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The climate case for getting a bidet
A recent episode of South Park unexpectedly shed light on the climate and environmental harms of toilet paper.
Earlier this month, a Peabody Award-winning television show with millions of weekly viewers used its platform to expose an oft-overlooked industry driving the climate crisis.
The show was South Park. The industry was toilet paper.
On March 1, the animated Comedy Central series famous for ruthlessly mocking everything momentarily dropped its veil of irreverence to highlight the real harms of deforestation.
In an episode called “Japanese Toilets,” disabled eighth-grader Jimmy pulls his classmate Stan aside to warn him about the devastation wrought by industrial logging for toilet paper.
Jimmy’s warning came because Stan’s dad, Randy, had just bought a Japanese toilet with a built-in bidet, and was going around town evangelizing about the superiority of bidets to toilet paper. Jimmy told Stan that if Randy didn’t shut up, the high-polluting, high-profit toilet paper industry would take him down. After all, Jimmy said, there’s a reason most Americans still prefer toilet paper to bidets, despite the fact that toilet paper destroys the environment and doesn’t even clean your butt very well.
“They don’t want Japanese toilets in America,” Jimmy said. “And they have the power to stop them.”
Jimmy’s last statement was meant to sound ridiculous. But we know that Big Oil led a decades-long campaign to downplay climate science in order to keep profiting from fossil fuels. Is it really that implausible to think Big Toilet Paper might be doing something similar?
So for today’s newsletter, we decided to take a deeper look at “Japanese Toilets” and its claims, to try and separate fact from fiction.
Are old-growth, climate-protector forests really being razed for your extra-plush Charmin? And are the fat cats at Big Toilet Paper really waging a secret campaign to prevent the widespread adoption of bidets?
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The truth about Big Toilet Paper
Hold onto your butts: South Park’s “Japanese Toilet” episode actually hit on a pretty big climate issue.
Toilet paper may seem like a small necessity, but it's part of a pulp and paper industry that logs the last intact forests in the world. Those forests are critical to slowing down global warming because they remove up to 30 percent of human carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere during photosynthesis.
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has called the toilet paper industry “among the most egregious climate offenders in Canada,” where more of the industry’s deforestation occurs.
Here are some of South Park’s claims about toilet paper that are, at least in spirit, true:
“The average American uses 140 rolls of toilet paper per year. Can you even begin to imagine how many trees that is?”
The 140-rolls-per American figure comes from the NRDC, so it could be true. However, 140 rolls per person seems too high to us, unless you’re someone who goes through two rolls of toilet paper a week.
But the average American does appear to use a lot of toilet paper. According to peer-reviewed research, the average American will go through 26 kg (57 lbs) of toilet paper in a single year. If you multiply that by the 334.5 million people that live in the U.S. that gives you a high-end estimate of 19 billion pounds of toilet paper a year.
“To supply the United States with toilet paper, it takes 31.1 million trees per year. A million acres per year of precious Canadian boreal forests alone, releasing upwards of 25 metric tons of CO2, and leveling 90 percent of the land barren.”
To meet our demand for toilet paper, large swaths of forest are logged and turned into wood pulp, which is then processed and bleached. About one-third of the pulp used to make American tissue products comes from an evergreen, almost pristine 1.3 billion acres of wilderness in Canada known as the boreal forest, according to NRDC.
The 31.1 million tree figure comes from a study done by U.K. bathroom supplier QS Supplies. We also couldn’t independently verify how many trees go into a roll of toilet paper, because that’s not how logging is measured (the same logged area makes multiple paper or tissue products).
But more than 1 million acres of Canadian boreal forest are logged every year, releasing more than 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the NRDC. That’s the equivalent of the emissions from 5.3 million vehicles, and more than the emissions from countries like Estonia or Latvia.
This deforestation also means cutting down one of the largest terrestrial carbon sinks in the world, alongside the Amazon and the peatlands of Indonesia and Central Africa. Canada’s boreal forest is one of the largest intact forest ecosystems left on the planet, and it stores an estimated 306 billion metric tons of carbon. Cutting down old-growth forests releases carbon dioxide that has taken centuries to accumulate.
“Areas that have never before been logged and are immensely carbon rich are being cut down so they can be turned into products that are used once and then flushed away forever,” said Ashley Jordan, author of the NRDC’s “The Issue With Tissue” report.
