Toilet Paper: A Moral Dilemma?

Up until a few years ago, I thought the biggest issue surrounding toilet paper was its orientation: OVER or UNDER the roll.  I prefer the end to come up OVER the roll, whereas some people, who are wrong, like it to come under.

But, then, I traveled south.

Around five years ago, I went to a small pueblo called El Potrero Chico, about an hour outside of Monterrey, Mexico, to meet up with Tree where he was rock climbing for the winter.  This was not my first time to Mexico, but in the past I had always gone to a coastal resort, never to a rural village in the Sierra Madres.

Anticipating my arrival, Tree rented us a small cabin in the campground.  It was rustic, with nothing more than a double bed and a basic bathroom, but that suited me just fine. We were young and in love, and only had aims for one distraction.

That being said, there was this one weird issue with the toilet paper: Tree explained to me that here in Mexico—the real Mexico—we couldn’t flush it down the toilet.  The plumbing just wasn’t built for it.

At first, I thought for sure that he was joking. He’s always playing on my gullibility, telling me tall tales, like the time on our first Grand Canyon trip when I was bummed because I forgot my star finder, and Tree said not to worry, that I should just go ask Corby to help me find them because “Corby went to astronomy school.”  So I did.  For three weeks I proceeded to follow Corby around every night, begging him to “Please, PLEASE Corby, stop being so modest and just tell me about the constellations! It’s okay. Tree told me everything. I think it’s really cool you went to star school.”

Not only did Corby NOT go to astronomy school, he couldn’t even find the Big Dipper.

Well, not this time buddy.  I was not going to be the crazy white girl burying her toilet paper out back, burning it in the bathroom sink, or stuffing it in my carryon to flush it back in the States. No Siree Senor Tree! You’re not fooling me again!

But, unfortunately, it turned out that this time he was telling the truth. Toilet paper really doesn’t go in the toilet.  In fact, to avoid this kind of confusion, toilet paper isn’t even called toilet paper in Latin America.

It is called ‘papel higienico,’ meaning ‘hygienic paper,’ and it goes in a little trashcan next to the toilet.

I never did master the basket method on that trip.  I only got as good as saying “Dammit!” every time I dropped my wad in the bowl.  After ten days of flogging myself for being a terrible bathroom goer, I went back to Los Angeles, relieved to put the tissue issue behind me.

That is, until October 11th, 2010, when we crossed into Baja California to start our Pan-American adventure, and I saw this:

Translation: Please don’t throw papers in the toilet. Due to the deficiency in the city’s pipes, it could obstruct them.

It took around a month, but I finally got used to using the bin.  In fact, I am so accustomed to it that when we went back to the States this past August, I kept saying “Dammit”  as I dropped my paper in the trash instead of the toilet. (Sorry Cheryll!)

But, really, getting used to putting my toilet paper in a different place is not that big of a deal.  What I think will be really challenging is getting used to not using toilet paper at all, especially for someone who goes through an entire roll a day and likes to make fluffy toilet paper patties and stack them up in a BIG pile ahead of time in “preparation” of his “business.” (Hint: I am married to this ‘someone’).

And, yet, using toilet paper is not the norm.

In fact, 70% of the world’s population—nearly four billion people—does not use toilet paper.

Even though the Chinese invented toilet paper in the late 14th Century to accommodate an emperor’s finicky bum, it wasn’t produced for public sale until 1857 in the USA, and didn’t become popular until the early 1900s. Before then, the most common solution was simply to grab what was at hand: coconuts, shells, snow, moss, hay, leaves, grass, corncobs, sheep’s wool, clay, stone, sponges and salt water—and, later, thanks to the printing press—newspapers, magazines, and pages of books.  In fact, people used to joke that the catalog for Sears and Roebucks was made for Rears and Sorebutts. (I guess we had to be there.)

Today, in most of Asia, people use squat toilets, which are much better positioned for expelling matter from the colon than the American throne style– but, still, toilet paper is not widely used.

In rural areas, people wipe with their left hand, (Note to Self: Avoid left hands in Asia) immediately washing it in a bucket afterwards. In less rural areas, there might be a spigot or an actual sink with running water, and in developed parts, it’s not uncommon for bathrooms to have a butt sprayer (a handheld bidet) to wash your nether parts.

I don’t think I’m ambidextrous enough to wipe with my left hand, so I’m going to have to skip that option, but the toilets I can’t wait to try are the Washlets in Japan. They have butt sprayers, air blowers, seat warmers, and odor filters– a real hygienic treat for the modern derriere!

Check out that control panel!

More importantly, the Washlet saves hundreds of thousands of trees from the ignominious fate of becoming butt tissue.

