Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Toilet paper trail

Remember how, last year, I wrote down the date on a newly opened bottle of laundry detergent so I could track how long it took us to use? Well, I'm at it again—this time with toilet paper.

Naturally, this tracking experiment will have to be a bit different from the first one. A single roll of toilet paper takes much less time to go through than a bottle of laundry detergent, and there can be quite a bit of variation in how long it takes us to use a roll. So instead of just marking the date when we start a roll and the date when we use it up, I plan to keep track of the start and end dates for the next dozen rolls we go through. With this information, I can calculate all sorts of interesting facts, such as:
  • How much we currently spend on toilet paper each year. We buy the store brand from Trader Joe's, which is 100 percent recycled, 80 percent post-consumer content, and $4.50 a dozen. (That's practically the lowest price it's possible to find on any brand, and certainly the lowest for any brand with recycled paper, barring the occasional sale-plus-coupon deal.) Once we know how long it takes us to use up one of those 12-packs, we can easily figure out how many we go through in a year, and at what overall cost.
  • How much we could save per year by switching to the cheapest non-recycled brand. I'm hoping and expecting to find that the answer is "very little," so we can point to toilet paper use as yet another green choice that has little to no cost.
  • How much more it would cost us per year to switch to the ultra-plushy paper. That will help us figure out whether the luxury of wiping with something that feels like a hotel bath towel would be worth the extra cost, in both dollars and virgin tree pulp.
  • How much it would cost us per year to switch to a tree-free toilet paper made from bamboo and/or sugarcane bagasse (the pulp left over from sugar production). The blogger at Eco Mum says she switched to a bamboo paper after learning that recycled toilet paper is often contaminated with endocrine-disrupting BPA and BPS. For what it's worth, both the Eco Etiquette column in the Huffington Post and the Ask Umbra column in Grist say that the amount of BPA found in recycled TP is so minuscule that it really isn't worth panicking about, and certainly isn't worth the environmental cost of switching back to virgin pulp—but for those who are worried, the Eco Etiquette advisor says bagasse-based paper is a reasonable alternative.
  • How much we could potentially save by switching to "family cloth," which is a euphemism for reusable, cloth toilet wipes. This is another alternative to recycled TP that pops up in many sources, such as Sustainable Baby Steps. In theory, this seems like an ideal ecofrugal choice, since a key principle of the ecofrual life is that reusable products are almost always better for both the earth and your wallet than disposable ones. Yet family cloth, even aside from the "ick factor," obviously has some costs that toilet paper doesn't. First, you need to find room in your bathroom for a sealed container (like a diaper pail) to store the cloths; for some of us, finding that extra space would mean remodeling the whole room at significant cost. Second, you'll obviously need to do laundry a lot more often—and since these cloths both start out filthy and need to come out sanitized, you'll need to use hot water and probably bleach. All those extra loads of laundry will cost money, time, and natural resources. So on the whole, it's by no means obvious that family cloth is a more ecofrugal choice than TP. To do a real side-by-side comparison, you need hard numbers on both cost and environmental impact—and this TP tracking experiment will give me at least one of those.
  • How long the payback time would be on a bidet, which is another alternative to TP suggested in many of the sources cited above. These devices, which clean the tush with water, are common in Europe and some other parts of the world, but rare in the US. Adding a completely separate fixture, like those found in luxurious French bathrooms, would obviously be impractical, but an attachment that adapts an existing toilet to double as a bidet can cost as little as 60 bucks. Knowing how much we spend on TP per year will help us figure out whether such an option would be cost effective. (Even if it definitely is a money-saver, however, I'd be reluctant to install one without trying it out first to make sure we'd actually find it convenient and comfortable to use.)
Of course, like laundry detergent, toilet paper is only a very small expense. It's quite unlikely that any of the strategies in this list would have all that big an impact on our budget, positive or negative. But as I noted when I first started my laundry tracking experiment, even little expenses are still worth keeping an eye on, because there are so many more ways to save small change than big money on a day-to-day basis. None of these strategies may make a big difference by itself, but none of them takes that much effort, either, and when you put enough of them together, they really do add up. Or, as the Brits have it, "Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves."
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