Toilet paper is a giant waste of resources

Americans consume the most toilet paper in the world but it's a very wasteful product to manufacture, according to the numbers.

Customers stock up on toilet paper at a Target store in Orlando, Florida in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. March 19, 2020.

Credit: Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images.
  • Toilet paper consumption is unsustainable and requires a tremendous amount of resources to produce.
  • Americans use the most toilet paper in the world and have been hoarding it due to coronavirus.
  • Alternatives to toilet paper are gaining more popularity with the public.

A surprising byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic has been its effect on the availability of toilet paper. Americans and shoppers across the globe have vacuumed supermarket shelves, stockpiling toilet paper and other paper products with pre-apocalyptic urgency. The resulting shortage places focus on toilet paper and the wastefulness involved in its production and disposal.

The numbers about toilet paper consumption are staggering. Around the world, the equivalent of 270,000 trees are flushed down the toilet or find their way into landfills every day. About 10% of that — the equivalent of 27,000 trees would be from toilet paper. That's about 15 million per year. Per person, this adds up to about 384 trees over a lifetime.

Americans consume the most toilet paper in the world, using up about 34 million rolls per day. Annually, this amounts to about 36.5 billion rolls. Impressive numbers to say the least. Another important fact to consider is that as much as 70% of the world does not use toilet paper, so obviously there are other solutions.

The Scientific American reported it takes about 473,587,500,000 gallons of water to produce all that toilet for Americans and 253,000 tons of chlorine to bleach it. In terms of electricity, the manufacturing requires about 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually.

To break this down further, it takes up to 37 gallons of water to make a single roll of toilet paper. That same single roll of TP also requires 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and 1.5 pounds of wood to make.

This chart from Statista highlights 2018 data on toilet consumption around the world, with North America coming in decidedly ahead of other parts of the world.

In terms of per-country consumption, Germany, UK and Japan also use up a lot of toilet paper every year as this chart shows --

While Americans clearly love toilet paper, there's no big danger of it truly running out any time soon, say the experts. The shortages we've all experienced are related to a spike in demand, but the overall pipeline is not affected and will continue to churn out the precious product.

What to do instead of toilet paper?

Install a bidet. You knew this option was coming. In light of the toilet paper shortages, Americans are actually showing more interest in adopting them, with bidet sales growing eight times. There are a number of great sustainable bidet companies like Tushy you can turn to. They also grow their toilet paper from bamboo and utilize no plastic wrapping. Bamboo is rapidly renewable and compared to regular trees, absorbs about 30% less carbon dioxide.

While bidets also incur some environmental costs from the use of water, on the whole they are significantly less resource-hungry and waste-producing than the process of making toilet paper. A bidet uses up about one eighth of a gallon of water to clean and flush.

Here are some more bidets ideas.

A few snapshots of the toilet paper crunch around the world:

A senior citizen gets the last pack of toilet rolls at Sainsbury's Supermarket on March 19, 2020 in Northwich, United Kingdom.

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Women buy toilet paper from tradesman in street market by the City Wall, Xian, China. March 14, 2020.

Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images

Customers purchase toilet paper at a Target store in Orlando, FL during the panic shopping. March, 2020.

Credit: Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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