Social distancing has led to some intimate sharing in my neighborhood, starting with a plaintive email asking if anyone knew where you could find some toilet paper. Here’s the response that got the ball rolling:

All over the US we are dealing with a TP shortage and grocery stores seem to be having a hard time sourcing them and keeping them in stock. If you are completely out, I’m willing to spare a roll or two. However, if you’re just low (and this goes for everyone) please consider doing the following to help ration your current stock of TP:

1. Ladies, since we consume the most toilet paper and the toilet paper shortage is upon us, do your family a favor and just shake it off. Save the TP for number two. We have dealt with this scenario before. We’re at a public restroom doing our business, then realize they are completely out of TP. In a pinch, we just sit there a little longer and do a little shake. Think of all the TP you’ll save your family for the more important number two.

2. You can make your own reusable TP, tissues, wipes and un-paper towels. (If reusable TP seems gross to you, consider just using it for number 1) If you’re not a fabric hoarder and crafts person, this may seem a little daunting. For reusable TP, ideally you would use flannel fabric (most comfortable on your bum) but you can also use T-shirts or other knit fabric. A lot of bed sheets are made of flannel. Cut your fabric into squares.(I cut mine the size of a tissue.) If you have a sewing machine, great! Make a zigzag stitch around the edge of the square to reduce fraying. If you don’t have a sewing machine, it’s okay. Some fabrics just might fray a little when you wash it. If sharing even well-washed cloth grosses you out, give everyone in your family a different fabric pattern. (Go online to get more advice for “family cloth” or “toilet paper alternatives.”)

DO NOT FLUSH down the toilet!!!! Have a trash can or basket where you keep the used ones. Ideally you would have a wet bag, but not necessary considering our limited resources at the moment. Wash the TP every 2-3 days. If you’re willing to use it for number two, know that the fabric should be rinsed off before you wash it, otherwise poop will get stuck in your washing machine. Do not use fabric softener for your TP, it will reduce the absorbency. Wash with hot water.

3. If you can’t figure out a way to do any of the above, then Mother Nature is calling you. Try to find some leaves in your yard and pray that the shelves in the stores will be restocked soon.

I’m sharing this with permission, along with a few other tips from around the world. I found this really enlightening because I’ve long wondered about how we can possibly manage as poorer countries adopt our wasteful, resource-intensive ways. How could there possibly be enough of things like toilet paper for the whole world?

I used cloth nappies (diapers) with my kids and found it no big deal, and the un-paper ideas, which you can see illustrated in the photos, are worth considering. Of course you need a washer, if not a dryer, to use cloth alternatives. I also like the really low-tech options that other neighbors chimed in with:

  • In Turkey, toilets are generally ground-level, Asian-style, and instead of paper there is a small watering can and a sink for washing hands. “When I asked about drying, I was told I
    could ‘air dry’!”
  • A neighbor’s Indian in-laws use warm water in a small watering can, too, and “some gentle splashing with your (always left!) hand.”
  • Create a kind of faux-bidet wash with a glass of water (warm, if possible) poured appropriately. Blot dry with a washcloth.
  • Just use warm, wet washcloth. Rinse and repeat and rinse, then into the hamper. It’s less abrasive than TP, and you can even put a little lavender essential oil on the cloth when you wet it.

I also learned that a few neighbors have a much more expensive, long-term solution: Toto washlets. These are Japanese toilets, or toilet toppers, that spray wash back and front, blow dry, and even play music. I’ve seen them in expensive hotels but hadn’t realized there were home editions. Not a solution for the rising global middle class, of course.

milk-jug-chamber-potOn a related subject, for anyone who is thinking about a vegetable garden, is a tip that comes from Scientific American (”Human Urine Is Shown to Be an Effective Agricultural Fertilizer”) as well as many other sources. Human pee is a fantastic fertilizer. It is sterile (astronauts drink it after processing) and full of nitrogen and phosphorus. I learned this from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability article “Manure, Human” by Professor Daniel Vasey. Most of the nutrients in manure – think of the bags of cow manure we buy at the garden center – is actually in the urine, not the bulky matter. He writes, “The inclusion of urine maximizes the manure’s benefits, since urine contains 64–88 percent of the excreted nitrogen and 25–64 percent of the phosphorus (Jönsson et al. 2004).”

In brief, pee provides similar nutrients to a liquid fertilizer or to blood or fish meal. Obviously it doesn’t provide humus to lighten heavy soil and attract earthworms, but I use vast quantities of leaves for this purpose. More and more, I try to let no valuable biomass leave my small property, and this summer will be time for another example with using even fallen branches for a terraced garden.

The photo shows an easy way to make a “chamber pot” to collect urine, which needs to be diluted before using it to fertilize plants or energize a compost pile.


“North London conversation: ‘Good news and bad news. I found loo paper.’ ‘But?’ ‘It’s pink.’ Civilisation teeters on the brink.” @isabelhilton. That’s a very English joke: pink loo roll is what you find in public restrooms and such. If you want a dose of English color humor, try this skit about avocado green from Mitchell & Webb.