Currently, the United States spends more than $6 billion a year on toilet paper—more than any other nation in the world.  Americans, on average, use 57 squares a day, with one roll usually lasting five days. (Five days!! I find this stat very disturbing. How is it even possible? Are people not wiping until it comes back clean, or maybe Americans are just constipated? Too much meat and potatoes, not enough fiber?)

At the end of a lifetime, each person typically uses 384 trees worth of toilet paper.

But then there are people like Tree and me, who prefer a bigger ‘buffer zone’ than the average 7 or 8 squares per wipe.  In fact, we use 5 X the amount of the normal household per day, which means that we either need to 1) plant three thousand trees, or 2) install a Washlet in the Sprinter, because as it stands, between the two of us, we are responsible for the death of a small forest.

And I haven’t even begun to calculate the baby wipes…

…Or the time when Tree decided to TP the dog. 





  1. Anonymous says:

    OMG – hysterical! You’ve got balls, Stevie. There is seemingly no subject you won’t explore.
    And . . . thought provoking too.
    Question: How the hell can we slow down all the environmental destruction we are creating with our “Excessive Procreation,” “Institutionalized Greed”, and “Modern Inventions????
    Lets start right where we are . . . . Any ideas out there for saving forests through giving up toilet paper?

    one idea . . lets get out there and rake up those fall leaves to use all winter!
    (I’m not kidding. I’m sending this idea in to Steven Colbert).

  2. Mick Evans says:

    Oh great – and I just recommended your blog to an old friend like 15 mins ago (sorry Mary W.) *grins*
    When I lived in the UK in the 50’s/60’s toilet paper was really thin & shiny and was as effective as using wax paper !! Although, on the other hand, as a small lad, when I went to pee during a train ride I could watch the ground whizzing by below (clever use of the word “whizzing” right ?)
    You know, I think Amtrak still drops it’s toilet waste on the train tracks – kinda gross

    • Mick, are you embarrassed to know us? Common man, I never got embarrassed when you were trying to back up the trailer and it took you almost 20 minutes. TREE

  3. hilarious post!

  4. Anonymous says:

    tree how could you do that to your poor dog

  5. This post is amazing all the way to the adorable picture at the end. My favorite quote: “I prefer the end to come up OVER the roll, whereas some people, who are wrong, like it to come under.” Thank you for confirming that I am, in fact, RIGHT 🙂

    • Hey Saba. You are definitely right! There’s nothing more annoying than an upside down toilet paper roll. I feel compelled to ‘fix’ it, no matter if it’s at a friend’s house or a restaurant. In fact, I think it’s civically irresponsible to just walk away from a roll coming up under itself.

      • “Under” is the correct answer. When the toilet paper is “over”, you can accidentally pull more than you want (babies or pets at home can make a mess with an “over” orientation, too).

        With an “under” orientation, you have complete power over how much toilet paper you get without having to re-roll the roll.

        “Over” is good for passive people, who like being controlled by their own toilet paper.

        “Under” is good for those who like being in control.

        • Hmmmm…interesting. I’m going to try your ‘under’ method for one week to see if it in fact does minimize the streams of toilet paper being dragged across the house by a certain two year old who follows me around all day. I don’t see how the orientation of the toilet paper is going to thwart her, but we shall see if there’s any benefit to your wrong way.

  6. hahahahahahaha. Aaron gets mad at me for using so much toilet paper, too. Now I feel less alone in the world.

    • Hola Tatiana! It’s settled then. We need Washlets around the world. That’s the only way to break the TP habit. The left hand is definitely not going to work for me, and the spray down by itself would still require something to dry off with. Hence, the Washlet is perfect because it sprays AND blow dries the booty.

  7. In Argentina every place we’ve stayed, no matter how skanky, has a bidet in the toilet (and you do not put the toilet paper down the toilet here either). That is always a good option! Just make sure you are well positioned over the spray bit before turning it on (have had a few accidents that way!).

    • Ooooooh I can’t wait! Bidets seem so civilized. Now if only the Argentinian bathrooms had butt dryers too. I imagine that you still have to use toilet paper to dry off, right?

  8. Rob Wilson says:

    Just buy some carbon credits (lining Al Gore’s bank account even further) and you’ll be just fine…LOL.

    Great write-up, Stevie. Got more than a few laughs from it.

    • Thank you kindly Rob! And, don’t be surprised if we really do invest in a reforestation project to offset our toilet paper habits. We owe it to the children of tomorrow. They need toilet paper too 🙂

  9. Great piece! What about wiping strategy? Left hand, right hand, two fingers, swipe, pat, towards / away from the genitals, etc….??? Shoot us your first hand knowledge! Much love Stevie!!!

    • Hola Travis. Well, I actually did some research into this. Here’s what I found out: 44% of people wipe from front to back, and 60% look at the paper having just wiped, 42% fold, 33% crumple, 8% do both fold and crumple, 6% wrap it around their hands and at least 50% of people have at one time or another wiped with leaves, or something foreign to toilet paper (8% hands, 1% money).

