October 30, 2011

Improving Toilet Paper

I was changing the toilet paper in the bathroom of a friend with whom I was staying the other day. The thought suddenly struck me that the standard roll of toilet paper is not the ideal product for its intended purpose. Mostly, one does not use a single sheet of toilet paper, nor does one use connected sheets in a linear fashion suggested by their shape. Instead, toilet paper is usually wadded up in such a way that very little of its surface area constitutes what might be called the active area of the product.

Roll of toilet paper
Photo courtesy of Brandon Blinkenberg
Why, I thought, is toilet paper the product that it is? (Perhaps all the recent tributes to Steve Jobs have caused me to think more about design than I usually do. The Wikipedia article on toilet paper reviews some of the alternative devices that have been used over the years, none of which seems the ideal mass-market product.) Toilet paper is made of a material whose primary characteristic is its disposability. Other characteristics—tensile strength, softness, etc.—are secondary but can be manipulated to some extent.

The other significant characteristic of toilet paper is its packaging. The roll is easy to produce, is compact, and allows the product to be dispensed using simple and inexpensive appliances. Although the cardboard tube at the center of every roll creates significant waste, it may soon be eliminated, as Kimberly-Clark has devised a way to create toilet paper rolls without it. (See, for example, the USA Today story here.) As I mentioned earlier, however, what is dispensed is fundamentally the wrong shape.

I am not an inventor or an industrial designer, so I do not have an alternative to propose as a replacement for the standard toilet paper roll. Perhaps the solution to the personal hygiene problem needs to be completely rethought. Perhaps toilet paper should be packaged in a different fashion. Perhaps the dispensing appliance could be altered.

Here is one possibility: Perforate the paper into slightly longer segments, say, 8 inches. Devise a dispenser that folds these segments over one another. For example, one might begin with 2-ply paper and a dispenser that dispenses three folded segments, thus yielding a kind of 6-ply, 8-inch long “pad.” The number of segments in a pad could even be adjustable.

Any better ideas, anyone?


  1. Some of us don't wad, we fold. I've often thought a single flushable sheet with an absorbing core which will eventually break down biologically would be a good alternative.

  2. I'd never thought about this. Now I'm going to be obsessed. And here I thought "over or under" was the TP controversy to end all others.

  3. Freaking progressives! Everyone knows that the design of toilet paper was set in tradition by a holy reading of Leviticus! Next you will want to let ponies marry or something!

    Sorry, I had a moment of channeling Virtue Online there....


  4. How could you have come this far in your career unaware of two of the most basic engineering rules?

    1. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
    2. The best deterrent to a good solution is one that works.


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