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How Many Sheets: On A Global Roll

by Hannah Birkin

In the midst of a global pandemic, stockpiling has brought the TP Debate to the global stage.We seem to rely on it, hoarding in fear of running out. But when did we become so reliant onwiping with paper? Of course there are other solutions, and they’re used every day around theworld! Take a journey with us to find some alternatives...


Before the rise of the humble loo-roll, we would use just about anything to wipe: wood-shavings, twigs, clay and leaves were all subjected to our dirty derrieres. No wonder we worked out whichplants were poisonous pretty fast - no one likes a nettle sting springing up where we’re mostsensitive!

The Romans, perhaps tired of putting aloe on their stick-scratches, developed a slightly gentler idea. Why scrape when the soft touch of a wet sea-sponge would do just as well? Thexylospongium (also called ‘tersorium’ or, more simply, ‘sponge on a stick’) is, if you like, theancestor of modern loo roll, and was the wipe-instrument of choice for city public toilets. There was a problem, however. The sponges were as communal as the loos themselves, dipped in a salt and vinegar solution to ‘wash’, so they spread infection incredibly fast. Perhaps if you’re eyeing up that kitchen sponge to share when times get tough, it’s time to reconsider...

Of course, you must be wondering - what about ​paper​? The oldest evidence of using it to wipe comes from 6th century China. Yan Zhitui, a scholar, wrote that he dare not wipe with important books - those were simply too precious. Other used sheets seemed to be fair game.

These days, toilet roll comes in a variety of forms, plies (thickness) and sizes, often chosen depending on environment or convenience. Did you know all of these kinds exist?

  • 1 ply:​ Rarely a favourite, it’s the best to use if your pipes go to a septic tank because itbreaks down most easily, preventing clogs.

  • Camping and Marine​ paper: ​Fulfills a similar purpose to 1 ply, preventing buildup invehicular black water tanks

  • 3+ ply:​ More absorbent and riskier to pipes, but often favoured as softer and, if the thickness means less sheets are used, can be more economical than thinner roll..

  • Luxury paper:​ Goes a step further. It’s often scented, dyed or even spruced withcalming plants like aloe vera for sensitive skin. Unfortunately, this often means it’s highlyprocessed and negatively impacts the environment

  • Bamboo​ paper:​ Also eco-friendly but more expensive than unbleached paper as it’s very soft to use.

  • 1 ply:​ Rarely a favourite, it’s the best to use if your pipes go to a septic tank because itbreaks down most easily, preventing clogs.

That’s plenty of kinds to choose from, but you might still be running out! Don’t worry, there’s no need to rip up your novels yet - next up are some TP alternatives used today!

Au Naturale

Though the complex sewer systems of today’s cities carry our waste away via huge pipes, more rural communities worldwide often stick to the tried-and-tested method of digging a small hole in the ground and covering it up, or placing a bowl inside to empty out. These are Squat Toilets,and natural wipes like leaves or wool are still a popular choice here

Natural is often best, but beware if you live somewhere with dangerous animals. The Australian redback spider is highly poisonous, and known for lurking in the nice warm shade of humantoilets, just waiting to take a bite

Bidets and Lotas

Another standard cleaning solution is, of course, water. Across much of mainland Europe andAsia, it’s common for bathrooms to come equipped with a bidet. For those unfamiliar, the small ceramic bowl (or sometimes a hose!) might seem confusing, but it’s very easy to use. The bidet sends a stream of water to rinse your behind speaky clean without wasting paper

If you don’t have one to hand, all you need is a jug: a Lota is a common alternative to the bidet, kept full of water in the bathroom, either with or without soap. Just make sure you’re dry before pulling up your trousers!

Talking Toilets

Taking cleansing a step further, Japan is known for some of the world’s most hi-tech toilets. As well as talking, heating and self-flushing, many of these machines have built-in bidets for easy washing, and they’re becoming popular all over the globe

What NOT to use

In an age of TP shortages, scientists have warned against wiping with baby wipes and kitchen roll. Though these may seem like easy alternatives, both are highly ​absorbent ​and clog pipes, adding to the problem!

Using Roll Economically

So how ​should​ we do our bit and wipe to save waste? If you’re still devoted to loo roll, here’s a 7-step guide

1 - Finish your business and grab yourself some toilet paper. You don’t need much: infact, ​on average households have 500% more roll than we ​actually​ need for quarantine.

2 - Yes, that’s ​all​ your business

3 - Time to ​wipe​! There’s a worldwide dispute about ​how​ we wipe: fold or scrunch? Sit or stand? Well, the choice is yours! If you’re worried about preserving paper, folding is the way forward. By wiping on one side of a folded sheet, you can easily re-fold to use the same sheets twice, saving lots of roll! This is also much kinder to the planet, so our forests will thank you!

4 - Be ​gentle​! No need to scrub away, just make sure you’ve got everything. To reduce risk of infection, it’s important to ​wipe from front-to-back​: this minimizes the likelihood of your genitals coming into contact with something unpleasant from your behind

5 - Throw your roll ​in the toilet.​ Putting toilet roll in a bin or elsewhere will create a nasty smell if it’s not properly disposed of

6 - Remember to ​flush​! If your toilet has a lid, close it before flushing - this stops the force of the flush from expelling particles into the air around the bathroom and onto your cleansurfaces, like toothbrushes.

7 - Wash your hands for 20 seconds.​ That’s about as long as singing Happy Birthday twice, if you’ve no clock to hand. This is the​ most important ​part of staying ​healthy​