Bamboo toilet paper: Is it the next best thing for your bum?
Let's unroll this
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While it’s pretty indisputable that bamboo is better for us in the long-term than plastic, what about paper? While most of us have gotten in the habit of ticking that checkbox to go paperless and avoid a deluge of dead trees in our mailbox, the bathroom is one area we can’t exactly opt in to e-filing.
Let’s take a look back on exactly why we started using toilet paper to begin with, then look into bamboo in specific to see if it really is the latest boon to backsides.
What did people use before toilet paper?
As long as there have been humans, there has been a need for toilet paper. But we didn’t even invent paper until 105 AD—so what did everyone do before common era use?
Well, there’s a couple answers to that question. One tool people used was a tersorium: a natural sponge stuck on the end of a stick. You’d do your business, use the tersorium to clean up, rinse it off in whatever was available (usually water or vinegar), and leave it for the next person to use. That’s right: This was a communal tool.
For those squicked out by sharing a sponge stick, another option was also available which might have been worse: pessoi. These abrasive little discs were typically made out of ceramic, stone, or broken shards of pottery. Anyone who’s done a quick image search for the term will be painfully aware of just how porous the stones used to make these reusable scrapers could get. The sponge was probably a strict upgrade, whether or not Cicero remembered to thoroughly wash it off afterward.
Different locales had their own twists on these two methods, depending on what was most readily available. Some used furs and corn cobs instead of sponges, or seashells instead of stone. Who knew that recurring gag in Demolition Man had authentic historical precedent?
When was toilet paper invented?
After the invention of paper in second-century China, it didn’t take very long for wads of paper to catch on as a disposable, significantly more hygienic method of wiping. By the sixth century, it was pretty widely spread throughout the country.
The world would continue refining paper and paper products throughout the centuries, with the printed word often serving double duty as both entertainment and toilet tissue.
It wasn’t until 1857 that commercially-available toilet paper arrived on the scene, with Joseph Gayetty’s “medicated paper, for the water closet.” As it turns out, most Americans up until this point were mostly still corncob swabbers or used newspapers, magazines, and the Farmer’s Almanac (the Almanac’s tendency to get nailed to the inside of an outhouse is actually why it started shipping with its iconic pre-drilled hole).
As an aside, if you’re into old ad copy, do not pass up on this one: It begins with the line, “Many people have wooed their own destruction, physical and mental, by neglecting to pay attention to ordinary matters.” I can’t quite picture the Charmin bears saying something like that.
What is toilet paper made of?
Toilet paper, throughout its history, has predominantly been made of the same stuff: processed wood pulp. Of course, our processing has gotten significantly better over the years.
Modern toilet paper relies on a mixture of hardwood and softwood fibers mixed with recycled paper pulp, some starch to help it retain strength when wet, and some chemicals to help everything break down after use.
What are some of the claims for why we should switch to bamboo toilet paper?
The main reason: Bamboo grows incredibly fast and is resource efficient
Bamboo toilet paper has been rising in popularity recently, partially as a response to the TP shortages we saw during the Coronavirus epidemic. Since we’ve been largely using wood pulp since the second century, it’ll take a lot for bamboo to dethrone the king of commodes.
The main, and probably best argument for switching to bamboo is its incredible rate of growth. Bamboo is the world’s fastest-growing terrestrial plant (don’t worry, duckweed fans, we see you). The growth rate varies by different factors, with the slower end being about a foot every year and scaling up to 25-feet per year or more on the fastest end.
Certain species of bamboo plants can grow up to 35 inches per day.
Given the human demand for toilet paper is tied to our population, it makes more sense to switch over to a faster-growing option like bamboo to keep up with our own incredible defecation rates.
This rate of growth would also allow manufacturers to more quickly scale up their operations to better respond to worldwide shortages. Everyone remembers the great toilet paper drought of 2020, with people knocking each other over for double-ply or scalping rolls on the black market.
On top of its rapid growth rate, bamboo is also significantly more resource-efficient when compared to trees, and is so much more lightweight it can cut down on shipping fuel costs in many cases.
Also, with the ongoing climate crisis, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep trees alive and doing their thing for as long as possible, given their slow rate of maturation.
Climate concerns aside, there’s just something tragic about cutting down a tree that grew to maturity over the course of decades, only to use it for, well…
Bamboo has antibacterial properties—but does it have more than wood?
One thing you’ll see emblazoned across all sorts of bamboo-based products is that they’re naturally anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and odor resistant. While a study from the early 2000s found no proof of such properties, a more recent study from the 2010s did find actively antibacterial compounds in its skin, specifically.
When it comes to toilet paper, the benefit of antibacterial properties should be self-evident. You’re dealing with one of the most bacteria-rich compounds humans are capable of producing (which is probably why you were so reflexively grossed out by the idea of sharing a sponge stick). The more barriers staunching the spread of said bacteria, the better.
Wood also has antibacterial properties of its own. This makes sense when you think about it: Both plants need to have at least some natural defenses to germs in the wild.
It’s difficult to find any hard science comparing bamboo and wood directly, but it’s safe to say this is one area where bamboo at least doesn’t seem to underperform the default option. Let’s call this one a draw until more conclusive evidence arises.
Bamboo is extremely biodegradable—but is that a good thing?
Its fast rate of biodegradability is another claim that gets bandied about whenever bamboo is brought up.
While quickly biodegrading is clearly a better outcome than, say, breaking up into microplastics, things get murkier when you start comparing bamboo to wood, another famously biodegradable substance. The discussion very quickly starts to feel like splitting hairs.
One area where biodegradability does matter is when it comes to wet wipes. Despite all common sense, many wet wipes are not biodegradable and even say not to flush them on the packaging. Flushable wet wipes are becoming increasingly common nowadays, and bamboo-based options are at the forefront of that push.
However, when talking traditional toilet paper, there are very few studies into exactly how bamboo stacks up with regards to carbon retention and methane production, although the one study we were able to find actually indicates it produces more methane than traditional wood-based paper.
While this property could be controlled for with the proper infrastructure—and actually be beneficial in some cases—at the moment bamboo’s biodegradability actually seems more like a liability.
What are other eco-friendly alternatives to toilet paper?
Based on the evidence we were able to find, bamboo toilet paper does seem to have some solid evidence on its side for being a more eco-friendly option than regular toilet paper. The fact it grows hundreds of times faster than trees means it’s much better suited at keeping pace with our demands.
That being said, some of its beneficial claims were hard to nail down, some actually seemed to be detrimental (for the moment, at least), and the processing techniques involved in the production of any kind of toilet paper can be more or less harmful to the environment. Then there’s also the realities of modern farming practices and, since the majority of bamboo is currently grown in China, there’s the logistics of worldwide shipping to consider.
Trying to remain eco-friendly and ethical in the modern age involves an ever-fractalling labyrinth of considerations.
So, for those not necessarily sold on bamboo toilet paper, what are some eco-friendly alternatives?
Well, the best thing is probably to rely on toilet paper made from 100% recycled materials. This extra processing (and some help from you) should help it biodegrade faster than it would in a landfill.
If you don’t mind making an investment in an eco-friendlier future, you could also invest in a bidet attachment for your toilet and forego disposable wiping mediums altogether.
Of course, an even more environmentally-friendly option would be some kind of shell, or a sponge on a stick. Both of these require minimal water for washing, produce no waste, involve no dubious processes, and require no international shipping. Maybe the ancient world was onto something after all?
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