January 27, 2011

Easy on the Environment, Hard on your Bum? ~ Lavanya Sunkara

Mountaintop facility. Photo by junmon603.

In defense of recycled toilet paper.

After spending a week with my out of town friend during my holiday break, I learned that I use way more toilet paper than the average person. Living at home with my parents, brother and a dog that sneaks into the bathroom to have fun with a roll, there were plenty of reasons for the paper disappearing at an alarming rate. But after sharing with only one other person, my pesky habit was caught red-handed.

“You know, for an environmentalist, you create a lot of paper waste,” she said. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I am a 30 year old Indian American and proud tree hugger. I recycle newspapers, reuse zip lock bags, use public transportation, carry a steel water bottle and plant trees on Arbor Day. To this day, my most memorable eco-friendly activity is planting redwood trees along the California coast. Little did I realize that the soft two ply toilet paper that I am addicted to comes from the same old growth trees that I love to hug.

For thousands of years, people in Asia have relied on a bit of water and their own hands to clean up after themselves and most still continue to do so. I did it too for the first fifteen years of my life in India. There is a reason why we eat with our right hands- the left is meant for other things. But since being in America, where the staple of every bathroom is a plush roll of paper, I formed a habit for this luxury. Not because it was any cleaner, but because it was what we Americans have been doing since the early 1900s after giving up on rags and corn cobs.

The US currently has the largest market for toilet paper, but only two percent of it comes from recycled paper, compared to 75 percent in other countries. According to environmental groups, 25 to 50 percent of the pulp used to make our tissues comes from tree farms in South America and the United States. The rest of it comes from 200 year old North American virgin forests. The fibers from old trees are longer and thus produce a smoother and more supple web of wood fibers to make the softest tissue for our behinds. The old growth forests where these trees come from are not only habitats for a variety endangered species, but also serve as key absorbers of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas contributing to global warming.

It is a known fact that we Americans consume three times more paper than the average European and 100 times more than the average Asian. But other countries are catching up to our toilet paper mania. During my trip to India last year, I noticed more flush toilets and paper rolls than squat toilets and buckets of water. But these rolls were made from recycled magazines and newspapers, which, despite making the fiber somewhat rougher, still did the job rather comfortably.

Recently, Consumer Reports tested toilet paper brands and found that recycled tissue brands such as Seventh Generation and Marcal’s Small Steps weren’t unpleasant to use. Seventh Generation reports that 424,000 trees would be spared if we all traded one roll of regular toilet paper for a recycled roll. After my awakening, I insisted that my mom stop buying Charmin from Costco, and began purchasing recycled single ply tissues. My family is now so used it to the new paper that they can’t even tell the difference. I am even thinking about converting my toilet into a bidet by attaching a Washlet, which starting at $200 would not only save me money spent on disposable paper in the long run, but will also help save trees.

Major green initiatives like curbing greenhouse gas emissions, investing in solar power and making hybrid cars mainstream all matter to the health of our planet. But one thing that is very much in our own hands is often overlooked. It is time for us to stop complaining about what the leaders are failing to do, and start doing our own part to make it clean.

Lavanya Sunkara is Indian American environmentalist, animal lover and freelance writer. Her interests range from bhangra dancing to camping to yoga. She is a vegetarian and mother of a beautiful dog named Indu. To read more of her work visit lavanyasunkara.com.

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