Jain: Toilet paper: An odd American obsession

Nikhita Jain, Staff Columnist

I know what you’re thinking. Toilet paper? Really!? At first glance, it may seem like an absurd topic, but it in fact has a profound connection to American society and the environment. 

The pandemic’s initial weeks epitomized the prominent, yet often unvoiced, role of toilet paper. People hoarded toilet paper and were hostile towards one another when stock was low. Toilet paper-related fights and crimes pervaded the news. In one example, sheriff’s deputies in North Carolina discovered a stolen tractor-trailer carrying 18,000 pounds of bathroom tissue. In another, police arrested a man in Florida for stealing 66 rolls from a Marriott hotel. People even erupted into lengthy brawls within big-box retailers like Costco, Walmart and Target over the few toilet paper rolls remaining. 

Simply put, America was in absolute chaos without its most beloved possession.

Toilet paper panic-buying was present in other parts of the world as well, though America’s reliance on toilet paper greatly outweighs that of any other country as the world’s largest producer and user of toilet paper.

According to the Tissue World Magazine (yes, there is such a thing), American consumers used an average of 25 kilograms of toilet paper per person in 2018 or the equivalent of 144 Charmin Mega-Rolls—far outpacing the average global per capita usage of just 5 kilograms a year. In comparison, consumers in western Europe and Japan used only about 15 kilograms per person, while toilet paper usage is essentially negligible in Africa, the Middle East and many parts of Asia

Most countries do not even have access to basic sanitation, let alone toilet paper. Over half the global population lives without access to “safely managed” sanitation. Even worse, 432,000 people die each year from diarrheal diseases as a result of inadequate sanitation, including 297,000 children under the age of five. 

In other words, toilet paper is a luxury that we Americans take for granted. 

Since America is the greatest user of toilet paper, you would think that toilet paper must have originated here. However, it was actually first made in China. Beginning in the late 1300s, China began manufacturing two feet by three feet sheets of toilet paper for the royal court. Paper became widely available in China in the 15th century, but in Western society, modern toilet paper was not commercially available until 1857 when Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed a “Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet,” sold in packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents. 

The toilet paper initially lacked comfortability as manufacturing techniques left wood splinters embedded in the paper. More than 50 years later, in 1935, Northern Tissue began advertising “splinter-free” toilet paper. Since then, paper product companies have been unwavering in their desire to generate ever more soft, fluffy, absorbent and attractive toilet paper. Currently, the most superior tissue maker is Kimberly-Clark (K-C), headquartered in Texas. K-C products are sold in 150 countries and the company estimates that 1.3 billion people use their tissues every day.

Despite our long reliance on toilet paper, few of us consider where it comes from or from what it is made. Like most paper products, toilet paper derives from trees, which contributes to deforestation and consequently causes habitat loss and soil erosion.

Toilet paper can either come from virgin pulp or recycled waste paper. Virgin pulp does not contain any recycled material and is the main ingredient for toilet paper. The production of virgin pulp emits 30% more greenhouse gases than when recycled waste is utilized, rendering it more threatening for the environment. Furthermore, toilet paper production wastes large amounts of water during the process of cleaning and preparing wood pulp. A single roll of toilet paper typically uses 37 gallons of water. What’s worse, several chemicals are employed in the process of making toilet paper. Chlorine bleaches the pulp and renders it white, while other chemicals soften the pulp to create soft toilet paper, leading to local water bodies being polluted. 

Hence, the luxurious, soft toilet paper that permeates our homes is not without its costs. 

While large manufactures are unlikely to change their methods, there are steps we college students can take to begin resolving the environmental dilemmas caused by toilet paper. Some examples include opting for sustainable toilet paper made from recycled waste paper or investing in a bidet—the device that sprays water for cleaning after using the bathroom. But overall, we need to consider the broader consequences of going through so many rolls of toilet paper a week.