Most Americans take the "if it ain't broke, why fix it" approach to their toilets. That is to say, if it flushes, we're happy. And why shouldn't we be? The act of defecating is an intensely private thing and even the poshest sophisticates wouldn't brag about buying the world's most stylish toilet. But our ambivalence has a cost: the way we use toilets in America is inelegant, unhygienic, and unsustainable, and it's time for us to get smarter about how we shit.
The deplorable state of our toilets dates back to 1775, when a Scottish guy named Alexander Cummings designed the modern flush toilet. Already, you'll notice something suspicious: the same basic design that we use today was designed in 1775. At the time, it was fairly revolutionary, as much of the pre-Renaissance era was spent squatting over chamber pots and unloading them onto the streets.
While we were still slinging feces out our windows, the Japanese were presumably already plotting the invention of super toilets. Fast forward to 1980, and the Japanese company Toto introduced the Washlet toilet. The Washlet's key feature was its built-in bidet, which made for super clean anal cleansing and soon became a staple in the modern Japanese home. But Washlets don't just spray-clean your asshole. The Japanese toilet has evolved considerably over time, incorporating features like automatically opening and closing lids, built-in deodorizers, heated seats, automatic flushing, built-in massagers, and even music to muffle the incorrigible sounds of you taking a shit.
An automated toilet in a public washroom in Tokyo features a heated seat, wash and dry functions, and canned flushing sounds. Photo by Sian James / ©Toilets of the World Book
Washlet-style toilets aren't just elegant, although they certainly are. They're also incomparably hygienic and good for the environment. Let's start with the toilet paper issue. It is completely ass-backwards to use toilet paper to clean what is, arguably, the dirtiest part of our bodies. I talked to Rose George, who wrote the ultimate book on toilet history, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, and she explained that America (and much of the west) can be classified as "dry cultures," while Japan (and much of the east) are "wet cultures."
Wet cultures involve water in cleaning the rectum: whether it's a spray bidet, like in Japan, or hose-like jet attachments in other parts of Asia, sometimes referred to as "bum guns." This is why the Japanese probably never have hemorrhoids or skid marks on their underwear. Dry cultures, like us, eschew water for toilet paper.
The thing is, as George explained in her book, "using paper to cleanse the anus makes as much sense, hygienically, as rubbing your body with dry tissue and imagining it removes dirt." Would you ever imagine washing, say, your car with a roll of Bounty? No. And yet we imagine that toilet paper is good enough for our anal cleansing.
Most washlet-style toilets are hands-free, with a heated drying feature to follow the bidet. But even washlet toilets without the drying feature don't require you to come in contact with your actual poop, only to pat dry your freshly washed anus, which reduces the spread of disease as well as those signs that demand EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK and make you question whether or not the employees actually do.
These adorable commercials are the reason why you're still using toilet paper.
Toilet paper also consumes shit tons of trees. Based on a conservative estimate, the TP industry eats up more than 27,000 trees daily, or about 10 million each year. To put that in perspective, that's about as many trees as there are total in urban Los Angeles. And that doesn't even take into consideration how much water is required to manufacture toilet paper—somewhere around 400 million gallons each year.
Contrary to what you might think, many washlet-style toilets actually use less water than traditional toilets. A standard toilet in America uses up to nine liters of water per flush; "low flush" options typically use six liters. Washlet "low flush" toilets, by comparison, use about three liters per flush, with an additional "reduced flush" option.
Even if you don't care about the environment (which you should, you asshole) the very custom of ass wiping is itself primitive and inelegant. Surely, few people are vying for the world's most stylish method of defecation, and that's all right—but you would never think of picking up your dog's poop with a mere wad of toilet paper, and yet it's completely normal to wipe up your own that way. Toilets themselves are also filthy in America, unlike in countries like Switzerland, which has popularized the self-cleaning toilet. You didn't actually believe covering the toilet seat with tissue paper was going to protect you from germs, did you?
The Swiss CWS Cleanseat has a self-cleaning toilet seat, whether you like it or not.
It's possible that bidets haven't caught on in the US because the toilet paper lobby is always one step ahead, with advertisements of babies and puppies rolling around in their cloudlike toilet paper. But it could also be that old habits die hard, pooping included. Ten years ago, VICE wrote about the invention of The Biffy, which is basically like a bidet that you install onto your toilet seat (nevermind the fact that washlet toilets had already been around for decades). Where have we come in those ten years? Nowhere closer to using them. I don't know a single American person who owns a washlet-style toilet.
The toilets that we sit on today are nearly identical to the ones that our grandparents sat on. If we spent as much time on the crapper thinking about the pitiful state of our toilet technology instead of thumbing through the Victoria's Secret catalogue, we might be able to change our disgusting ways of going to the bathroom.
Some companies are trying to convert the American consumer. Almost exactly a year ago, the Tokyo-based toilet manufacturer Lixil bought out American Standard, presumably seeing America as an untapped market for their smart toilets. They've spent the past year designing new products like the AT200 SpaLet, which was released in March and intended to be a gateway smart toilet for Americans.
The AT200 SpaLet. Photo courtesy of American Standard
The toilet comes with nozzles for front and rear cleansing, a warm air drier, automatic seat opening and closing, heated seats, and automatic flushing. Jeannette Long, the Vice President of Brand Marketing at American Standard, told me that the SpaLet "changes the daily ritual of going to the bathroom" into an "opportunity for pampering and rejuvenation." But I'd argue that even without the luxury appeal, the reduction of toilet paper, reduced spread of germs, and lower water consumption (the SpaLet uses less than five liters for a full flush, three and a half for a reduced flush) are all compelling enough reasons on their own invest in a smart toilet.
The company plans to spend upwards of $5 million this year to promote its bidet-equipped toilets and within three years, the company told me that they hope to be selling $50 million worth of bidet-equipped toilets annually. I hope they are, too because America is way overdue for a toilet intervention.
As of now, "smart toilets" account for about one percent of the market in America. George told me this is because "nobody is rushing to the manufacturers saying, 'I want a cool toilet!'" But I'm going to go on the record right now saying that I do. I want a cool toilet that washes my butt and makes the world a better place every time I poop. Honestly, is that too much to ask for?
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