Wastewater treatment officials across the county have beseeched residents not to flush wipes down the toilet using the hashtag #WipesClogPipes.Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Many Americans seem to be following the recommendations of public health officials to clean and sterilize countertops, doorknobs, faucets and other frequently touched surfaces in their homes.
The problem? Many are then tossing the disinfectant wipes, paper towels and other paper products they used into the toilet.
The result has been a coast-to-coast surge in backed-up sewer lines and overflowing toilets, according to plumbers and public officials, who have pleaded with Americans to spare the nation’s pipes from further strain.
“Flushable wipes are not truly flushable,” said Jim Bunsey, chief operating officer of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. “They might go down the drain, but they do not break up like regular toilet paper.”
The plumbing repair company Roto-Rooter issued a similar plea to its customers, and said that substituting facial tissue for toilet paper was “another bad idea,” unless it’s used in small amounts and flushed frequently.
The California State Water Resources Control Board warned this week that “even wipes labeled ‘flushable’ will clog pipes and interfere with sewage collection and treatment throughout the state.”
“Flushing wipes, paper towels and similar products down toilets will clog sewers and cause backups and overflows at wastewater treatment facilities, creating an additional public health risk in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” it said.
If you were walking barefoot in a park or yard and stepped in dog poop, would you only use a couple of napkins to wipe it off? No. You'd probably wash it off with water. And it's for similar reasons that people worldwide use bidets to clean themselves after using the bathroom. In western Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Asia. They're cleaner and more environmentally friendly than just plain old toilet paper. But there's one place where bidets are not so welcome, which made us wonder: Why haven't they caught on in the US?
The word bidet actually means "pony" or "small horse" in French, since using a bidet is similar to straddling a pony. And it's in France that the first known bidet appeared, in the 1700s. But using water for cleansing had been around long before that. The Middle East, South Asia, and other regions had been using small vessels of water — called lotas or tabo — for cleansing for centuries before bidets appeared.
People would scoop the water with their hands to wash themselves off. At first, it was mostly for the upper class, but by the 19th century, indoor plumbing led to the bidets we have today. You might describe it as a really low sink next to the toilet. Its popularity spread from France to all across Europe and other parts of the world, except for America.
Part of the reason is that bidets got a bad reputation. Americans first saw them in World War II in European brothels, so, many associated them with sex work. By the time Arnold Cohen tried to introduce them to America in the 1960s, it was too late. He couldn't seem to defeat the stigma, and he quickly discovered that no one really wanted "to hear about Tushy Washing 101."
In the meantime, Japan was taking bidets to the next level. Toto, a Japanese company, made some of its bidets electric. So, why hasn't America embraced the bidet? Well, bathrooms in the US aren't really built for bidets. There's no space or additional plumbing setup for bidet fixtures. But the biggest reason it hasn't caught on comes down to habit. Most Americans grew up using toilet paper. And many might not even know there's an alternative way to stay clean.
But using a bidet actually makes a huge difference. For one, it's more environmentally friendly. The bidet uses only one-eighth of a gallon of water, while it takes about 37 gallons of water to make a single roll of toilet paper. Americans spend $40 to $70 a year on average for toilet paper and use approximately 34 million rolls of toilet paper a day. Investing in a bidet seat or bidet attachment can lower your spending on toilet paper by 75% or more. You'll also be saving some of the 384 trees that are cut down to make a single person's lifetime toilet-paper supply.
By now, you might be wondering about wet wipes. Don't they do pretty much the same thing? Well, no. Constantly wiping can irritate the skin and give you rashes. And it can still leave residue, because you're really just smearing with paper. Not only that, but wet wipes are actually harmful to the ocean and can cause sewer damage.
But washing yourself with a bidet can help with cleanliness, which may lead to fewer instances of rashes, hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, and other medical issues. And if you're worried about using toilet water to clean your back end, you shouldn't be. It's tap water. Just like the water from your sink.
So give the bidet a try. Maybe start off with a toilet-seat attachment. Because, in the end, it's just washing yourself without hopping into the shower!
Customers grabbing their toilet paper supply at a supermarket in Hong Kong, on Friday, February 14, 2020. Photo: AP
Johann Christoph Michalski, the chief executive of Vinda International Holdings, was incredulous when word started spreading on social media in early February that toilet paper was about to run out in Hong Kong.
Within days, supermarket shelves across the city would stand empty as long queues of shoppers made
in the misguided belief that a coronavirus outbreak in mainland China would disrupt supplies. The self-fulfilling prophecy soon found its way around the world, with similar reports of panic shopping for toilet rolls, tissue paper
“There are no supply shortages in Hong Kong or in China,” Michalski said in an interview with South China Morning Post, adding that people should not believe everything they read on social media.
Whatever shortage reported at the shops were “actually created by panic buying, rather than the ability of the industry to provide products,” he said. “Panic buying is very disruptive to our logistics, customers and manufacturing.”
The panic hoarding of toilet paper added to the rush for surgical masks, rubber gloves, disinfectants, and other daily necessities, going some ways to explain why Vinda’s shares soared 48 per cent this year on the Hong Kong stock exchange, outperforming the 7.2 per cent decline on the benchmark Hang Seng Index. Vinda’s shares closed Friday at HK$21, for a weekly gain of 4.7 per cent.
