Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
A couple of years ago it came as a surprise to many that the most sought after commodity in the midst of a life-threatening, global pandemic would be toilet paper. What’s curious is that this panicked demand was largely an American phenomenon.
In actual fact, about 70% of the world’s population does not use toilet paper. That’s four billion people. It’s not that they do without but use alternative means to keep themselves clean. We’ll cover many of those in addition to some improvised and natural solutions.
It All Started in China
The idea of using soft paper as toilet paper first appeared in China in the 6th century AD and it continued to be mass produced into the 14th century. In 1893 the toilet paper we recognize today was patented in the United States and sold on perforated rolls. An alarming marketing promise that appeared on packages until 1930 was “Splinter free.”
It was the widespread use of modern plumbing (flush toilets) that made toilet paper an everyday product used by most people in the United States. Some of the alternatives used around the world are typically defined by water.
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In Europe a dedicated bowl next to a toilet called a bidet gently squirts a stream of water to allow someone to clean themselves. In Japan a self-cleaning water wand call a Toto Washlet performs a similar function. In some cultures particularly in the middle-east people simply use their left hand to clean themselves and then carefully wash their hands. It’s why in many cultures people will only eat with their right hand.
What Makes Toilet Paper Unique?
Unlike other papers including napkins, facial tissues and paper towels toilet paper has very small and short wood pulp fibers. This makes it highly biodegradable allowing it to quickly decompose in sewers and especially septic systems. Its thin and light texture also allows it to be flushed easily and typically won’t clog toilets and drains.
That’s one of the reasons you may need to avoid flushing heavier weight papers or other alternatives. You’ll need to throw them away in a dedicated covered trash bin or knot in a plastic bag and dispose of after each use.
When There is No Toilet Paper
There are a lot of reasons we may see toilet paper shortages again. Any level of public panic or a new pandemic can affect the supply chain which is still struggling to recover. Widespread natural disasters can also create shortages as stores are closed or unable to restock.
People in a wilderness area or while camping often have to find toilet paper alternatives as well. Rather than dwell on all the possibilities that could leave you without toilet paper let’s just look at a number of options.
It’s unlikely that a lot of us are going to go out and buy a bidet when we’re out of toilet paper but there’s an easy option you can improvise with a plastic water bottle. Just fill the bottle with water and then drill or burn a small hole in the cap and use it to squirt to clean yourself. You may need to wipe yourself dry with some paper or a rag but you’ll be clean.
Newspaper has a high rag or pulp content and when torn into squares can be crumpled and used like toilet paper. Don’t flush it; they may clog your drain. Instead, toss it into a plastic bag or into a 5-gallon bucket half filled with vinegar to kill the germs and moderate any odors. We’ll come back to this vinegar bucket for other options.
Family cloths is a common name for the use of pieces of flannel or terry cloth fabric to use in place of toilet paper. The cloths are dropped into a 5-gallon bucket half filled with vinegar for later washing. They’re called family cloths because even after washing it’s important to keep the cloths separate and unique to each family member. One idea is to give each family member a stack of cloths that are the same color.
There are also some specific tips about washing these family cloths. It is essential to thoroughly wash the cloth between uses, making sure to sanitize before washing and dry on a hot setting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer advice on the best way to do this.
To reduce the mess and smell associated with reusable or alternative toilet paper, invest in a small covered trash can or a cover for your 5-gallon bucket. Use two cans if the family opts for a mix of disposable and reusable alternatives.
When it is time to wash a load, soak the reusable cloths in warm water with a little bleach. Then place in the washing machine as its own load, without other clothes. Wash at a very high temperature. Dry in the dryer to sanitize, and use the highest heat setting to help kill germs.
Family members should not share reusable toilet paper options since it can carry bacteria, yeast, and other microbes unique to each family member.
If this seems like a strange alternative solution it’s no different than what people do who use cloth diapers for an infant. Speaking of diapers….
Diapers are another fabric source for a toilet paper alternative. Cut them into smaller squares that can be used comfortably and throw them into your vinegar bucket. Remember to try and mark them with a laundry marker with initials to keep them separate and uniquely used by one individual in the family.
Napkins and Facial Tissue
Paper napkins and facial tissue have the texture and softness of toilet paper and make an excellent substitute but because they have longer fibers that don’t decompose as quickly as toilet paper and can clog a toilet or septic system. This is another time when you should dispose of them in a covered trash can or a 5-gallon bucket with a lid.
The ancient Romans used a sea sponge on a stick in place of toilet paper. It was often stored in a bucket or water or vinegar. It was used by others in the community before people understood the dangers of bacterial cross-contamination.
If you use a sponge you’ll need to dispose of it after use. They’re very difficult to effectively wash and sanitize. If you have a large sponge you can cut it into square slices for one-time use but unless you have sponges to spare it’s a short-term solution.
Sanitary pads can also be cut into squares and used in place of toilet paper. They should never be flushed but disposed of in a trash can or bucket.
