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The Deeper Meaning of Family Cloth

September 8, 2008

A post and comments on two blogs that I regularly read made me mull over our choice to use family cloth (aka family wipes or cloth tp). The reason behind it is not simply to be thrifty. We have three girls and one mom in our family (the dad, of course, doesn’t go through nearly as much as we four females do). That adds up to a lot of toilet paper use. One day about two years ago as I was replacing yet another roll of toilet paper, I thought how much we were going through and how much paper and waste and money it added up to. I also remembered a post about family cloth that I had recently read on an email list. When I thought that I had all the materials we already needed for wipes and with the addition of two waste baskets and two smaller baskets, we would be set, I decided to at least try it. I knew that I wouldn’t need to convince Lawrence too much, because I am so lucky to be blessed with a guy who goes along with my most of my kooky whims fairly easily. Considering that we already used cloth diapers, cloth diaper wipes, and I use cloth menstrual pads, it wasn’t such a stretch to add this anyway.

I cut up old t-shirts that had holes and were just hanging in our closets taking up space. Threw them in their new wicker baskets and told everyone the new protocol. Sure, those first few weeks there were wipes that ended up in the toilet, but everyone made the switch easily. We found out something interesting. We liked cloth wipes much better than toilet paper. They are so soft and more durable so you need less to get the job done. You can also moisten them with warm water and they don’t disintegrate. So, here we are two years later with no plans to go back to toilet paper. We still keep a roll in each bathroom for guests to use or if we run out of clean wipes between launderings. In those two years I would calculate that we have saved a little over 700 rolls of toilet paper from use and saved at least $300 and countless gallons of water, nasty chemicals and fuel that goes into manufacturing and transporting the toilet paper. We are finally replacing some of our original wipes with new wipes from cut up holey t-shirts and underwear and wash one to two extra small loads in hot water with biodegradable Bio-Kleen detergent, baking soda and vinegar per week. The equation looks pretty clear to me. Family wipes are win-win.

Here are a few important realizations that have come to me during during the past couple of years of family cloth use. The first is that it took a minor mental shift to be able to deal with our own biological waste. I think our society is so used to paying other people to deal with the dirty or gross things that we would rather not think about, that it does take a mental shift. Think about it. We pay people to separate the sludge of excrement and toilet paper and used condoms and other trash at the waste water treatment plant and we simply flush and don’t give it a second thought. We pay people to take our trash away so that we don’t have to think about it once we set it out at the curb. We pay people to clean and bury our dead so we don’t have to deal with the smell or the disgust of handling a dead body. We pay people to raise and slaughter our meat (usually in horrific conditions) so that we don’t have to see their (sometimes) degradation and death. All this delegating and not thinking that we do is leading is to not think about what we do and waste and destroy our most precious resources. If we don’t see and think about how to handle these situations, we take it all for granted and that makes it easier to waste paper, plastic, meat, etc. Of course, all of these thoughts are not only the result of using family cloth, but the result of a paradigm shift in which family cloth is only one component.

I’m really not trying to convince you all to make the switch, because I imagine that most people aren’t ready or inclined to switch from using toilet paper. What I am asking you to do is to not have the knee-jerk reaction that seems to come from hearing about family cloth: That family is bizarre/ultra-thrifty/hippy dippy/unsanitary. None of those are the truth. Family cloth is just as sanitary as using cloth diapers or cloth underwear. How many of you use disposable underwear? Don’t you trust your washer and dryer or clothesline to sanitize your underwear that inevitably has bacteria on it (no matter how well you wipe)? The same is true of family cloth. My method of baking soda, detergent, hot water and vinegar sanitize them very well.

Think about what changes could be effected if we all takes steps that are easy for us to change. Maybe family cloth is easy for me and not so easy for you, but perhaps you have changed something else that is easy for you and hard for me, like permanently decreasing driving or giving up a Frappaccino habit. It’s incremental, permanent lifestyle changes that are the key, folks.

If you are curious about the practical details of using family cloth, read on.

That’s my basket of clean wipes, within easy reach of the toilet. We use clean wipes for each job. Not one wipe that the whole family uses for the day. (It seems like that may be a misconception that some have.) When somebody has finished their business, they toss it into a lidded trash can reserved for soiled cloths. When it is full or we are running low on wipes, the cans from both bathrooms are hauled to the laundry area and rinsed in cold water with baking soda and then washed with hot water and a vinegar rinse and most recently, hung on our basement clothesline to dry though I used to dry them in my electric dryer.

