where the demand is overwhelming the supply in part from a spike in use, the coronavirus has not impacted the toilet-paper pipeline, a fact manufacturers have tried explaining to the public.
Put simply: The same amount of Angel Soft is hitting the shelves, and our toilet bowls, as always. Were this buying frenzy to end, everybody’s business could get back to business as usual.
There is the question, however, of whether or not it should.
Americans are the most prodigious consumers of toilet paper in the world. A joint report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Stand.earth in February 2019 cites the US as using 9.2 billion pounds of toilet paper annually, or approximately 28 pounds per person. That’s roughly 56 rolls of total paper each per year, or a little over one roll a week.
That may seem like surprisingly little in light of the recent hoarding trend, which has caused shoppers to frantically snatch 30-packs to sustain them for a few weeks or months. But the figure’s impact on the environment is anything but negligible.
The majority of the toilet paper sold in the US is made of wood pulp sourced from North American forests, particularly Canada’s boreal forest, which has been called the “Amazon of the North.” Mass toilet-paper production is devastating not only to the trees it sacrifices but also to the area’s wildlife and indigenous communities.
If we’re facing a toilet-paper crisis, it’s an ecological one, not an issue of access.
Yet, as you stare down your last few sheets of Charmin Ultra, life as you knew it flipped upside down, it’s understandable if you’re more concerned with your next bathroom visit than Canada’s boreal forest. Relax. Of all the challenges the coronavirus pandemic has created, a lack of available toilet paper is low on the list.
The world went round for ages without toilet paper. The idea to use paper for post-elimination cleanup came out of China, with one of the earliest recorded references to toilet-paper use dating back to the sixth-century writings of a man named Yan Zhitui. Before that, people used whatever materials they had on hand, from leaves and clay to rags and lace. Medieval Romans took another approach: sharing implements known as “gompf sticks” with salt-water-soaked sponges on one end.
Over time, the toilet-paper trend spread. In the US, it became common to use the soft pages of The Old Farmer’s Almanac or a Sears catalog. Toilet paper first became commercially available in the US in 1857, shortly after indoor plumbing and flush toilets grew in popularity. Originally viewed as a luxury item, it became a household staple after Zeth Wheeler patented the idea in 1871. Then, a few decades later in 1928, the Hoberg Paper Company launched Charmin, touting its softness as a selling point and planting the seeds for today’s billion-dollar bathroom industry.
Toilet paper didn’t catch on everywhere. It became standard in cold countries where the water gets uncomfortably icy. But in warmer climates, particularly South Asian and Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa, the soap-and-water method is status quo.
In India alone, the vast majority of the more-than-one-billion-person population, roughly a seventh of the global population, goes paperless. There, as elsewhere in the world, it’s customary to reserve your right hand for eating and your left for cleaning up after yourself.
Customs vary by culture. Long-handled plastic buckets called tabos, which aid in both washing after toilet use and showering, are must-have bathroom accessories in the Philippines. Many European homes, notably in Italy and Portugal, are outfitted with bidets, an 18th-century French invention that can be used in addition to, or in place of, toilet paper. Their popularity is growing in North and South America, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. High-tech bidet-like toilets are particularly common in Japan.
And they’re helping people save money, and the environment, with every flush.
Of course, none of that addresses the simple fact that some lifelong toilet-paper users will find the idea of going without it, well, yucky.
The feeling is mutual. Though Americans may be put off by the prospect of using their hands down there, water-washers express concerns about the cleanliness of using only dry paper. If any other body part was to come in contact with feces, they argue, few among us would merely wipe it with a tissue and call it a day.
With the coronavirus putting stress on our health, well-being, and routines as is, there’s no reason to let it impact our private time on the porcelain throne, too.
At the very least, the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 is a reminder to stay reasonable, and neighborly, in times of crisis. It might also be an opportunity for Americans to consider their consumption. Whether or not you’re willing to go sans paper altogether, consider the ways in which you can improve your ecological buttprint, as it were.
Start by buying recycled, or alternative, toilet paper when it becomes available again. The Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed Green Seal. The 2019 “Issue with Tissue” report gave A grades to Green Forest, 365 Everyday Value 100% Recycled, Earth First, Natural Value, Seventh General, and Trader Joe’s Bath Tissue.
Look into companies like Who Gives A Crap, an environmentally-friendly-toilet-paper delivery service that donates 50 percent of its profits to helping build toilets for those without access. Invest in a bidet attachment for your toilet.
Or go on and buy a $4 perineal bottle. Your plumbing, planet, and posterior will probably thank you.