Is it ethical to use toilet paper?

Our ethical columnist explains the proper way to wipe away the damage we inflict on the planet.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

Dear Ethan,

Please help! Every time I visit the toilet for a ‘sitting down procedure’ – which is, hmmm, at least once or twice a day – I become consumed by guilt. You see, I have NO CHOICE but to use soft, chemicalised, sometimes fragranced paper to clean myself, which must be contributing terribly to the destruction of forestkind. What can I do, Ethan? If it’s not too personal a question, how do you clean your anus after you empty your bowels?

Eddie Mayfield-Shawnbeck

Dear Eddie,

No choice? NO CHOICE?! Saying you have no choice but to use toilet paper is like saying you have no choice but to pick up that little kitten that wanders past your front door, inject petroleum into its eyes and mouth, screw it up into a little screeching furball, and hurl it into the middle of a motorway while screaming ‘Global warming is a myth!’

There is ALWAYS a choice, my so-called friend, and just as a small eco-aware minority of us would choose to invite said kitten into our home to give it a saucer of soya-based milk and a plate of tofu-based pseudo-meat products – instead of following the council estate entertainment route of sticking fireworks into its anus and watching it yelp – so we must also choose NOT to use toilet paper.

Eddie, I haven’t used toilet paper for 17 years. I don’t even have a toilet. In chez Greenhart we have a thermophilic compost machine, with a comfortable seat made from renewable wood taken from a tree that was chopped down using an anaesthesia-drenched saw made from recycled tin, and this thermophilic device turns our waste into ‘humanure’. This is a glorious, rich, stinky product with which we fertilise our crops and keep at bay our sometimes baying neighbours from the Steve Biko Estate next door.

And what do we have alongside our thermophilic compost machine with which to clean ourselves? A selection of leaves (only post-green leaves that have fallen naturally from trees, usually during ‘autumn’) and a ‘family cloth’ – a quite long rag made from organic cotton which has the names ‘Ethan’, ‘Sheba’, ‘Child 1’ and ‘Child 2’ stitched into it to indicate where on the cloth each member of the family may wipe him or herself. Well, we don’t want our faeces getting mixed up! That would be gross.

Once a week, we wash the cloth in lukewarm water mixed with a little elderflower juice, and we’re ready to use it again. Hey presto, Mr I Have No Choice But To Use Pink Perfumed Toilet Paper In Plastic Wrapping That Was Probably Bought From Tesco – we have perfectly recyclable ‘bog roll’.

Eddie, some people say that if you want to see the true face of humanity you should visit the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China or New York City. What. Ever. Don’t waste your time visiting those manmade scars etched into the face of what was then a meek and defenceless Gaia (but She’s fighting back now, oh yes!). Instead, to see the true face of humanity, pop into a sewer. Don your wellies, perhaps put a wooden peg produced from a sustainable forest on your nose, and lower yourself into a ‘manhole’ (what a speciesist, sexist term) and behold the literal tonnes and tonnes of shit, piss, discarded condoms (which do not biodegrade), tampons, chucked-out contact lenses and tortured funfair fish that are flushed down toilets every single miserable day.

Nothing better sums up the wasteful folly of human life, the pointless and essentially destructive nature of our existence, than the mountains of faeces we produce every hour. There are 67million Britons. On the assumption that the average person relieves his bowels 1.5 times a day, that means as a nation we take 100,500,000 dumps in a 24-hour period!

Do you how many tonnes of waste that adds up to, Eddie? Using my carbon abacus – and allowing for the fact that in the parts of Britain where they are partial to vindaloos, lager and pork scratchings (don’t worry, I won’t mention any names, Bermondsey) people produce larger amounts of faeces than that produced by, say, an ethical family of four based in Kent that lives on little more than lentils and a love for nature – I estimate that Britain produces 22.872 tonnes of shit every day! Or 8,348.28 tonnes a year! Or 83,482.8 tonnes a decade! You get the picture… we produce enough shit to sink the Titanic a million times over. Only our waste is not used for anything so useful as removing manmade, eyesore, steel-packed ships packed with violinists and drunks from the delicate seas, but instead just goes to… waste.

We have been so stupefied by the capitalist/catastrophist system that we don’t even recognise there is goodness in our faeces, bacteria that could be liberated to fertilise the earth and to provide nourishment for parched maggots and beetles. No, what do we do instead? We turn ‘shit’ into a term of abuse. We say people ‘look like shit’, ‘smell like shit’ and ‘talk shit’ (as one especially abusive email correspondent said to me recently: ‘You don’t half talk out of your arse you massive ethical poof’), because we have been brain-zapped into thinking ‘shit’ is horrible when, in truth, given the right treatment and with serious government investment, our 100,500,000 daily shits could be utilised to grow organic food or to build mud-huts for immigrants and gypsies.

The worst part of it, Eddie, is that not only do we let our potentially wonderful waste go to waste – we also create more waste in the process of dealing with our waste! And easily the biggest evil is toilet paper. Mankind is SO arrogant, isn’t it? Where various ethically clued-up beasts, from cats to hyenas, are perfectly happy to clean themselves using their tongues – giving rise to an instant form of faeces recycling – and where other beasts, the marvellous dung beetle for example, gather together their waste and turn to into big balls that can be rolled through the desert for fun, we insist on building entire factories simply to produce ‘nice’-smelling paper to clean ourselves, as if our anuses were something special. To add insult to eco-injury, we advertise these evil wipes with pictures of puppies, and such canine-exploitation is simply intolerable.

Something must be done. I admire Sheryl Crow for suggesting that a ban on over-use of toilet paper might help the environment. Ms Crow, a singer of popular songs apparently, has suggested using ‘only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two to three could be required’. I am also heartened to hear that other eco-saints are following the Greenhart example of using ‘family cloths’ to refresh their derrieres. As one website advises: ‘The purpose of the family cloth is to reduce the waste created by toilet paper. Old t-shirts are the most popular source for family cloth pieces.’ Unfortunately, neither of these quite sensible breakthroughs goes far enough.

No, we need to introduce a carrot-and-stick approach to weaning people off their addiction to Andrex. We should offer people incentives to use family cloths; how about a Family Cloth Tax Credit for those families that, following numerous surprise inspections of their toilet facilities by teams of toilet roll police, can prove that they are using old Pink Floyd t-shirts instead of pink paper to clean their bottoms? Then there is the stick… we should urgently ban adverts for toilet paper, just as we have banned adverts for other supremely evil products, such as cigarettes and formula milk for babies, and also attach an enormous social stigma to the purchase of toilet paper. Only then, Eddie, can we save Gaia from our shit-stained paper while thinking seriously about how to perk Her up with our properly recycled shit.

Ethan Greenhart’s book Can I Recycle my Granny? and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October (for more details, visit Amazon(UK)). Ethan is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him {encode=”” title=”here”}. Read his earlier columns here.

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Topics Politics


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