The Complete Guide to Reusable Toilet Paper (also known as Family Cloth)
I knew I’d found my tribe when I brought up this crazy new idea of resuable toilet paper with two friends and they started talking with each other about how awesome it was and how they’d both been using it for years. Apparently I missed that memo. But when I brought it up with others, they looked at me like I’d just suggested eating live worms. Welcome to the life of a semi crunchy person. You think you’ve discovered something, only to learn that some of your friends are much crunchier than you and the rest think you’re crazy.
But since I’m only semi-crunchy, when I first read about the concept I also thought it was disgusting. Then I realized that I wash and re-wear my underwear and that we cloth diaper, and this isn’t much different. And who told me I needed toilet paper anyway? Oh right, capitalism and planned obsolescence taught me that.
A talk by Bea Johnson led me to reconsider my idea of convenience. We’ve been marketed to from birth to believe that buying things and throwing them out is convenient. But is it really? Why is shopping, loading, unloading and restocking less work in our minds than part of a load of laundry? Personally, laundry is way easier for me than a shopping trip, and things like toilet paper take up quite a lot of space in the cart.
Not only that, but it turns out that toilet paper is a particularly recent invention. It wasn’t commercially available until the mid 1850s but marketing efforts didn’t take off until the 1900s because of embarrassment around bodily functions and the rise of indoor plumbing. It became necessary to use a product that wouldn’t negatively affect pipes, as opposed to the Sears Roebuck catalog that just got thrown in the outhouse. Marketing efforts were so successful that toilet paper even survived the Great Depression and now, toilet paper is a 6 billion dollar industry in the US (citation).
Learning this made me realize how influenced I’ve been by the culture and marketing around me. It was jarring actually.
Toilet paper is relatively inexpensive, but it’s interesting that in a world where we complain about the cost of organic produce, many of us are still using toilet paper. I estimate that our family spends around $100 a year on it, maybe more. We are quite literally throwing away money that we could be using on pretty much anything else.
So what would I use instead of toilet paper?
There are a few different approaches to non-TP bathroom hygiene:
1. A bidet. There are a number of bidet attachments on the market (such as Tushy or the Brondell portable bidet) but this takes some getting used to. If you don’t have a warm water hookup, the spray is surprising and if you live in a cool climate, you’ll still need a towel to dry off.
2. Reusable toilet paper, or family cloth. I go into more detail below, but basically we cut up old t-shirts and wash them with commercial detergent along with our other clothing. We use Tide and Oxyclean because they work 100% of the time and I don’t worry about them not cleaning our diapers, family cloth, or anything else.
3. TP/Family cloth combo. If the idea of washing poo totally grosses you out, then you could go the #1 family cloth option and only use TP for poo, or you can do the heavy lifting with TP with your first wipe, and use family cloth for the rest. This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation.
Our family cloth setup
We regularly wear out clothing between the nine of us and in the past I’ve been quick to donate unwearable clothing. As I’ve learned more about the clothing waste stream, it seems that many of those clothing items may not ever actually be recycled but rather shipped to the third world. This isn’t necessarily a problem if it’s wearable, but it made me question whether that’s the very best option for clothing with holes.
My views have shifted now to having my own waste stream for jersey knit clothing that goes something like this:
1. Buy only used clothing, aiming for 100% cotton.
2. Wear clothes until they’re no longer wearable.
3. Cut shirts and cotton pants up into reusable toilet paper or kitchen rags.
4. Compost 100% cotton rags when they’re no longer usable.
So our family cloth is 100% unwearable clothing that we’ve re-purposed.
When I cut up my first batch, my thought was to make toilet paper squares. It turns out that’s a bad plan. They’re annoying to separate from the laundry that way and then you have to grab a ton of them to make a toilet paper wad. Instead, large pieces of fabric work much better.
They’re easier to move from the washer to the dryer and easier to sort.
My husband was super resistant to the idea until we ran out of TP because I was no longer using it and now he’s a believer. It’s softer and similar to use – the only difference is where you put it when you’re done.
Every bathroom will be different, but our setup is to have a basket of family cloth in the cabinet, and we keep the used cloth in the basket on top (because we have a toddler). We don’t notice any smells and when I’m running a load of laundry I just throw these in with it. They take up almost no space in the laundry and have always come out clean.
My husband uses it without complaint (he may even prefer it) and we’ll be switching over every bathroom to family cloth with a roll of TP available for guests. I’m a little nervous about the kids accidentally throwing it in the toilet, but I’m also kind of excited about the idea of not spending money on something I flush away.