Thursday, December 18, 2014

TP tracking results

The results are in! My toilet-paper tracking experiment, which I started back in mid-October, has come to its conclusion. We used up the last of the dozen rolls today, which means it took us exactly 64 days to go through them—an average of 5 1/3 days per roll. Admittedly, that 64-day period included one weekend when we were away from home, but it also included one day over Thanksgiving weekend when we unexpectedly found ourselves hosting four guests in our home, so I'm guessing that the two balance each other out.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this piece of data? Well, first of all, it means that over the course of a year, we go through 68.5 rolls of toilet paper, or 5.7 twelve-packs. As I noticed in my first post, we usually buy the store brand from Trader Joe's (100 percent recycled, with 80 percent post-consumer fibers) for $4.50 per dozen. That means our current annual spending on toilet paper is $25.66. Actually, it may be a little lower, since once in a while we manage to get a sale-plus-coupon deal on Marcal Small Steps, another recycled brand, for slightly less. But that doesn't happen often, so we'll just round it off and say we're spending $25 a year.

As far as I can tell, this figure is pretty much as low as it can go. I just stopped by our local Stop & Shop to compare TP prices, and I couldn't find a single brand there that cost less per roll than TJ's. Priced by the foot, the el cheapo one-ply store brand was a bit cheaper, at 8 cents per square foot rather than 13 cents, but I'm not convinced the one-ply rolls would actually last any longer; in my experience, thinner paper simply means it takes more sheets to get the job done. But even if we could manage to make do with the same number of one-ply sheets, we're only looking at a potential savings of maybe $10 a year. For paper that's both inferior in quality and not as green, it's certainly not worth it.

Now if, by contrast, we wanted the most luxurious tush-wiping experience money could buy, we could switch to the Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, which costs $9.69 per dozen rolls. If we used it at the same rate we use the TJ's paper, this stuff would cost us about $55 a year, more than twice what we're paying now. However, it's possible that, just as one-ply works only half as well as two-ply, this cushy three-ply might work 50 percent better, requiring us to buy only 46 rolls per year for $36.82. That extra $12 a year might be worth paying if the plush paper were recycled like the stuff we use now, but if we have to sacrifice trees to gain that goose-down softness, I'll pass.

Now, there are a few brands out there that promise to deliver both softness and sustainability, but most of them charge a hefty premium for it. The cheapest one I could find was Caboo, made from a mixture of bamboo and sugarcane bagasse, the fibers left over after the cane juice is pressed out. You can hardly get much greener than upcycling a waste product, but at $10.99 per dozen, this paper doesn't exactly qualify as ecofrugal. True, the rolls are a bit bigger than TJ's—300 sheets each instead of 250—but it still costs roughly twice as much per sheet. And that doesn't even count the $4.99 shipping charge for orders under $49. Even if we got free shipping by ordering 5 packs at a time (and somehow managed to find storage space for all those extra rolls), buying this paper would raise our annual TP cost from $25 to $50, all for the fairly dubious benefit of a little added softness (and avoiding exposure to a minuscule amount of BPA). Once again, this doesn't look like a good value.

A final option to consider is ditching the toilet paper altogether in favor of a more ecofrugal alternative. Switching to "family cloth," or reusable wipes, could, in theory, save us the entire $25 a year we currently spend on TP. In practice, though, it would mean doing at least one extra load of laundry per week, in hot water—which would increase our use of water, electricity, and natural gas. We'd also have to run the cloths through the dryer (since line-drying would leave them far too stiff to use) and probably wash them with bleach to make sure they came out sanitized—an expense we don't have now, and a chemical that isn't considered exactly earth-friendly. Altogether, it seems there are way too many variables here to do a simple calculation and say whether family cloth is, or is not, a more ecofrugal choice than paper. However, one thing we know for a fact is that switching could not possibly save us more than $25 a year—and for the convenience of something you can just flush and be done with, I'd say that's a small price to pay.

A final alternative to toilet paper that I'd planned to weigh here is a bidet attachment, such as this $60 model that gets consistently positive reviews at However, when I consulted Wikipedia for a bit more information on how bidets are used, it said that a bidet is "not meant to replace toilet paper," but is instead used after paper "to achieve full cleanliness." On the other hand, this other article at wikiHow, "How to Use a Bidet," notes that some people consider the bidet "a hygienic substitute for toilet paper" and don't bother to wipe before spraying. However, they still need TP to dry off with afterwards, so it comes to much the same thing: a bidet can reduce TP use, but wouldn't eliminate it entirely. So rather than saving us $25 a year, this $60 tool could only save us, at a guess, half of that, which means it would take nearly 5 years to pay for itself. That's hardly a good enough return to make it worth the up-front cost on top of the added hassle.

Now, in theory, I suppose the bidet could be combined with the "family cloth" idea, with the cloths used only for drying. It would still mean more laundry, but the cloths could probably be washed in cold with the rest of our clothes. But that would involve even more hassle and expense than just the bidet itself, and the potential savings still can't possibly exceed $25 a year. All in all, I think I'm best off sticking with my trusty old TJ's TP. (However, next time we shop there, I just might consider trying the "super soft" version. It's still 100 percent recycled, and it's not nearly as pricey as the Quilted Northern—so considering that it's such a tiny item in our overall budget, springing for the slightly plusher stuff might turn out to be a little luxury that's worth the cost.)
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