In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, humans from across the world became vulnerable by a very unique fear that was earlier unknown at such a magnitude; running out of toilet paper! Big stores were completely out of stock on their toilet paper, indicating that we do indeed have a special place in our hearts (or rather the bathrooms) for toilet paper.
Toilet paper is undeniably one of the most basic needs of our lives today. Even though different cultures use them in very different capacities; it brings out good hygiene, convenience, and comfort for all. Toilet paper is one of the most used paper products and certainly the most valued one, besides the dollars, of course.
What are toilet papers?
A toilet paper usually arrives in the form of a toilet paper roll, which is a long perforated strip of paper wrapped around a cardboard cylinder. These are made by gluing ply sheets (1-6) back to back.
The paper strength is directly proportional to the number of plies. They now come in different colors, scents, and textures; usually, paper towels are embossed with creative designs. Other names of toilet paper are loo roll or bog roll.
To explain the use of most toilet paper, the definition of toilet paper, as found on Wikipedia, is copied below.
“Toilet paper (sometimes called toilet tissue) is a tissue paper product primarily used to clean the anus and surrounding anal region of feces after defecation, and, for females, to clean the perineal area and external genitalia of urine after urination or other bodily fluid releases.”
Since the explanation is, well, quite self-explanatory, therefore, without commenting on the definition, we move on to discussing the other applications of toilet paper.
Toilet paper is one of the most abundantly available household products due to its versatility. Apart from cleaning our butts, it can also be used for cleaning (other) surfaces, blowing nose, wiping sweat, etc.
TP-ing, is another use of toilet paper where the TP literally stands for Toilet Paper. TP-ing something is a prank which simply means throwing rolls of toilet paper over things or even people so the toilet paper unrolls and covers the object, causing inconvenience.
The evolution of toilet paper
It may come as a surprise though, but it took us almost until the late 15th century to produce toilet paper. So, what did the people do to clean themselves before the invention of toilet paper?
In the past, after relieving themselves, people used stuff such as corn cobs, stones, etc. As time passed, this got upgraded to other creative equipment. While the Romans attached a sponge over a stick (shown below) for wiping, on the other hand, the Chinese people had a piece of cloth wrapped at one end of a bamboo stick.
There are studies that do mention other materials such as leaves, dry grass, and animal furs as well.
The harshest items to wipe the butt with
Innovation can be a painful process, even literally too. The harshest thing used for this purpose was by the Greeks, called ostraka (shown below). The original purpose of ostraka was to vote the hated one out of town, but the Greeks killed two birds with one stone; not only did they use these stones to wipe themselves, but they were also able to poop on the name of the one they hated!
However, these pieces caused scratching and injuring of the butt and often ended up with hemorrhoids.
Later, in the 15th century, when the paper was produced in abundance, people started using pages from old books, magazines, newspapers, old paper bags, wrapped packages, and other scrap paper for this purpose.
First TP roll in the history
In 1880, the British Perforated paper company made coarse paper that was sold in the shape of boxes. Later, in 1890, the Scott Paper Company mass produced the first toilet paper in the form of rolls. This was a win as it was soft and was easy to wipe without hurting the skin. These had no perforations and the toilets had dispensers with serrated teeth to cut the paper.
How is toilet paper made?
Virgin Toilet Paper
The toilet paper manufacturing process is much like that of regular paper. Toilet paper is made from hardwood trees. The mass production of toilet paper today is done at the mill where the desired trees arrive. Then they undergo the process of debarking, which means, removing the outer part (the bark) of the tree.
Next, they are chipped into uniform sizes to make the pulping of the wood easier. Now the wood chips are mixed with cooking chemicals to form a slurry, which is sent to a large pressure cooker called a digester.
Here much of the water evaporates leaving behind a mixture, called pulp. The pulp is composed of cellulose fibers, lignin, and a few other substances. Lignin is a compound that binds the long fibers together.
This pulp is then sent to a washer system to remove most of the lignin and cooking chemicals. The washed pulp now arrives at the bleaching plant to remove the color from the fiber. After this, the pulp is mixed with water to produce paper stock. The paper stock is about 0.5% fiber and the rest is water. This is sprayed over meshes where much of the water is drained. Now the pulp is sent to heating cylinders to evaporate the remainder of the water and press the pulp. The resultant pulp is dry and flat paper.
Finally, the paper is rolled over long, thin cardboard tubing making paper logs. This log is then cut into rolls and wrapped with plastic packages.
Characteristics of Virgin Paper
Despite the argument about the environmental footprint caused by the manufacturing of virgin paper products, they are of higher durability and quality. Producing a ton of virgin paper requires as much wood as is present in 20 trees. In other words, one tree (commonly used) creates about 1,000 rolls of toilet paper.
Another, perhaps a relatively more eco-friendly type of manufacturing toilet paper is the recycled toilet paper.
Recycled Toilet Paper
The materials needed to make toilet paper are… recycled paper. Piles of recycled paper are dropped into a large tank that has an agitator in it that mixes the whole chunk of recycled paper with warm water. What forms then, is known as pulp. Foreign materials such as metal or plastic are screened out and hot air is then introduced into the pulp to combine with the ink particles and rise with them to the top of the tank. The produced foam is skimmed off the top and the pulp now is ink-free.
Next, this recycled pulp is made to pass through a series of rollers that squeeze the water out of it, thus drying it out so it could be chopped into small pieces and then bleached into pure white color, using materials that are definitely kept a secret.
This pulp is then spread over a hot, flat screen that immediately turns it into extremely thin paper. It is then rolled around jumbo reels, also known as a spool. The sheets of paper come together to combine into multi-ply tissues.
As toilet paper companies consume tons of trees around the world, people are switching to more eco-friendly alternatives such as bamboo toilet paper.
Apart from their rapid growth, bamboo toilet paper has the advantage of producing softer and sustainable tissue papers that is degradable and thus avoids pipes clogging.
Important notice regarding the toilet papers
The color white is often, strangely associated with cleanliness. For this reason, most (recycled and virgin) paper manufacturers use chlorine dioxide for whitening the toilet paper. The chlorine dioxide and other chlorine-based bleaches are amongst the most toxic chemicals for humans. It changes the body's natural pH level, destroys the moisture barrier of the skin, and leads to infections.
Another drawback is that most companies apply perfume to modern toilet paper which is one of the most common kinds of skin irritants.
The solution to the above problem
Use bleach-free toilet paper. This may not be as soft but they lack the harsh chemicals. However, rough-textured toilet paper can cause skin soreness.
Other solutions are to avoid toilet paper at all. In the past, many cultures used pebbles for this purpose. Historically, Muslims used three stones to wipe. While today all Muslim countries have bidet or water showers right next to the toilet for washing themselves after use.