Of course some families have variations in their routine. Some use a different color for the wipes for each family member so they don’t have to use wipes that other people have used. Some people toss wipes in with their cloth diaper loads (which I used to do).

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Evelyn permalink
    September 8, 2008 10:12 pm

    I think it is great! I didn’t have a problem using them when I came up to visit and they are softer than toilet paper. I wish I could convince Mike to go that route.

  2. Evelyn permalink
    September 8, 2008 10:12 pm

    I think it is great! I didn’t have a problem using them when I came up to visit and they are softer than toilet paper. I wish I could convince Mike to go that route.

  3. Mojavi permalink
    September 9, 2008 12:27 am

    great post.. we just switched/ i love it

  4. Mojavi permalink
    September 9, 2008 12:27 am

    great post.. we just switched/ i love it

  5. Lisa permalink
    September 9, 2008 2:06 pm

    This is the first I have heard of family cloth (guess I’m slow) but I did convert this year to cloth menstrual pads that I made myself for thrifted fabrics. I love those!

    I like never having to worry if I have pads in the house, but I doubt I could get hubby to do the family cloths or even tolerate them in the bathroom!

    Guess I have to pick my battles, just like with kids!

  6. Angeleen permalink
    September 9, 2008 3:35 pm

    This is the first time I’ve heard of this as well, but am intrigued!

    My hubby is finding it hard to believe it takes 200 gallons of water for one roll of TP. Can you tell me your information source? Also, I wonder how much of that water is “reclaimed” and used again… like at car washes? It’s all VERY interesting to me.

    He also questioned the “smell” factor between wash loads.


  7. Lisa permalink
    September 9, 2008 5:03 pm

    Mom-Maybe you could think about making the switch just for yourself. You probably use more tp anyway, right?

    Mojavi-Thanks for the compliment and I’m glad to know another devotee!

    Lisa-Good for you on switching to cloth menstrual pads. I switched more than three years ago and love them and I’m still using my first set that I made, still no significant signs of wear. Most of those were made from thrifted fabric, too. You are certainly right that we have to pick our battles. I’m lucky because my hubby grew up in the France in a small town where people still did things the old way, so he isn’t fazed by many simpler things I try to do.

    Angeleen-Those are fantastic questions.

    First about the 200 gallons. That’s not my researched or quoted number (except on Angelina’s blog in the series of comments with Riana), I got if from Riana and didn’t ever check it. I decided to do my own checking this morning and found that it is mighty hard to find any hard numbers on this. Here’s the only thing I could find on gallons of water, electricity and chlorine used to make toilet paper (and they didn’t cite their original source either):

    Here’s the relevant passage for your convenience:

    “We use 36.5 billions rolls of toilet paper in the U.S. each year, this represents at least 15 million trees pulped. This also involves 473,587,500,000 gallons of water to produce the paper and 253,000 tons of chlorine for bleaching purposes. The manufacturing process requires about 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually. Also, there is the energy and materials involved in packaging and transporting the toilet paper to households across the country.

    Toilet paper also constitutes a significant load on the city sewer systems, and water treatment plants. It is also often responsible for clogged pipes. In septic systems, the elimination of toilet paper would mean the septic tank would need to be emptied much less often.”

    According to those stats, it would take 13 gallons of water to make one roll of tp.

    These are my thoughts regarding this issue. Let’s assume that we can count on a 100% water reclamation (which I’m sure isn’t the case, but let’s use that to put family cloth and tp on equal footing in the water usage). If there is 100% water reclamation, then both products have the same water usage. But how about energy use? There’s the hot water to heat my washer once or twice per week versus the percentage of the 17.3 terawatts of electricity that our family’s seven weekly rolls of tp would require and the energy to get it from the manufacturer to the store to my house. Then there is the issue of chemicals. If one uses bleached tp, it contains dioxin with is a powerful, nasty, potentially cancer-causing toxin. It can be deadly for paper plant workers (I know this because Lawrence has worked in paper mills doing repairs and if there is a spill you have less than five minutes to get out of there before you start to suffocate from the fumes). Finally, there is the issue of the plastic packaging that most tp comes in. Even if you choose to use recycled, unbleached tp, you can’t avoid the manufacturing and transportation energy use, the extra cost of the tp, and the packaging.

