Toilet paper is a very recent invention, in terms of human history. Toilet paper in the modern sense has only been around since 1857, when New Yorker Joseph Gayetty sold “medicated paper” for use in the water closet. Before that, options for keeping clean included sponges attached to sticks, moss, animal fur and leaves. For more, um, scrubbing power, there were bits of seashell, pieces of ceramic, rocks and bamboo segments carved into a sort of spatula. In ancient times, wiping with handmade, expensive cloth would have been considered a luxury.
If the growing ranks of reusable cloth toilet paper users are any indication, it might eventually become normal.
Etsy.com, a popular source for handmade goods, is fairly bursting with cloth toilet paper alternatives. Kindred Homestead Supply in downtown Vancouver now stocks rolls of cotton cloth for toileting needs, as well as toilet paper made from organic bamboo. Emily Shirron, Kindred’s community outreach coordinator, said they hadn’t sold any cloth toilet paper yet, but people sure are curious. She said they’ll open the rolls to get an idea of the feel and size of each square (about three regular toilet paper squares, if you’re wondering). Shirron noted that customers have been relatively enthusiastic about cloth menstrual pads but seem to balk at the idea of using cloth to absorb other fluids.
Though Therese Livella, owner of Harvest of Peace Microgreens in La Center, had been using other cloth products for years, she said she had a similar block when it came to reusable toilet paper. However, a few months into the pandemic as toilet paper became a scarce commodity, she made her own flannel squares from fabric scraps.
“I was watching how much toilet paper I was using. I thought ‘This is really gross, how many trees I’m using up,’ ” Livella said. “I decided to use them only for urine and save toilet paper for the messy stuff. I’ve cut my use by 90 percent just by that one change.”
Livella dubbed them Fuzzy Wizettes and began making them in bulk, displaying them next to her microgreens at local farmers markets. She sells the 4-by-5-inch double-ply cotton flannel cloths in bundles of 30 with a handy galvanized tin container labeled with the slogan, “Take a wiz, save a tree.” The entire set is $35 or $44 for organic cotton. Refill packs of 10 are available for $12 or $15 for organic cotton.
This alternative to toilet paper isn’t appealing to everyone, but the colorful cloth squares draw plenty of passersby, mostly women.
“I was attracted to the fabric,” said Hazel Dell resident Jorjan Plimmer, 66, who first saw Fuzzy Wizettes at the Salmon Creek Farmers’ Market. “I was like, ‘What are these?’ ”
She eventually purchased two sets, as well as Fuzzy Wizette bundles as gifts for friends. The sets come with a washable bag, which Plimmer hangs in the bathroom to hold soiled cloths. When it’s full, she throws the whole bag in the washing machine with the rest of her clothes.
“I’m a registered nurse and I can tell you that urine is actually pretty clean. It only smells when it’s highly concentrated, so if you’re hydrated, it doesn’t stink,” Plimmer said.
She sometimes drops a little essential oil into the bag for extra smell-masking power. She estimates that she’s cut her toilet-paper use by about 75 percent.
Environmental concerns aren’t the only reason people make the switch. The feel is part of the appeal, to so speak.
“I don’t like toilet paper now. It’s scratchy,” said Plimmer.
“I find them so much softer and cleaner to use,” said Amy Christenson, 51, owner of Amy’s All Natural Soaps, who uses Fuzzy Wizettes at home and carries them in her purse so she doesn’t have to use toilet paper in public restrooms. “They don’t leave anything behind, like toilet paper. You do feel very pampered using them.”
Livella and Plimmer both noted that traditional toilet paper is processed with harsh additives that can leach into water and soil after toilet paper is discarded.
“Toilet paper has really awful chemicals and you’re putting that in really sensitive areas of your body,” Livella said. “Not that fabrics don’t also have chemicals, but they’re manufactured one time and they’re done.”
Livella acknowledges that using cloth instead of toilet paper isn’t a perfect solution. A cursory internet search brings up dozens of articles about how valuable natural resources are also squandered to make cloth, not to mention the extra energy, water and soap used to repeatedly launder it. The fiber used in some cloth wipes may be unsustainably harvested or it can contain environmentally unfriendly dyes. Like anything else, cloth will wear out and have to be replaced. However, Livella said, it’s still far better than destroying the old growth forests that are the lungs of our planet.
“I found a statistic that said the average adult will use 384 trees in their lifetime for disposable paper products and I thought, ‘That’s just insane.’ It’s one thing to build a house with some trees. It’s another to wipe your bum and flush it down the toilet when we have other options,” she said.
Livella also sells other reusable items, such as polka-dotted flannel pantyliners and 10-by-5-inch cloth hankies that can also be used to replace paper towels, packaged in a jar so they pop up like tissues.
It’s not a big money-maker, Livella said, but she plans to build Fuzzy Wizettes into its own business, separate from Harvest of Peace Microgreens. Until then, folks can buy them on Tuesdays at the Salmon Creek Farmers’ Market, Wednesdays at the Camas Farmer’s Market, at the Sept. 17 Night Market Vancouver, at Kindred Homestead Supply’s next Downtown Alley Flea Market and online at tamingwindigo.com.