How to Ditch Disposable Paper
Shortages are back. In some places, toilet paper and paper towels are again on the list of the disappeared.
Using less is good even if there wasn’t a shortage. Sure, they’re made of low-quality “waste” wood. We’re not chopping virgin forests just to wipe our bums. But they’re made on big electric machines and wrapped in plastic, then shipped in diesel-belching 18-wheelers. They decompose anaerobically in a sewage lagoon or landfill, generating planet-warming methane. There’s an environmental impact there, all right. And they cost money.
Maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal, but Americans use a staggering amount. Over seven billion pounds a year of disposable tissue-like substances, including toilet paper. Now that’s a lot of cellulose.
My agriculture professor used to exhort us students to think, just think of the spectacular value of carbon in the soil. It’s a tiny but essential fraction: a soil that is 3 or 5% organic matter (mostly from cellulose) is usually thriving, while a soil under 1% is effectively dead. She considered any diversion of plant residues away from the soil to be an ecological crime, especially if it ended up in the atmosphere or landfill. I’d much rather that “waste” wood was in my garden, bolstering the health of my veggies.
Luckily most of us can easily reduce disposable paper, but not everybody can. For people with certain disabilities and their carers, a roll of paper towels makes life infinitely more comfortable. For parents of toddlers, the focus needs to be solely on “pee goes in the potty.” Let’s help those people by leaving some paper on the shelf.
1. First, find a substitute.
For drying hands and wiping the kitchen counter: regular old hand towels. They work better because they have more abrasive power and don’t disintegrate. Does it generate more dreaded laundry? Not really. I’d notice if it did because I don’t have a dryer. Does it make us sick? Great big no. My kids are the healthiest people I ever met. It's totally weird.
A lot of people swear by unpaper towels, either purchased or homemade. That’s cool if you love them (they sure are cute). I think, though, that the first rule of reducing impact is to use what’s already here (especially if you’re avoiding the store like I am). I already had an under-used stack of bathroom hand towels that just happened to be dark colors, which don’t show stains. They’re still going strong after a decade.
If you don’t have extras, maybe somebody you know has an overflowing linen closet. Sometimes they’re available at thrift stores; since they’re destined for kitchen messes, they don’t have to be pristine. I once cut and hemmed a full-size towel. It worked fine.
Another great wiping material is rags from any cotton garment too shredded or stained to be worn or donated. Think t-shirts or kid pajamas. I use them for blowing noses, wiping paint brushes, wiping baby bottoms, drying goat udders. For a really nasty mess I pick one that is nearing the end of its useful service, then toss. The cotton still decomposes anaerobically in the landfill, but the total volume I discard is much lower than with disposable.
Cloth works for wrapping produce stems. A plate works for covering food in the microwave. For fancy eating I have a set of cloth napkins which came from, you guessed it, the thrift store. Yeah, my kitchen looks like my grandmother’s. Some things don’t need reinvented, no matter what the marketing department says.
I’m not perfect. I still use paper towels for drying fish, but we buy fewer than three rolls a year, and that’s pretty darn good. I’m not afraid to abandon a quest at the point of diminishing returns.
Toilet paper initially looks more difficult. Wartime stories sometimes derive as much horror from the terrible wiping substitutes as they do from the actual death, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Many people over in zero-waste land use family cloth, which is just cloth baby wipes, but for grownups. Not a big stretch for those of us who cloth diapered.
If you find that too high a hurdle, no judgment from me. It’s not necessary to eliminate TP in order to greatly reduce use. We don’t actually do family cloth, but we use only about one big roll a month. Four people. No suffering.
One key is getting kids on board, because they’re notorious TP wasters. I don’t mean your potty trainers. All you can really do there is love them hard and suffer through the stage. A slightly older kid benefits greatly from a protocol, however: two squares, then if necessary, two more squares.
The other big users of TP are women. At the risk of getting too personal, let me share that after I had my kids I just kept on rinsing and drying, and never actually went back to TP. This has reduced my personal use by about 90%, but that’s not why I do it. It’s so much cleaner. I hear some people love their bidets, and that’s a great option, but a squeeze bottle or even a jar works pretty well. You probably already have one in the cupboard.
2. Then, hide the disposables.
Just as important as deciding to change is, um, actually changing. I am on autopilot in the kitchen, grabbing whatever I’m used to without even noticing. To break up the routine and generate new habits, I physically move things around. Put the paper in the cabinet, or better yet, in another room. When I have to reach somewhere new, I’ll remember to do something new. Even just swapping the toilet paper roll from over-feed to under-feed might be enough to trigger the memory.
I know this is all very basic. Paper is a tiny part of our impact, and your paper habits might already be better than mine. I think there is an important underlying idea here, though. Our ecosystem is groaning under the weight of human habits. We’re experiencing virus-related dislocations and miseries we haven’t personally encountered before. The situation is complex and shifting. It’s very stressful.
Under those circumstances, swapping our thoughts from “how can I get what I want” to “how can I make sure we all have enough” is a useful, powerful act. It feels better. It generates immediate positive results. And it is beginning to act in alignment with the world we’d all rather have.
What’s something everyone else seems to buy that you don’t, and how to you do get the job done? I’m always looking for new tips.