      As for me, I’m really pushing for Washlets around the world. After finding out what kind of squeaky clean action they got going on in Japan, I feel dirty and barbaric with my TP and baby wipes. I want an upgrade.

  10. control yourselves over there

  11. hey guys, classic post. It was great meeting you. Hope our paths cross again soon.

  12. What else can be said, Stevie?
    Great article – amusing, chick full of information(some of which I really did not need to know) and well written.
    Great read!
    John D. Wilson

  13. Timothy Iller says:

    That´s India. Once you´re converted to the lefthand method, you never go back. Something nice and clean about it. And great for emergencies, like when you are desperately running to make a generous ¨donation¨ at any of the local stores here in Guatemala and they have no TP.

  14. Auntie Coco says:

    I am a lefty…….I broke my right hand once, and that was when I found out that I normally wipe right handed…so Im thinkin’, maybe we wipe with the opposite hand that we eat with?

  15. Oh boy can we relate to this subject! On our trip to Vietnam we noticed there was no TP in any of the public bathrooms, although we were always grateful to see a sit down toilet as opposed to a squatter, but carrying our own toilet paper was a must. Then when I was hit with the “Vietnam Vengeance” I resorted to thievery, stealing rolls of paper from our hotels so I would be “equipped” for travel to our next destination. Along the way one of our talks in Yoga class was the meaning of the Yoga Sutra, “Asteya”, Which means non-stealing. I found myself pondering the question, Is it really stealing if you paid for the hotel room or did I just feel that I am entitled to the toilet paper as my “God Given American Right To Wipe”. I guess I better plant a tree in Vietnam to repay my debt.

    • Be careful Aunty Debby. This is how the life of crime always starts. First it’s stealing toilet paper, then the next thing you know, it’s a multibillion dollar ponzi scheme. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. Invest now in my magic toilet where I flush your money away! Oh, I kid. I think that the toilet paper was included in your room rate, along with everything else they don’t nail down, right? Heeehee.

      As for planting trees, you can join Tree and I. We’ve got a whole forest of Charmin to plant sometime in our lifetime 🙂 xoxo.

  16. mamatuyas says:

    Having returned to Seattle after two months in Peru, I’m having trouble remembering to put the paper in the toilet too. It just feels . . . WRONG. (But I LOVE having a seat on the toilet.)
    BTW, Kiki is WAY too tolerant of your antics, Tree. Poor baby. I hope you gave her a BIG lump of ground beef (with NO BEETS in it !) as a reward for letting you TP her.

    • We miss you!!!!! And, yes, Kiki got a big beef lump for her participation in this last blog post. Poor thing was shaking when the photo was taken. She thought she must have done something really really wrong for us to cover her in toilet paper.

  17. Stevie, I had to show my husband your diagrams of the rectum – that is priceless. Jokes aside you make a great point about the wastage (no pun intended) that goes into our sewer systems. When traveling in Asia, many places do not have toilet paper so I tend to carry around a small pack of tissues everywhere. And when you do that, you tend to use less since you don’t want to run out.

    When I was in Japan, I definitely got a surprise when I used the facilities for the first time. I think I squealed.

    • Oh I’m so jealous! I can’t wait to try a Washlet! Every one has said that their first time with a butt sprayer is a little shocking though. Squeals seems to be the normal response. And the design is so sleek, clean, and inviting.

  18. Loved this post. Ended up reading it to my mother on the phone. It is amazing how much thought is put into things that most take for granted. The beauty of the creative mind.

  19. Jeremy Jones says:

    great one, stevie…. in the office (there’s four of us) hannah (the only girl) suggested we invest in hand sanitizer since it’s “flu season”. my cousin replies “I hate that gunk. What we should do it get butt wipes. toilet paper is gross.”
    i found this comment so intriguing. and apparently 70% of the world wouldn’t. huh!

  20. Tanya Diaz says:

    you crack me up…this is way too close to home, keep forgetting where Ii am and where to put the paper.

  21. Cheryll Anglin says:

    You are hysterical! Yes, here is another chapter in your book. On the road bathroom business. I have to admit, I am with you as for positioning of the paper and I’ve been known to switch rolls around if they are in the “wrong” position, no matter where I might be. AND I was not offended by your tossing the tissue into the waste basket at my house. As a former part-time sprinter traveller, we used to do that, too, to keep the pipes clean and clear in our little bathroom. I can’t wait to see what issue you tackle next!

  22. Heather Dougherty-Acevedo says:

    Hey Stevie,
    My brother has this EXACT same washlet (didn’t know it was called that) in his bathroom at home. It’s AMAZING!!!

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