As Vinda resumes output next week in Hubei on the last of its 12 production queues in mainland China, the company is back on track to churn out 1.3 million tonnes of paper this year, Michalski said.
China is the world’s largest exporter of toilet paper. The country ships US$2.8 billion worth of rolls each year, making up 12 per cent of the global toilet paper export market, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, a US-based trade monitor.
China’s logistics network is gradually getting back on track, and the company has also stockpiled wood pulp for three to four months’ use ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which has shielded it from any shortage of key raw material.
“We still expect our profitability to increase for 2020 compared to 2019, and expect to grow in a significant way,” Michalski said.
Ironically, shipment to Hong Kong may slow in the coming months, because households are probably overstocked with toilet paper, he said, adding that Vinda spent a week transferring products from the neighbouring Guangdong province to the city.
“Our supply chain is made for regular replenishment and we can cope quite easily with surges like 10 per cent or 15 per cent … but when you have surges like in Hong Kong across the board and across [product types], it’s very difficult for our supply chain to follow.”
I just got back from my first trip to Japan, and I'm now in love with the country. The ramen, yakitori and sushi. The gorgeous volcanoes. The fascinating people and culture. But of all the things I fell in love with, there's one that I can't stop thinking about: the toilets.
Japanese toilets are marvels of technological innovation. They have integrated bidets, which squirt water to clean your private parts. They have dryers and heated seats. They use water efficiently, clean themselves and deodorize the air, so bathrooms actually smell good. They have white noise machines, so you can fill your stall with the sound of rain for relaxation and privacy. Some even have built-in night lights and music players. It's all customizable and controlled by electronic buttons on a panel next to your seat.
In Japan, these high-tech toilets are everywhere: hotels, restaurants, bus stations, rest stops and around 80% of homes. It's glorious. Then, I come back to the United States, and our toilets are stuck in the age of dirty coal mines and the horse and buggy. They basically have one feature: flush. No heated seats. No nice smells and sounds. No sanitizing blasts of liquid. It's like cleaning your dishes without water. It's gross. And it got me thinking: Why can't we have high-tech toilets too?
Most of the toilets in Japan are made by a company called Toto, which started the high-tech toilet revolution in 1980 when it unveiled the Washlet, a first-of-its-kind electric toilet seat with an integrated bidet. Toto has been innovating on the design ever since. So I reached out to the company. It put me in touch with Bill Strang, the president of corporate strategy and e-commerce at Toto USA.
The original Washlet
"U.S. toilets are effectively bedpans with a drain," says Strang. Strang is originally from the Midwest, and he joined Toto 17 years ago. That's when he had his first experience with the Washlet bidet, and it was much like mine. It began with "apprehension, a little bit of angst," he says. But then he pushed the spray button and had a joyous sensation. The bathroom would never be the same.
The Washlet has been for sale in the U.S. since 1990, but it never took off. While Toto has found success with its traditional porcelain products (and manufactures them in the U.S. and Mexico), the Washlet remains a novelty, found mostly at some high-end hotels, showrooms and Japanese restaurants.
Economists spend a lot of time analyzing how and why technology spreads from one place to another. They call it "technology diffusion." One study looked at the spread of 20 technologies across 161 countries over the last 140 years, and it found evidence that geographic distance significantly slows the spread of new gadgets. It fits with the pattern we see with high-tech toilets. Strang says that after Japan, high-tech toilets have mostly spread to nations along the Pacific Rim.
But the speed of technology dispersion has sped up significantly in the modern era. Another study found that the spread of technologies developed after 1925 has been three times faster than the spread of those developed before 1925. That makes sense, with modern transportation and communication and all. But it has been many decades since the dawn of the new toilet era in Japan, and we are still mostly sitting on old-fashioned porcelain here. "Sometimes a technology never diffuses in a given country, even if it is superior to existing technologies," says Dartmouth College economist Diego Comin, who co-authored the study.
In the end, the biggest barrier to the toilet revolution is probably not distance but cultural mores. The Japanese, Strang says, highly prize bathing, hygiene and cleanliness. When I was in Tokyo and Sapporo, it was common to see Japanese people wearing masks to prevent the spread of germs. When you go out to dinner there, you're often given a hot, moist towel or wet wipe so your hands are clean before you eat. The streets and subways are spotless, and hand-sanitizing dispensers are everywhere. It felt much different from back home.
For the last five years, Strang says, Toto has been featuring its technological innovations at the Consumer Electronics Show, and they've made a splash. The company showcased products such as its glistening Neorest NX2 dual flush toilet. It's got the standard bidet, a dryer and a heated seat with temperature control. But it also has a "tornado flush system," a "bacteria-neutralizing ultraviolet light," a "titanium dioxide-fired toilet bowl," a remote control, a toilet seat that automatically opens and closes and an air deodorizer. It costs $17,300. Other Toto toilets and seats cost much less, but the lofty price of Japanese-style toilets are another reason that they might not be catching on.
Comin says he has considered buying a Japanese-style toilet, but, he adds, "they are so darn expensive." He believes getting Americans to embrace them would require "significant investments to educate the public about the new product, marketing (for example, a commercial with George Clooney using a Japanese toilet) and bringing down the price by mass producing."
But Strang remains optimistic about the future of toilets in America. "There hasn't been a demand for this type of product in the United States," Strang says. "But there wasn't a demand for Steve Jobs to make a product called the iPhone."