“It's essentially a climate crime that we're creating a single-use disposable product from the forest that, when left intact, can be one of our greatest climate allies,” she said.
“Toilet paper is an industry worth billions and billions of dollars … These people have deeper pockets than you can possibly imagine.”
The U.S. market for toilet paper was worth an estimated $12.5 billion last year–but the companies that sell toilet paper have much deeper pockets than that. Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Georgia-Pacific, and Unilever make most of the recognizable brands you see in the grocery store: Charmin, Cottonelle, Quilted Northern, and Seventh Generation. Those companies are valued in the tens of billions.
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The real reason toilet paper reigns in America
While the toilet paper industry’s marketing is certainly prolific and effective, industry meddling doesn’t seem to be the reason Americans haven’t taken to bidets. The reason seems to boil down to a combination of sexism, hatred of the French, and Americans generally being afraid of their own butts.
Let’s take them one by one.
Hatred of the French. The bidet was invented in France in the 1600s, where it was considered the height of sophistication and comfort. Marie Antoinette reportedly had a bidet in prison. (She may have lost her head, but she didn’t lose her personal hygiene).
The British, however, were highly suspicious of this French display of hedonism, and the French in general, and so turned up their noses at the chance to freshen their fannies with water. The Brits passed their disdain for the bidet onto their American colony, where we elevated it into an art form. (Atlantic, The New York Times)
Sexism. According to Discover Magazine, “the bidet was known as an instrument for feminine hygiene — often used to cleanse the genitals before intercourse, and afterward as a method of post-coital contraception (albeit an ineffective one.) … The sexual and feminine association, according to some experts, likely prohibited its success in the U.S.”
Norman Haire, a birth-control pioneer, said in 1936 that “The presence of a bidet is regarded as almost a symbol of sin.” During World War II, American troops stationed in Europe saw bidets in the bathrooms at brothels, “so they began to associate these basins with sex work.”
Fear of own butt. The total disregard for physical comfort or pleasure was probably made up by a man in a tall buckle hat. As Cornell professor Alexander Kira writes in his book The Bathroom, “One must suppose that the Anglo-Saxon penchant for mortification of the flesh must have its origins in Puritanism, since before the commercial availability of toilet tissue as such, discarded printed matter was used, often with unhappy results.”
TP is a climate issue where consumer choice actually matters
In addition to hitting on a real climate issue, South Park hit on a climate issue where individuals can be a powerful force for change.
“Consumers have never had this much access to sustainable tissue brands before,” said Jordan. “Making the switch is so simple but will save essentially a priceless cost for the planet and the global climate.”
If you’re attached to toilet paper, there are lots of brands that are made from recycled pulp. NRDC made a handy toilet paper guide for which brands are sustainable.
If you’re ready to make the switch to bidets, there’s a whole wonderful world with a range of budgets. Tushy, started by the founder of Thinx period underwear, sells bidet attachments for $69. Heated bidet seats can cost anywhere from $200 to $500. A Japanese smart toilet, which will wash and dry you! can cost you upwards of $2,000—plus plumbing costs. (Here’s a list of recommendations for bidets.)
You don’t have to stop at individual choice, either. The toilet paper problem also presents an opportunity to advocate for corporate change. Some companies, like Kimberly-Clark and Unilever, have promised to reduce their impact on forests by making 100 percent recycled toilet paper. But not Proctor & Gamble, which relies on the Canadian boreal forest to produce the most popular toilet paper in America: Charmin.
In 2021, more than 100 environmental groups sent a letter to P&G shareholders, asking them to minimize their impacts on the boreal and tropical forests. A year later, P&G promised to stop buying pulp from certain Canadian forests, but there’s been no evidence they’ve followed through.
P&G is reluctant to make the change because virgin pulp, aka wood that has never been used before, makes the softest tissue paper. And since P&G holds 25 percent of the North American toilet paper market share with their ever-so-soft Charmin, you can see why they don’t want to switch to recycled tissue.
What’s cool is that a change in consumer habits works, according to the industry itself. Consulting firm McKinsey forecasts that a preference for sustainability and environmental regulation will transform the paper and forest sector over the next decade.
The world is in your hands—or at least, your tuchus.
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