How cleaner butts can get us to a cleaner planet.
At the Toto showroom in downtown Manhattan, a young, well-dressed woman enters and announces with a groan that she’s here to buy a bidet toilet seat. The salesperson proudly displays the five different models of Toto’s Washlet, the advanced electronic toilet seat with a built-in, controllable bidet (along with seat heater, deodorizer, MP3 player, and other available features). “I don’t really care which one,” the woman tells the salesperson. “I’m not going to use it. If it were up to me I wouldn’t get this thing, but it’s something my husband wants. Our deal is he gets this, and I get my say with the rest of the house. It’ll be hidden in our master bathroom. … I don’t want my guests to see this.”
I stand a few feet away, shaking my head in disbelief. Here we are in the world’s most sophisticated city, surrounded by the marvels of 21st century technological progress, and this clearly wealthy woman cannot wrap her head around a toilet seat that will wash her husband’s ass. What’s wrong with North American society? Why do people so fear the one perfect device that can guarantee their bum’s cleanliness? Despite its obvious and well-proven benefits, from personal hygiene to environmental, the integrated bidet toilet seat—which sprays a controlled stream of water from underneath the toilet seat at the push of a button—remains stubbornly off-putting to North Americans. Laugh all you want, but this has an impact on all of us.
I am a fan of the bidet toilet seat. No, wait, not a fan. That’s too mild a term. I have been a fanatical, unquestioning devotee of the bidet toilet seat since the first time I used one in a hotel in Japan. It is my water closet’s personal messiah, the pinnacle of my morning constitutional. I have lived two lives: the itchy wilderness before my bidet toilet seat and the garden of delights that followed. When I am on vacation without it, I feel cast back into the desert, with nothing to clean myself with but squares of paper. In those moments, I feel no better than a filthy savage.
I have fought hard for my seat. When I proudly acquired my beloved Brondell Swash 900, shortly after buying our first house three years ago, my wife expressed the same sentiments as the woman in the showroom. (“Think of our guests!” she pleaded.) The seat was banished to the third floor, leaving our more accessible second-floor toilet as my glorified urinal. As for the precious, easily offended guests? During our housewarming party, they were lined up like children at a roller coaster, waiting to take the seat for a test drive.
Bidet fanatics like me are quick to point to obvious benefits for our personal health and the health of the Earth. First, the personal—let’s talk about poo. There is a reason why people are so skittish about fecal matter, and that is because the stuff is downright filthy. Our solid waste is packed with bacteria that house everything from mild stomach bugs to serious infectious epidemics. This is why the invention of indoor plumbing and the widespread adoption of bathroom sanitation (hand washing, disinfecting, etc.) is the best method of reducing the spread of bacterial illnesses around the world. A bidet cleans like a shower does, with a pressurized stream of water, theoretically washing away more fecal matter than one could with endless wipes of dry paper. Though few studies have been done on the effectiveness of bidets in societal hygiene, anyone who uses one will tell you that the personal difference in cleanliness is dramatic.
Then there is the environmental benefit of bidets. The average American uses around 50 pounds of toilet paper a year, and that paper comes at a significant cost. Each roll requires wood pulp (it takes about one whole eucalyptus tree to make 1,000 rolls), and if the brand is the ultra-soft variety, that can mean wood from old-growth forests. The process that turns that tree into a roll of Charmin requires tremendous amounts of energy, water, and chlorine. Then there is the cost of treating that paper in municipal plants. Though toilet paper is made to biodegrade in wastewater treatment plants (unlike baby wipes, which can clog city sewer systems), paper still requires a lot of water, energy, and money to deal with, and does not dissolve in septic systems. Using a bidet dramatically reduces the use of toilet paper. It’s still there for a pat dry, but just a few squares a day, at most.
Though the bidet originated in 18th century France as a separate seat that sprayed water, the bidet toilet seat was invented on Long Island in the 1960s by Arnold Cohen (who still sells as the Bidet King, under the motto “For a Healthy Clean Tush”). Cohen’s seat married the water spray of a bidet with the toilet seat, eliminating the awkward need to stand from the toilet and move to the bidet to clean one’s tush. In the 1970s, bidet toilet seats gained popularity in Japan, where plumbing giant Toto revamped them into robotic, heated, oscillating wonders, colonizing some 70 percent of the nation’s toilets with bidet seats. Toto brought the Washlet to the U.S. market in the 1980s, and the company, along with a handful of local and foreign competitors, has been laboriously trying to demystify the bidet toilet seat for Americans ever since.
“The market has taken longer to develop than what I initially thought,” says Dave Samuel, a Bay Area tech entrepreneur who founded the bidet toilet seat company Brondell in 2003, with backing from venture capitalists like Mark Cuban, after using Washlets on trips to Japan.
The U.S. market for these seats seems to be split three ways, according to Jensen Lee, whose online store BidetsPLUS currently sells 13 different bidet toilet seats by six manufacturers. “One-third goes to the medical market: people who aren’t able to take care of themselves, seniors, and customers with limited mobility,” says Lee. Another third are customers who have experienced bidet toilet seats when traveling, or who previously had standard bidets, and the rest come from online searches.
Bidet seat vendors all readily admit that the North American market, while ripe with potential, is a particularly tough nut to crack, thanks to prudish American attitudes toward the potty. While Americans harbor no shame in purchasing wearable blankets (and donning them in public), there’s a tremendous stigma attached to bidets of all sorts. According to Daphne Procz-Shorts, the co-creator of the blog PoopReport (“Your #1 Source for #2”), American bidet aversion is tied up with puritanical notions about bodily function and sexuality. “This entire mindset seems to put the bidet into some class that entails all that is considered ‘perverse,’ ” she says. Bidets, at various times in American history, have been labeled decadent, immoral, and most tellingly, French. Scratch that itchy notion, and the stench of homophobia isn’t far behind.
Manufacturers try to sidestep this by cutting the association between typical European bidets and the advanced integrated toilet seat bidets they’re selling. “Compared to a Washlet, a bidet is like a horse and carriage is to a Prius,” says David Krakoff, Toto’s President of sales for the Americas. “Take the word ‘bidet’ out of the equation, and American consumers actually love the Washlet because they appreciate what it does and how it works.”
So what will it take to convince North Americans to see the light on this? If logical arguments about hygiene, ecology, and comfort don’t work, is there some other factor? Perhaps there is a magic quantum that will push North America over the edge, a tipping point of enough toilets outfitted with integrated bidets, which will clean enough backsides to win enough hearts and minds, to make everyone wake up. Not just for themselves, but for the good of the planet.
Until that happens I will be up on the third floor with a magazine in one hand and my Brondell remote control in the other, controlling a gentle stream of water and wondering just how the hell you people do it.