The great coronavirus toilet tissue panic buy-up

An Indian slum built over a sewer. Image: By Puthenrohit, via Wikimedia Commons

In the UK and elsewhere, many people were preoccupied last March with toilet tissue. Could it help to slow climate change?

LONDON, 13 May, 2020 – What was on your mind two months ago: might it have been toilet tissue? For many Britons the answer is yes. It was when the United Kingdom began to get to grips with the coronavirus pandemic.

Whether you welcome or condemn the action your government took in those uncertain days, in many countries the response was very similar: broad approval for the speed of the official reaction.

That sheer speed has even prompted some people to ask whether modern societies could act as fast to protect themselves, not only against another pandemic, but against a possible comparable global threat. Climate change, perhaps?

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.

The Alliance says pandemics show how good governments are at responding fast and effectively, and at changing economic priorities in the public interest. And people, it says, can also change their daily habits very quickly.

Taken for granted

So we can. But the introduction of lockdown and similar measures brought an example (and not only in the UK) of very quick changes in daily habits which suggested they might not help exactly as the RTA hopes in the case of the climate crisis. There was an outbreak of panic buying of supposedly staple goods – including toilet tissue.

What the run on loo rolls did achieve, as the RTA points out in its delicately-worded treatment of it, was to remind many people in relatively wealthy countries not to take for granted some familiar aspects of daily life. It illuminated the rapid but unfinished global progress towards universal access to safe water and sanitation.

In fact supplies of toilet paper hadn’t altered. It was an artificial shortage created by the suddenly changed behaviour of people buying far more than they really needed: anything from 50 to 100 rolls of paper are used in US toilets annually, without pandemic pressures.

But sewage systems, clean water and efficient drainage are constant  development priorities across the world, and today they are centre stage in climate emergency planning.

“For many of the world’s people loo paper is a luxury and toilets themselves may be unsanitary, outside the home and not places of privacy or sanctuary”

The future will include more flooding, heatwaves and heavier summer rainfall, which will hit hardest places that are already low-lying or on reclaimed land, or on coasts.

Diseases that thrive in these conditions – diarrhoea, malaria, leptospirosis, for example – are expected to worsen. In Mumbai slum dwellers ironically say during the monsoon: “There’s water everywhere, except in the taps.”

The profit-led colonial system left behind in India a patchwork of supply and disposal, with the city’s vast slum areas mostly unserved, and subject to flooding which in 2005 killed over 900 people.

There have been improvements to sanitation globally since 2000, thanks to the UN’s Millennium Goals. The numbers of people using safe sanitation increased from 28% in 2000 to 45% in 2017. During that time 2.1 billion people gained access to at least basic services and the number practising open-air defecation halved, from 1.3 billion to 673 million – still a huge number.

Many top-down approaches to sanitation have failed. But Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), which began in rural Bangladesh in 2000, has worked by focusing on helping people to change their behaviour.

Making the links

By raising awareness of the links between open defecation and disease, CLTS encourages local people to analyse their situation and then act. Typically, its facilitators help communities to carry out their own appraisal  of community sanitation.

This usually leads them to recognise the volume of human waste they generate and how open defecation means they are likely to be ingesting one another’s faeces. In turn, this can prompt them to act by building latrines without waiting for external support.

For many of the world’s people loo paper is a luxury and toilets themselves may be unsanitary, outside the home and certainly not places of privacy or sanctuary.

In 2015 2.3bn people still lacked even a basic sanitation service. An estimated 4 in 10 households globally still do not have soap and water on the premises, and half of all schools lack hand-washing facilities. For a sizeable minority – and in particular for women – the daily trip to relieve themselves can be dangerous and even life-threatening.

The production of toilet tissue for use in the global North raises serious environmental issues, including destruction of woodland, the wasteful use of water and energy, and chemicals for processing.

Bamboo alternative

This is still a message unheard by most people. The Australian company Who Gives A Crap supplies recycled or bamboo toilet paper and gives 50% of its profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the global South. But it is a rarity. Analysis from the UK’s Ethical Consumer magazine found in 2019 that major brands were using less recycled paper than they had in 2011.

Climate change? How’s that mixed up in toilet tissue? Does a sudden bout of panic buying help anyone to cut their carbon footprint? It sounds far-fetched.

There’s a gulf between the strains of social lockdown caused by a pandemic and the daring required for an economic change of direction demanded by impending climate catastrophe. And somehow we recognised the pandemic threat, but still fail to recognise the climate mayhem about to overtake us.

But if making the connection adds urgency to the quest for better sanitation, that will bring better health, less poverty and a world whose population stays within slimmer bounds.

And emptying the supermarket shelves of loo rolls two months ago showed how determined if misguided action could achieve very fast results. That could work wonders for slowing greenhouse gas emissions. – Climate News Network

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The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

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