    So, there ya go. More than my two cents.

    Also, I don’t find that there is smell issue. We use lidded cans (the kind with a swinging lid so that you can push it open with the back of your hand rather than lift it with possibly soiled hands) and that contains any odor that may occur, but even when I dump it into the washer there’s not a huge noticeable smell. You could cloth with a few drop of essential oil in the container or sprinkle some baking soda if it did become an issue, but we haven’t needed to do this.

  8. Lewru permalink
    September 9, 2008 9:07 pm

    Thank you for this post! You go a long way to help demystify something that shouldn’t really be mystifying! I just got back from some time in Greece. There were many places where you couldn’t, due to the plumbing and islands’ sewer/septic systems, that you couldn’t throw toilet paper in the toilet anyway. So I think I’m getting ready to follow in your footsteps…with babysteps of my own!

  9. Angeleen permalink
    September 9, 2008 10:29 pm

    Thank you, Lisa!

    I will pass along your most appreciated insights to my fella. πŸ™‚

    Made my Kombucha tea today at last! I can’t wait for next week! Thanks again for the scoby. πŸ™‚

  10. Lisa permalink
    September 10, 2008 1:45 am

    Lewru-Thank you for your very kind comment. I commend your babysteps.

    Angeleen-No problem!

    With the warm weather we’ve been having and are projected to have, I bet it won’t take a week to brew, unless you like it on the acidic side.

  11. Rane permalink
    September 10, 2008 7:40 am

    What do you do about really messy
    clean up, I would not want to go
    through each one to flush anything
    “extra”. And what is the cleaning
    product amount? 1/2 cup vinegar?
    how about baking soda? Any thing
    else you use to clean them with?
    Does it help to soke them first?
    Aso do you have patterns for the
    pads?? How about baby goods too?
    My little ones all have skin
    allergies so this would be a step
    in the right direction. I just
    feel a little overwhelmed.
    I am a virgin to all of this
    but would love to get on board…
    just worried that if I don’t have
    all the facts I will never be able
    to convert my hubby. (He is Japanese and is really afraid of
    germs.) Any help would be great.

  12. Lisa permalink
    September 10, 2008 3:27 pm

    Rane-You husband is Japanese? Bidets are very common in Japan in place of toilet paper, much more sanitary. My long comment above has a link and that link is actually to a bidet seat review. If I remember correctly, it runs around $50 and you install it on the average American toilet. Maybe installing bidet seats and drying with cloth is a good compromise for you and your husband.

    In our house, messy cloths go in just like every other one. My washing protocl is this: Dump all wipes in the washer run an extra small load on cold. (I consider this a rinse, you could also soak them a bit in this part.) This cold wash has 1/2 c. of baking soda. Then I run an extra small load on hot with 1 tablespoon of Bio-Kleen laundry detergent; because it is concentrated you only need a small amount. In this hot wash, I put about 1/2 a cup of vinegar into my rinse compartment. Then you can either dry the wipes in the dryer or hang them on a clothesline. Messy wipes always get clean.

    Another option I’ve seen thrown out there, instead of getting a bidet is installing a sink sprayer or diaper sprayer hose to your toilet and spraying then wiping dry with cloth.

    I don’t really have a pattern for the pads anymore, but I think I will do a whole separate post on this issue, because when my friends and I made them 3 1/3 years ago, we were confused by all the options and it took us a while to nail down what we actually wanted.

    What kinds of other baby goods are you looking to make? For my babies, they used cloth diapers and cloth wipes. I just put their wipes in a diaper wipe warmer with a solution of water, a couple drops of Castille soap and a few drops of essential oils, usually lavender. For soaps, we only use natural soap, which I happen to make, but can be bought very easily online now, if you don’t have a natural soap seller in your area.

    I find it’s always easier to convince my husband about something he is unsure about if I have a plan in place, so good for you on making a change for you family and getting your stuff in order. Let me know if I missed anything or if you have more questions. I’m always happy to help somebody who is new to all this and trying to change, most of us have been in that position!

  13. Angelina permalink
    September 11, 2008 3:32 am

    I am interested in the bidet option but Riana thinks they aren’t so great. I would think the bidet option would add to water use rather than decrease it, but I guess the plus side is not buying toilet paper.

