I was at my friend's apartment the other day and was kind of shocked when I went to use her bathroom. No toilet paper, just a stack of multicolored cloths in a basket that I'm guessing I was supposed to use to wipe myself. (I decided to hold it until I got back to my place.) I'm so grossed out. Are people really doing this? Isn't it unsanitary? I was too embarrassed to ask her...
Yes, people are doing this, though at present the practice of employing reusable cloths in lieu of toilet paper -- euphemistically referred to as family wipes or family cloth -- seems relegated to what marketing gurus would call the "dark green" consumer. (Though there's another color I can think of that might be more appropriate in this case.)
I do find it somewhat ironic that new parents using cloth diapers for their baby are usually met with praise: Oh, wow -- you guys must be really dedicated to the environment. But transfer the concept of reusable bathroom products to adults, and the response is one of universal horror: You're going to do what? With what? Even the crunchiest of my granola friends couldn't stifle a grimace when I asked them if they would consider swapping out disposable toilet paper for the washable kind. I guess the difference is that with cloth diapers, squeamish folks can always employ a diaper service; with family wipes, you're the one doing the washing.
Which brings me to your next question: Is the whole process of collecting and washing these wipes unsanitary? Not if you employ the method used by most family wipe families, which is to use the cloths for urinating only. (This still helps cut down on paper waste, since the majority of bathroom visits are of the first priority.) Since normal urine is sterile, there's little chance of encountering nasty bugs like E. coli later in the laundry room. But using family wipes for ahem, your more serious matters can also be perfectly hygienic, provided you separate them from your other laundry (your kitchen towels, for instance) before washing them in hot water and drying them in the dryer. If your kids are still in diapers of the cloth variety, all the better -- you can save water by washing the wipes and the diapers together.
So is it really worth the effort, from an environmental standpoint? If you're contemplating making the switch from the three-ply, quilted, extra-soft fluffy stuff to tree-free TP, then the benefits are clear: At present, more than 98 percent of the toilet paper sold in the United States is made from virgin wood (note: that statistic will improve soon, thanks to last year's Kimberly-Clark/Greenpeace agreement), which is destroying our forests and contributing to climate change, since forests are the most effective tool we have for sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And while some may argue that washing cloth toilet wipes wastes water, it's nothing compared with the pulp and paper business, which is one of the world's largest industrial consumers of fresh water.
But can't you eliminate a lot of that waste and pollution by switching to 100 percent recycled toilet paper? Yeah, you can, which is the solution I'll be sticking with as long as I live in a one-bathroom apartment (no surprises for guests here!) with a community washer/dryer. It's not a perfect solution, of course; recycled toilet paper still takes energy and resources to produce, not to mention the fuel cost to transport it from factory to store. But perhaps the more compelling case to be made for tossing the TP is an economic one: The average family of four is just flushing away cash, to the tune of $140 a year. A pack of a dozen family wipes from Wallypop will set you back about $11; you can also make your own for free out of old clothing.
If you do decide to take the plunge, mind your Eco Etiquette: Don't try to green toilet train guests (i.e., put regular -- or at least recycled -- toilet paper in the guest bathroom); keep your own toilet area neatly organized by designating a basket for clean cloths and a pail with a lid for dirty ones; and retire especially worn wipes to the compost pile, not the trash can (after washing them, of course). Bottoms up!