You guys, I just can’t use a pee rag.

Yes, I love the trees. No, I don’t want to waste paper. Yes, I want to green up my life, bathroom habits included. But the conventional go-wipe-flush routine has served me well since toilet training, and I’ve gotta say, switching to an old strip of cloth in lieu of toilet paper isn’t an easy transition. Today’s hardcore greenies have dreamed up plenty of other TP alternatives, but you know, none of those look so great, either.

I know I’ve pledged to try out green lifestyle practices, but when an editor suggested the ol’ pee rag, I hit a serious brick wall. Still, while researching the many other low-waste bathroom habits I could be adopting instead, it struck me that perhaps these TP tricks fall into a natural progression. One can’t be expected to go from 0 to 60 immediately. Better to identify your comfortable cruising speed first, then gradually amp it up, step by step.

Two environmental offenses accompany the call of nature, of course: wasting paper (all that wiping) and water (all that flushing). The methods below, arranged from least to most radical, aim to reduce waste on one or both fronts.

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The easy stuff

Buy recycled toilet paper. (A whopping 98 percent of the pulp used to make the stuff comes from virgin trees!) Put a milk jug full of pebbles in the toilet tank to reduce flush volume. Instate a flush-saving “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” household policy. Basic, simple, hard to fault.

TP rationing

Hey America! You use too much toilet paper. The snowball-sized gob you think you need to insulate your hand from the nether regions is overkill. I’m on board with this one: Limit yourself to three or four squares per session. Foldsies are fair game. You can always add another square or two for unfortunate circumstances.

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Pee in the shower

This one’s a twofer: No flush, no paper use. Yeah, you’ll get the stinkeye if you attempt this at the gym, but what’s a little extra splash in the privacy of your own shower? I haven’t done this since my mom caught me midstream circa age 7, but what the hell—I’ll try it.

I asked my boyfriend, Ted, to join me in my quest and start peeing in the shower. “Yes. Start,” he said, not meeting my gaze.

DIY toilet paper

There are those among us who find clever reuses for paper they happen to have lying around the house. Old phone books, gift-wrap tissue paper, junk mail, love poetry from your high school boyfriend — they’re all on the table, and then in the toilet. Hint: Crumple anything enough times and it’ll soften right up.

Eat more fiber

Because it, uh, firms things up, thereby reducing the need to wipe … You know what? Nevermind.

Bidets and wannabe bidets

Ah, the French. So classy. Instead of a plebian toilet alone, follow their lead and install a bidet to squirt a jet of pure, cleansing water where TP alone once ventured. Fans swear it’s so much more pleasant and hygienic than toilet paper, you’ll never go back. Fair enough, but that will have to wait until I own my own bathroom.

There are other ways to get that bidet-fresh feeling. Some greenies keep a squirt bottle by the toilet for just such a purpose. When you’re done, just dab with a towel (or that pee rag) and go. Viola. Of course, this is no rookie move. When I mentioned the possibility to my dad, he replied, “Why don’t you just shake up a Coke can and spray?”*

Pee rag

In theory, the pee rag is a fine way to reduce paper use. Collect thin strips of cloth from old T-shirts, wipe away, toss into a lidded container, and wash the lot when you’re done. Yeah, you’re using water to do this, but Grist’s beloved Umbra has calculated that it’s a lot less than the water required to manufacture TP.

Here’s the thing, though: Do pee rags stink up the bathroom? No, really, are you sure? Could it be, for argument’s sake, that you’re just so used to the lingering odor that your nose can’t register it anymore?

And another thing: What about guests? Do you spot them a courtesy roll, or do you hold to a “When in Rome” philosophy? Will this lead to a reduction in visits from family and friends, and is this a good or bad development? Discuss.

Peeing in a bucket

Yes, people really do this in the name of a low-flush life. Get yourself an untippable container, whizz away, and dump the contents on the grass at day’s end. I imagine one of my neighbors stepping out of our building for a smoke and finding me surreptitiously pouring a stream of urine under the bushes, then being called to testify in my own defense at the next HOA meeting. I decide I have a long way to go before reaching this step.

Hand and water

Near the very top of the ladder we find a way to rid ourselves of the tyranny of toilet paper altogether. Nope, not even for No. 2. One hand squirts with a spray bottle, the other hand stands in for TP, and you never have to buy another roll. (However, I imagine the sharp increase in your soap purchases would somewhat offset the savings.)

Here’s what I have to say to this one: No.


As I’ve been learning about the many ingenious methods for sustainable bathrooming, it occurred to me that we’re overlooking an even better practice. Pee rags, DIY bidets, and even the hand-and-water routine still require water. But what if there were a readily available, totally free, all-organic, no-water option out there?

That’s right, I mean leaves. And bark. And pine cones. Gather a whole bushelful every week or so and arrange them artfully in a basket on top of the toilet. When you’ve gotta go, choose the proper material for the job and toss it in a separate container. Bury it, compost it, or better yet, mulch it up and spread it over your garden like a latter-day Janie Manureseed.

How does this one work out in practice? I’d love to see, but I’m still working on peeing in the shower.

Where are you on the great ladder of toilet habits? Do you have a limit to how far you’ll climb?

*This is not recommended. Club soda would obviously be a much better option.