What kind of environmental impact do toilets have?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Aug. 25 2009 9:34 AM

The Green Lantern Goes to the Bathroom

How to do your business green.

A bidet.
A bidet could help you reduce toilet paper use

Last year, you looked at how to deal with animal poop. But what about my trips to the bathroom? Should I be concerned about greening my ablutions?

Sanitation raises a host of fascinating ecological questions: Should we use processed sewage sludge to fertilize our fields? What about poop to power our appliances? For more on those questions, the Lantern directs you to Rose George's The Big Necessity, excerpts of which appeared on Slate last year.When it comes to individual toilet behavior in the Western world, though, there are pretty much two areas of concern: water and paper.

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The humble commode is a thirsty appliance. In a 1999 study of 1,188 American homes, toilet flushes accounted for 27 percent of an individual's daily indoor water consumption—more than washing machines (22 percent) or showers (17 percent). Your personal toll will depend on what kind of toilet you have. If it was purchased after January 1994, federal law requires that it use 1.6 gallons or fewer per flush; otherwise, it might drain 3.5 to 7 gallons with every pull of the lever. The average American flushes his home toilet five times a day, sending 8 gallons to 35 gallons of water down the tubes.

There are plenty of simple, low-tech things you can do to cut down on toilet-related water consumption. Make sure you check regularly for leaks using a dye test; a leaky toilet can waste about 200 gallons a day, according to the EPA. If you have an older toilet, reduce the size of each flush by putting a milk jug or soda bottle filled with water or sand in the tank. (Avoid using bricks, which can muck up the plumbing.) For the more daring among you, there's always the time-honored "if it's yellow, let it mellow" strategy—endorsed by Cameron Diaz, no less—and the "pee in the shower" strategy, which a Brazilian environmental group is touting this month via an extremely catchy commercial featuring Stephen Hawking, Mahatma Gandhi, the Statue of Liberty, and a gaggle of singing children.

Before you get too pleased with yourself, note that your toilet and tap water represent just a fraction of your overall water footprint. The 1999 report found that outdoor water applications accounted for 58 percent of overall domestic use. (As the Lantern noted in a previous column, the average lawn gulps down 21,600 gallons annually.) Even more significant are the vast amounts of water we "use" but never actually see. Agriculture accounts for 69 percent of the water used around the world every day.   Cutting down on your red meat consumption will save way more than letting your urine hang out in the toilet bowl—though estimates vary widely, it can take from 441 to 18,492 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. That's a lot of flushes.

Then there's the paper issue. We Americans love the stuff: According to the market research firm Euromonitor International, the average American uses 60 pounds of tissue a year (PDF). The "tissue" category includes facial tissue, paper towels, and napkins, but toilet paper contributes the most to the total. By comparison, the average German uses 33 pounds.

In recent years, groups like Greenpeace and the Natural Resource Defense Council have been lobbying toilet paper and facial tissue manufacturers on two fronts. On one hand, they want the companies to increase the recycled content in their consumer products. (The tissue industry in the United States actually uses more recycled content than any other paper sector, but most of that lower-quality stuff goes to the "away from home" market—for use in restaurants, schools, and hospitals.) Manufacturers counter that only virgin tree fibers can give consumers the plushness they demand. Environmental groups have also raised concerns that the virgin pulp that is being used isn't always sustainably sourced; they're particularly worried about logging in the Canadian boreal forest.

A few weeks ago, Greenpeace ended a four-year campaign againstKimberly-Clark, maker of Kleenex, Scott, and Cottonelle, when the paper-products giant announced plans to increase its use of both recycled and Forest Stewardship Council-certified stock. (Not all environmentalists are impressed, however, so expect debate to continue for a while.)

So what does the Lantern suggest when it comes to eco-friendly cleansing? Well, she would be remiss if she didn't mention that using a bit of water to clean your backside helps save trees and maybe water, too (since papermaking itself can be very water-intensive). Otherwise, use common sense: Look for paper with the highest post-consumer recycled content that your bum can take, and whenever possible buy larger rolls (fewer cardboard tubes) and bulk packages (less plastic overwrap).

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.