02 May 2012

Threshold Toilet Paper

I am paused on a threshold contemplating 13 empty cardboard toilet paper rolls standing like guilty sentinels in my bathroom, their accumulating presence striking a radical cord: are we ready to challenge our consumption of toilet paper? What is life like beyond the daily encounter with their familiar, white squares? Facial tissue was replaced by cloth handkerchiefs a decade ago, paper towels and paper napkins obliterated from useful memory, all feminine hygiene products washable and reusable, but toilet paper has always slipped silently past scrutiny, the untouchable secret protected by the fear that its existence is as essential to life as water and sunshine and sleep. Even religiously purchasing the one brand in Chile which is made from recycled paper does not ease the consciousness roiling in turmoil over these 13 empty rolls, accumulated so rapidly in our household of three women.
Experiment a life on less toilet paper? Why not? At worst I will just quietly return to accumulating cardboard tubes to start the woodstove or paint into tube puppets, but maybe I will stumble upon another secret world-vie in which blind consumption of paper products, even intimate ones, can and ought to be challenged, if not eliminated. Many cultures and people of the world live on little toilet paper or none at all. Toilet paper as we know it is a fairly new concept and product in the modern-human landscape. Washing oneself with water and then patting dry with a clean, washable and reusable cloth is probably the most common way to maintain hygiene and it does not involve the harsher methods of dragging processed and bleached wood products across very sensitive areas of skin. Because let´s admit it: paper is not the best cleaning agent. If I get mud on my hands, I don´t just rub them in paper to clean them, I use water and even soap. Toilet paper was invented to speed the bathroom experience and to create a very psychologically addicting product.

For example, my maternal grandmother was obsessed with toilet paper. She had us buying toilet paper in bulk with coupons at every opportunity. We had proportionally more paper products in the house than we had rice or cooking oil or even soy sauce, all of which we also bought in bulk quantities. One wall of our basement was dedicated exclusively to the accumulation of cheap and easy paper products, a literal tower of paisley-decorated Kleenex boxes, puffy tubes of Bounty paper towels, and reams of plastic sealed Charmin toilet paper in stacks of four from floor to ceiling and several layers thick. My childhood memories squeak with the plastic sound of sealed paper products stacking to form forts and secret houses, sliding across the linoleum, knocking one another down in a line of dominoes, eerily flashing their brand names like the commercial images on television. I do not know if my grandmother´s obsession was simply of practical concern, heightened by the refugee-experience of fleeing her homeland during China´s transition to communism and then given capitalist impetus by her relocating to the U.S. some decades later. I am only certain that she accumulated these products out of love and because of a deep-seated certainty that they were a necessary part of life. Somewhere inside myself I too harbor these toilet paper myths and I find it an interesting exercise to explore their origins, to see if this intimate act in the human existence can be done another way.
Perhaps switching to a dry-composting toilet system has given impetus to my curiosity about a life beyond toilet paper. We compost the paper with our solid waste so its accumulative bulk in the compost bin is at once obvious, and since liquid waste is separated, the funnel for pee has to be rinsed after each use with a small amount of water. The presence of used paper taking up compost space and the need to rinse the pee funnel aligns logically in the idea of not using paper for singular liquid deposits, rinsing myself and the funnel at the same time to maintain personal and system hygiene. The first examples I saw on the internet of composting toilets came from India where a water-washing section was incorporated into the design to accommodate the cultural hygienic process of washing instead of toilet paper use, and to rinse the area where urine was deposited. I have been experimenting with this practice for a week in our dry toilet, using a small cup of water to rinse after peeing, and I find it takes not more time than toilet paper, is very refreshing, and eases my personal consciousness about over-using toilet paper. So I suppose I have now crossed slightly over the threshold of modern Western myth, my cardboard tube sentinels accumulating with less frequency as long as I am willing to challenge old habits and able to resist the near automatic reach  for the temptation of toilet paper.