This is a little harder than it sounds. You need a handful of cotton balls and while you might be okay with a couple of them falling into the toilet you don’t want a lot of cotton balls getting flushed. They eventually decompose but they can clog a toilet or septic system.
Strip off the paper towels at the perforations and then tear or cut them in half. They make an effective toilet paper substitute but once again, should not be flushed.
Coffee filters are another good substitute but you’ll need two or three of them and they should also be disposed of in a trash bin or bucket.
Pages from Old Books (Not Glossy Pages)
It seems a shame to destroy a book for toilet paper but if it’s not worth reading again it may be a candidate for the bathroom. Old books, especially paperbacks have a high rag content in the paper that makes it absorbent and pliable especially if it has been crumpled. Wetting it slightly could help. And here again, don’t flush it.
Cardboard TP Tube
It’s unlikely that you’ll have a lot of these but if you get down to the last sheet of toilet paper on the cardboard tube you can tear the tube apart and have a fighting chance. This is another one that shouldn’t be flushed.
A lot of us don’t have phone books laying around anymore but on the off chance that you do, they have been used as a toilet paper substitute since they first showed up. The pages are thin and also have a high rag content so they are absorbent to some degree. No flush.
The end of rope when frayed can do an effective job as a toilet paper substitute. Use once and toss it. The benefit is that a long length of rope will give you multiple uses.
When Nature Calls
This is about those times when we’re out of the house and the bathroom and using anything from a latrine to an outhouse to an improvised toilet in the woods. There are many options outdoors from leaves to moss. Typically you want to use green plants rather than dry and dead ones.
Dry leaves crumble in your hand and that’s not a good idea when you’re trying to use a toilet paper alternative. In some instances you can soak dry leaves or grasses and make them more flexible and sturdy but green leaves are best.
Burdock leaves grow wide and long up to a foot in length or more. They are very common and grow everywhere. Use 2 or 3 green leaves and you’re good to go.
Maple leaves are soft, wide and when green or Autumn orange make an excellent toilet paper substitute. The reason maples are a first choice is because there are no toxic varieties of Maples like Poison Oak or Poison Sumac.
If you come across Lamb’s Ear growing in the wild you’re in luck. The leaves are naturally soft, sturdy and have natural antibacterial properties. The leaves grow long and a couple of leaves should do the trick.
Use the green husks. Corn husks have been a toilet paper alternative of choice for centuries. If the husks are dry they can be softened in water.
Wild Grape Leaves
Wild grape leaves are wide and soft and a few grape leaves also make an excellent toilet paper substitute. You can suspend a few on a stick or even tear down a vine and put it next to your latrine so you have a ready supply.
Moss is another excellent toilet paper substitute. It’s naturally soft, absorbent and easily found.
Cattails are great toilet paper option all year round. The brown flower top is what you use and it even is attached to a handy handle making the whole task easier. Use a few until you’re through.
While green leaves and plants are the best for toilet paper alternatives you’ll have to improvise if outdoors in winter. Dry grasses when bundled make a great alternative. Typically dry plants parts like leaves tend to crumble when used but dry grasses will not fall apart in your hands.
Lichens are another good winter alternative. As an organism they are a cross between algae and a fungus. Look for the large, blue-green lichens and peel it off the tree. It’s soft with almost a rubbery texture. Avoid yellow and orange lichens. They’re toxic.
Be Careful Out There
The last thing you want to do is use some poison ivy for a toilet paper alternative. The same goes for poison oak and poison sumac. If in doubt, find some maple leaves or look for a mound of moss.
It sounds cold and it is but snow actually makes a very good toilet paper alternative. You grab a handful and clean up but you’ll probably want something to dry off. Dry leaves can work if you’re only drying or you just tough it out and let yourself dry.
How to Make Your Own Toilet Paper
When all else fails you can make your own toilet paper. The easiest way to do that is to use old newspapers or other non-glossy papers with a high pulp or rag content. A second way to make your own is to use sawdust or wood shavings. It’s a bit more complicated but it can be done. Here’s a link to a full article on how to make your own toilet paper.
If you’re wondering if any toilet paper alternative is flushable including your homemade toilet paper, here’s a simple test:
- Place four sheets of the toilet paper alternative in a plastic container with a lid.
- Fill the container two-thirds full with water.
- Shake the container for 10 seconds, and then wait for the water to settle. If the toilet paper alternative begins to dissolve, it is flushable.
Why Not Just Stockpile?
You certainly can and should. But here are the TP facts:
- In an average household, the average roll of toilet paper lasts approximately five days.
- It takes about 384 trees to make the toilet paper that one man uses within his lifetime.
- The average person uses 100 rolls of toilet paper per year (over 20,000 sheets).
If you do the math for a family of 4 you’ll need to stockpile 400 rolls of toilet paper for a year. That’s quite a stockpile. That’s why it’s worth taking to time to consider these alternatives and if you’re so inclined, take a little time and try to actually make your own toilet paper.
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