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The Final Touches: Bathroom Software

By Simran Sethi

Tags: bathroom remodel, green, environmentally friendly, eco-friendly, efficient, efficiency, water, energy, toilet paper, Seventh Generation, Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, VOC, HDPE, recycled plastic, shower curtain, Grain, bamboo towel, Pure Fiber, organic cotton, Simran Sethi,

 In the beginning of 2010, my bathroom was… retro. And not in a good way. But after a remodel to make it more energy and water efficient, modern and beautiful, I’m much happier when I get ready in the morning and wind down at night.

In my posts on the water-saving choices and eco-friendly materials that went into the remodel, I left out a few final details — what I’ll call the bathroom’s “software” (as opposed to the hardware like cabinets, faucets, and flooring.)

While these little finishing touches seem small, they’re worth considering: toilet paper, shower curtains, and towels.  (Oh, and then there’s keeping the bathroom clean in a green way, which you can read about in this post.)

TOILET PAPERrecycledtoiletpaper 

Even if you're not in a place to use wood remnants for a new cabinet or recycled aluminum for a new backsplash, you still have an opportunity to embrace the eco-tenet of recycling in your bathroom—in your toilet paper. The average American uses over 100 rolls [of toilet paper] a year, most of which is made from a combination of softwood and hardwood trees. Southern pines and Douglas firs make the paper strong, while maples and oaks make the paper soft.

I am not convinced that oak trees should be chopped down in order to give our bums a little more comfort—or that dioxin contamination from the chlorine bleach used to make traditional toilet paper bright is the right price to pay for white T.P.

Toilet paper made from recycled paper uses colored and white paper stock and is usually whitened with hydrogen peroxide. My choice is Seventh Generation because of the integrity the company shows throughout their product line.

noVOCshowercurtain SHOWER CURTAIN

There are smells that I grew up with that I once thought were good things. I believed the smell of bleach equaled clean and the scent of plastic shower curtains made them new. I now know better. The 2008 Center for Health, Environment and Justice report, Volatile Vinyl, determined a sampling of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) shower curtain released up to 108 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which lingered nearly a month after the curtains were hung.

As I have detailed in this series, VOCs are known to cause health problems ranging from headaches to respiratory problems and may be possible carcinogens. Each of the curtains tested (purchased at big box stores) contained phthalates (known endocrine disruptors) and heavy metals including mercury and lead. PVC is commonly used in everything from shower curtains to car interiors and is increasingly known as the "poison plastic." There is no safe way to manufacture or dispose of PVC because of the host of chemicals contained within it. PVC creates toxic emissions in recycling processes and can't be recycled.

All of this contributed to the small design collective Grain's decision to create a simple plastic shower curtain that doesn't offgas toxic chemicals and can be recycled. Their Ty shower curtain is one of my most cherished bathroom items. It moves and breathes like a natural fiber, resists mold and mildew and is made from HDPE, a commonly recycled plastic.


My friends Angela and Jeff gave me the most surprisingly indulgent housewarming present I have ever received: bamboo towels. Bamboo is a rapidly renewable fiber that's grown without pesticides—unlike cotton crops, which use approximately 25 percent of the world's pesticides. Although transforming the bamboo stalk into fiber does require a fair amount of water, I usually consider it a pretty eco-minded choice.

Because my focus was on bathroom hardware,  I hadn't yet considered my towels but, fortunately, Angela and Jeff had. They gave me Pure Fiber towels. I have never in my life coveted towels, but these ones are spectacularly soft and absorbent. Love the classic cotton towels? Just make sure they’re organic cotton.

 I’m looking forward to a year without major home overhauls. Hello, 2011.


 Simran Sethi is an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Kansas. Follow her on Twitter @simransethi. 

 Edited by Rebecca Evanhoe; photos by Jessica Sain-Baird. 

simran sethi_1
1/24/2011 3:45:55 PM

Thanks to all for the comments. "Greening" one's home can become a complex process. As pointed out by Ms. Hummel, few of us can afford tackle large-scale and expensive projects such as replacing a plumbing system. This post focuses on small ways to make your bathroom more eco-friendly, such as replacing the shower curtain.

maria barker
1/23/2011 3:22:40 PM

If PVC is so horrible (I am not saying it is not) then how on earth is it allowed as our plumbing?!?! I am horrified, as even if I replaced all the plumbing I can get to, which I can't afford, there is still my well casing, and pipes I can not get to. Someone please explain how the author of this article can be so cautionary about a shower curtain choice and ignore my pipes?

1/21/2011 7:06:53 PM

To make my bathroom a little greener this is what we do, also helps that we have 2 bathrooms. It might sound a little extreme to some, I guess. 2 kids (8 & 2) and I share bath water. Littlest starts first with a small amount of h2o. Then the 8 yr old, adding a little more h2o. Then me, adding a little more on top of that. Water stays in the tub and we use a small bucket to scoop & flush toilet til the next bath. Days that we don't leave the house, we don't take baths. Hubby works 7 days a week, and during colder months takes 1-2 showers a week, usually in the morning before work or afternoon if it's on weekends. I clean the tub after that with vinegar & baking soda, and then we have the tub clean & ready for bathing for us girls. For the toilet, since the 2 yr old is potty training, my 8 yr old uses the training potty for #1, and we just dump it down the sink, pour a little water from the bucket in it to rinse it. (I was using the 'little potty' too, but I'm 9 mos. pregnant and it's a little too much effort right now). Both kids are girls, so all 3 of use 'pee cloths' as we call them, (squares of my hubby's old undershirts) various sizes for various users for #1, and they go in the cloth diaper pail. Hubby generally does #1 outside. So the only thing we're using TP for is #2. Hubby will occasionally use TP to blow his nose, but we have hankies (hubbies tshirts again- much larger squares, they wash & store separate from the 'pee cloths') for nose blowing.

eleanor the great
1/21/2011 1:54:27 PM

I agree with the spirit, if not the letter, of this article. One Very Important point - don't use recycled toilet paper. Recycled papers contain BPA after the cycle was contaminated by recycling thermal paper, which itself contains BPA, so using recycled papers as toilet paper unfortunately further contaminates the water cycle. I also use Scott tissue, because it's one-ply and breaks down quickly. I also find that I use a lot less of it, which is strange, since it is one-ply. Here are a couple links to back up the last paragraph, if anyone's interested in learning more or checking me. :) In one of the articles there are links to the scientific papers that have just come out. I agree with being careful with shower curtains. Be careful also to know the recycling available in your area. In ours, there is no one that recycles plastic film or sheets, other than the grocery stores taking bags. We use a cloth curtain, and it works great. :) There are some companies that do a better job with processing bamboo, so do some research when buying your towels, and you can make even more of an impact! :) We have organic cotton, mostly because it was what was available. We love them. Good article! It's good to get people thinking.

valerie weiby_1
1/21/2011 1:05:07 PM

I'm one of those people, that believes, if you can smell any sort of chemical smell, PUT IT DOWN! I use tightly woven shower curtians and they are just as water proof as the vinyl. Wash them in vinegar water in your washer to kill any possible mold or mildew spores once a month. Dry in your drier till nearly dry, then hang. I may not be quite as green on this point, but I use Scott brand toilet tissue. We have a septic system & this brand breaks up while still in the stool. It took a little while to get used to the single ply, but our septic system is much happier then when we were using other commercial brands. In our home we go by the motto, "if you can't pronounce it, don't use it". So when it comes to soaps, shampoos, laundry soaps, cleaners, etc. we use as natural and as green & clean as we can possible find. The internet is wonderful for finding for all kind of green/clean products, start looking.