Bidets are finally catching on in the U.S. Are they actually better for the planet than toilet paper?
When shit hits the fan, Americans have a tendency to turn to toilet paper. It’s one of those items that you never want to be caught without — especially in an emergency — which is why it became a hot commodity as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Even when we’re not in a state of collective panic, being without TP can trigger a minor personal crisis. Most Americans are entirely reliant on toilet paper to do their clean up after using the bathroom and don't have an alternative available when the roll runs out — unless they add a bidet, which uses a stream of water to clean your backside after you've done your business, to their toilets. With the Earth in climate crisis mode and fears of more pandemic hoarding and supply chain issues lingering, it’s certainly a good time to ask: Are bidets worth it?
In the toilet paper vs. bidet debate, the former has some serious environmental disadvantages. All that toilet paper we employ to deal with waste is pretty wasteful itself. The average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper each day and nearly 160 rolls of the stuff over the course of a year. That tissue doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either. It all comes from and goes somewhere.
Where it typically comes from is trees, and we’re collectively destroying forests to keep up with our cleanliness habits. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, nearly 15% of deforestation is caused by tree-cutting done to produce toilet paper. All that chopped wood is then turned to pulp and treated with bleach to give it that soft feeling that’s acceptable enough for your backside — a process that requires more than 250,000 tons of chlorine and 474 billion gallons of water to produce all of the toilet paper that gets flushed each year.
And that flushing part is pretty darn wasteful, too. The equivalent of 27,000 trees are flushed down our toilets each and every day, with each flush using anywhere from 1.6 to 7 gallons of water (depending on the toilet). Considering the average person urinates six to eight times per day, it’s not hard to see how this can add up to quite a bit of water — and it’s a level of waste that’s pretty uniquely American.
Despite accounting for just 4% of the global population, Americans use about 20% of the world's toilet paper. That’s because many other countries have opted for bidets. About 80% of bathrooms outside the United States have a bidet in place of the toilet paper roll — and there’s no evidence that the sprayers have caused a cleanliness epidemic plaguing the rest of the world’s rear ends. While bidets have started to gain a little momentum in the U.S., with as many as 1 in 3 Americans claiming to have tried the sprayer technique at some point, more than half of all Americans say they simply will not shift away from TP.
There are a lot of reasons for reluctance to adopt bidets, most of which can be chalked up to a collective “ew.” According to one theory presented in The Atlantic, American and British soldiers fighting in France during World War II encountered bidets in brothels and associated them with sex work, leading them to reject the devices upon returning home.
“I believe there is also a cultural barrier to using them, people probably think they are less hygienic than a toilet roll,” Alex Crumbie, researcher at the Ethical Consumer, tells Mic. Then there’s the sense of waste that some get from the bidet. After all, it does seemingly use extra water for a process that otherwise wouldn’t require it — kind of like starting up the shower to wash your hands. So, are bidets better for the environment than toilet paper?
Crumbie notes that bidets “require another valuable resource: water.” But, he explains, “it actually requires far less than the amount needed to produce a roll of toilet paper.” The idea that the method of cleaning that directly uses water would somehow require less of it than toilet paper might sound counterintuitive, but it’s absolutely true when you account for the amount of water that goes into the paper production. It is estimated that a single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water to produce. Combine that with the several additional gallons that each flush takes to dispose of the paper and you’re racking up the water usage.
By comparison, according to Crumbie, “The average bidet uses about 0.6 liters [about 0.15 gallons] of water per visit.” Other estimates suggest that bidets use about one-sixth of a gallon of water with each use. No matter what measurement you choose to use, bidets are a less resource-intensive process for cleaning up after a bathroom trip.
There is a catch here, though: Bidets don’t always come cheap, and those that do aren’t necessarily going to fully do the job of cleaning up your backside. Adjusting your toilet to adopt a bidet can require additional plumbing — something that’s almost certainly not available to renters and an option that’s cost-prohibitive for some homeowners. The average bidet installation costs $1,090. You can opt for something like Tushy, an attachment that connects to your existing toilet and provides a bidet effect without requiring any changes to the actual pipes in your house. The problem is that these devices are limited in the water stream they can produce, which means that you’ll probably still have to wipe in order to finish the process. That, of course, involves using toilet paper, though considerably less of it.
Another issue that can result in more waste than expected is a simple lack of personal comfort. Let’s say you opt for a bidet, only to discover you find it unpleasant and can’t convince yourself that it’s sanitary despite plenty of anecdotal evidence that it is. You might end up undermining your own efforts by doubling up, using water for the bidet and to flush down the extra toilet paper you use to ensure you feel clean. “Bathroom habits are extremely personal and can be rather hard to change,” Russell says. “Make sure you are comfortable with a switch by finding a friend who has one and perhaps asking to try it out.”
The key to minimizing these impacts is recognizing that not all toilet paper is created equally. Some options are more sustainable than others. Toilet paper made from bamboo fiber or recycled content is typically better for the planet than products that use virgin fiber (paper that’s made of freshly cut trees), for example. According to the National Resources Defense Council, most major household toilet paper brands — like Charmin, Cottonelle, and Angel Soft — still use primarily virgin fibers for their toilet paper products.
Luckily, there are alternatives available. Russell says one of his personal favorite brands of sustainable toilet paper is Who Gives A Crap, a company that makes their paper out of bamboo or fully recycled paper. The company landed at the top of the NRDC’s most recent rankings for eco-friendly toilet paper. Other brands like Green Forest and Seventh Generation — both of which should be readily available at your local grocery store — all ranked highly, as well.
Oh, and it should be noted: Even the worst toilet paper is likely not as bad as the best wet wipe. While some are described as flushable, Russell warns that they’re an absolute menace to the sanitation system. “They coagulate together to form a matrix for fats and greases to stick to, creating giant ‘fatbergs’ that clog sewers, disrupt service, and can lead to unsanitary spills into the environment."
Making the switch to a bidet can be good for you and the planet, if you can manage the change and you’re seeking to shrink your carbon footprint — which, whether it’s by ditching toilet paper entirely or just switching to a more sustainable brand, is a worthwhile goal. But, Russell says, more can be done by advocating for environmentally sustainable waste treatment systems. Lower-income communities, in particular, have been left behind, with sewage overflows from outdated systems flooding neighborhoods with unsanitary waste. The United Nations set a goal of universal access to sustainably managed sanitation by 2030, but Russell warns we are “desperately off track” on that benchmark.
What we flush won’t matter if the sanitation systems in place can’t handle it. Once you’ve figured out what provides you with the best balance of comfort, cleanliness, and sustainability, consider turning your attention beyond your own bathroom and push local officials to make the entire sewage system more sustainable. Besides, if polling is any indication, you may have more luck convincing the public to address the pipes than convincing your friends to use a bidet.