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.

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?