For many, the Covid-19 survival kit comprises hand sanitiser, pasta and loo roll. The apocalyptic frenzy of supermarket shopping is a fascinating indication of how the notion of “essential goods” has been interpreted.
There has been no shortage of images and memes showing aisles bereft of toilet paper in supermarkets. The wispy, absorbent material has taken over our collective consciousness. In a new low for our species, fights have broken out over the last remaining packs.
But toilet paper is an unhygienic, ecologically irresponsible waste of money. Our obsession with loo roll is wiping out forests by destroying 27,000 trees every day. According to World Watch magazine, loo roll alone accounts for 15 per cent of global deforestation. The Canadian government’s Natural Resources Defense Council has said that Canada’s Boreal forest, the “Amazon of the North”, is under “severe threat” from industrial logging – much of it for toilet paper. Swathes of Sweden’s Great Northern Forest are similarly under threat.
Nonetheless, due in part to the globalised adoption of Western lifestyles, demand for loo paper continues to rise.
While the rapid spread of Covid-19 has reminded society of the virtues of hand-washing, we would do well also to remember the importance of bottom-washing. Humans have been wiping their derrières for millennia. Before the rise of industrially produced toilet paper in the mid-19th century, societies across the world used a variety of organic materials, such as leaves, grass, sand (ouch), fruit skins (at least they’re fragranced) and corn cobs (yikes). But perhaps the oldest and simplest solution is to use water.
In his history of the East India Company, The Anarchy, William Dalrymple describes how in 1765 the Mughal official, Narayan Singh, having met with colonising merchants from Britain, asked his colleagues: “What honour is left to us, when we have to take orders from a handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms?”
In many parts of the world, washing remains the preferred option. Most households in Italy, Spain and Greece have bidets installed in their bathrooms, while in much of Southeast Asia, spray-guns can be found next to toilets.
There are good reasons for this. Numerous studies have shown that wiping is less clean than washing. Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters explains how toilet paper simply moves faecal matter, but does not properly remove it. George highlights a 1964 study of 940 men in Oxfordshire, which found that nearly half of their underpants contained faecal contamination. Washing with water, by contrast, is associated with a lower risk of haemorrhoids, among other anal or genital afflictions.
As Rory Sutherland, vice chair of Ogilvy and Mather, told NPR: “No one will go out in the garden, get their hands dirty, say, repotting a plant and go in and go gosh, I’ve got mud on my hands. Clearly, the thing I must do now is rub them very vigorously with dry paper.”
Switching to water-washing is also cost effective. The average British consumer gets through 127 rolls a year, with those in the 65-74 age group spending an average of over £40 per person on toilet paper, according to Statista. American consumers use even more paper – 141 rolls each – than any other country, followed by Germany and the UK, and spend more than $6 billion a year on loo roll.
Then there is the expense of clearing the clogs and blockages caused by our addiction to toilet paper. And when it’s not available, wet wipes are even worse. By combining paper with plastic, they block drains and pollute seas. The UK sees approximately 300,000 sewer blockages every year, costing the country £100 million, according to Water UK, while in 2016 the Marine Conservation Society found an average of 14 wet wipes per 100 metres of coastline in Great Britain – a figure that had risen by 700 per cent in a decade.
This week, Thames Water, the UK’s largest water and wastewater service, asked customers not to “feed” fatbergs – congealed masses in sewer systems that form around flushed non-biodegradable matter, such as wet wipes – as toilet paper shortages caused by panic-buying have led people to substitute loo paper for kitchen roll and wet wipes.
This obsession with wiping must end. It may seem expensive to have a bidet or water gun installed, but attachable bidet seats can be bought for less than £50. Coronavirus is already moving this noble cause forward, with bidet sales rising sharply in the US according to Wired. When at home, jumping into the shower is always an option. To wipe or not to wipe? It should not be a question.
Sebastian Shehadi is global markets editor of the Financial Times’ fDI Intelligence. He tweets at @seblebanon.