    So much to consider.

  14. Rane permalink
    September 11, 2008 2:19 pm

    The trouble that we had with the
    bidet when we were in japan is that
    it is really hard to clean properly
    and we found that the doctor was
    very against it saying that since
    it is kept in the toilet it grows
    germs very easly. I kept getting
    yeast infections and when I stopped
    using the bidet they went away and
    I never had before or after that.
    I kept that thing clean too.
    Thank you for your email. I have
    alot of questions still like where
    do you get the bio cleaner from??

  15. Lisa permalink
    September 11, 2008 8:18 pm

    Rane-I buy my Bio-Kleen detergent from Azure Standard, which is a company that you can order in bulk from if you are in much of the Western US. However, the Bio-Kleen line which isn’t only laundry detergent but dishwashing powder and liquid, fruit and vegetable washes, toilet cleaners, etc. can usually be found at natural foods stores.

    Interesting about your experiences with a bidet. I’ve never used one personally.

  16. Rane permalink
    September 12, 2008 8:01 am

    LOL… imagine a strong watergun…. yeah. You have to place your self just right and you still never know. Also it does not get you as clean as you migh think. I love the idea of having some detergent that you use to clean you fruit and veggies off with, you never know what is on them. They could be even growing next to a major road or the next door farm may choose to dust their
    crops where does that leave your food. Winds can even pick up dust
    and blow it miles!!! Ack!! now how is your salad looking?? One of my friends never even washes her veggies saying a little dirt never hurt anyone! I gave up telling her… *sigh* You can lead them to water….. but you can’t make them
    wash. LOL! *sigh* I trailed way off track with this post …. wonder where I went wrong? Too funny!

  17. September 17, 2008 6:13 am

    You know, I think we could do this. It does make a lot of sense. Paper products are such a waste of resources and it’s great to see new (to me, anyway) ideas for reducing consumption.

  18. Lisa permalink
    September 18, 2008 2:12 am

    That’s great dg! It’s always exciting when people feel motivated to take a new step towards conservation.

  19. Antonella permalink
    October 7, 2008 9:57 am

    Nice suggestion for the family cloth!!
    In Italy every home has a bidet. We couldn’t feel “clean” after poo (or if menstruating) without washing ourselves clean. No infections whatsoever in anybody that I know. I would suggest women to use a menstrual cup, I switched some months ago and never looked back (I even use the blood to water the plants).
    I hope this is not too gross
    thanks for your infos

  20. Lisa permalink
    October 7, 2008 5:29 pm

    Antonella-Thanks for stopping by. I don’t think your comment was gross at all. I have considered a menstrual cup, but haven’t gotten one because of the expense. It’s not terribly expensive, but it is around $25-30. My cloth menstrual pads work so well. I will likely purchase a cup as my pads wear out.

  21. Lisa permalink
    October 7, 2008 5:29 pm

    Antonella-Thanks for stopping by. I don’t think your comment was gross at all. I have considered a menstrual cup, but haven’t gotten one because of the expense. It’s not terribly expensive, but it is around $25-30. My cloth menstrual pads work so well. I will likely purchase a cup as my pads wear out.

  22. Anonymous permalink
    November 22, 2008 6:49 am

    I am so intrigued, but still confused about some details. OK, when you put the used (and sometimes covered with some residual pooh) clothes into the wipe trash container, doesn’t the trash container get really gross? Do you line it with a trash bag that is replaced each time you empty it? Do you take it outside to clean after each time, and if so, what do you use to clean it? (I’m asking this because I’m thinking that sometimes wiping can be very messy! note to self: eat more fiber…)

  23. Lisa permalink
    November 25, 2008 8:41 pm

    No, the container doesn’t get really gross. I have a houseful of girls so there are many more unmessy wipes than messy ones. I don’t line it with a bag and I wash it out with some soapy water when it needs it. Just let it soak for a bit with some kind of soap/detergent, whatever’s handy.

  24. Ruth permalink
    March 22, 2017 7:55 am

    We use cloth wipes in conjunction with a bidet, so the wipes are really easy to wash.

    My whole family feels that this is an upgrade from toilet paper. My husband and son complain they have to use the bathroom somewhere that doesn’t have a bidet.

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