Backyard TP degradation experiment
Apr 15, 2016 at 9:33 am #3396175
October 26, 2015
The purpose of this test was to compare the speed of degradation of three types of backcountry “toilet paper.” This was done in my back yard, the soil of which is Bentonite clay with minimal organic components (I think). I dug three 6″ deep cat holes holes one foot apart, placed the tissues to be tested in separate holes, moistened them with a splash of water, and covered them with soil.
The first hole contained Charmin Ultra-Soft TP (3 squares).
The second hole held one KanDoo Flushable Wipe, which is supposed to be fairly biodegradable. It is considered to be safe for septic systems.
Into the third hole went one Wet Ones wipe. These are not supposed to be flushed down the toilet, as they are pretty slow to degrade. I am on a well/septic system, so I have to watch what I flush into it.
The plan was to carefully dig into the holes at intervals of 6 and 12 months, to observe the levels of decay/degradation of each of the three “TP” specimens.
In the fall, I raked leaves into a large pile that covered the test area. I wanted to add some organic material that might possibly leach into the soil where the test tissues were buried. I’m not sure how much organic material, if any, is in my bentonite clay, and I’m not even sure what version of bentonite it is.
April 14, 2016
After nearly 6 months and numerous significant snow storms of 8″ to 18″, and after my big spring yard cleanup, I accessed the three “TP holes” to see how much, if any, degrading of the tissues had taken place.
I had expected that the regular Charmin toilet paper squares would degrade rather quickly, as toilet paper is designed to be flushed down a toilet. I was curious as to how fast the “flushable” KanDoo baby wipes would decompose. I was expecting that the regular Wet Ones wipes would be quite slow to degrade, since they would tend to collect in my septic tank and decompose very slowly (before I was advised to NOT flush those).
To my surprise, there was no evidence of any tissue in any of the three holes. Everything had completely degraded during those ~ 6 months. I rather expected the regular toilet paper to at least be fairly well broken down, I wasn’t sure about the flushable baby wipes, and I would have bet that the Wet Ones wouldn’t have degraded much at all.
Given these unexpected results, perhaps a second test should probably be done. Apparently the holes should be checked on a monthly basis, as degradation seems to occur more quickly than I had expected. I am pretty certain that these results wouldn’t be duplicated in desert soil like in Canyonlands, but in the rich humus soil of the Hoh rain forest things could happen even more quickly.
YTPDRPWV–Your TP degradation rate probably will vary…Apr 15, 2016 at 9:37 am #3396177Stephen MBPL Member
@stephen-mLocale: Way up North
Good man Gary, you should have buried used toilet paper :-) or did you ;-)Apr 15, 2016 at 9:47 am #3396180
Hi Stephen. Actually, I had thought of that. But with all the squirrels, skunks, raccoons, and other pesky critters that cruise through my place at night, I figured I would be setting myself up for a mess in the yard. The neighbors might call the sheriff, I could do some jail time for baiting the animals, and I wouldn’t be able to complete my experiment.Apr 15, 2016 at 9:48 am #3396181Todd StoughBPL Member
I know soil life varies. I was shocked to see how fast my worms eat paper products in my worm bin. They mow through the stuff. I’d imagine in a healthy soil they break down very quickly.Apr 15, 2016 at 10:28 am #3396185Jerry AdamsBPL Member
@retiredjerryLocale: Oregon and Washington
I’ve been thinking about doing something similar
TP and poop
TP, poop, urine
TP, poop, urine, stirred
I could try it at some campsite I go to occasionally
I have never encountered other people’s stuff when I’ve dug a hole, so I assumed it degrades quickly like your result
Except one time I was in a very constrained space on the PCT. Only one small area where catholes could go. I encountered someone else’s, so I covered it back up and moved sideways 12 inches.Apr 15, 2016 at 10:44 am #3396187Stephen MBPL Member
@stephen-mLocale: Way up North
I say your neighbour’s see you doing some crazy stuff in your yard already :-)Apr 15, 2016 at 11:08 am #3396193
OK, so I am an abject liar. I went back out just now to set the catholes up for a re-test. Look what I found in the Wet Ones hole:
I don’t know how I managed to miss that yesterday when I opened the holes. Maybe it looked too much like the dirt or something. So there is one thing I now know–Wet Ones don’t decompose well at all, whereas regular toilet paper and flushable baby wipes do.
The other thing, Todd, is that there are scads of earthworms living in my clay soil. I’m not much of a wormster, and I didn’t know they like to gobble up things. Maybe the little guys ate my TP and flushable wipe! So maybe all we really know here is that either (1) Wet Ones don’t degrade fast, or (2) worms don’t like to eat Wet Ones.
Jerry, please do that test you mentioned. This concept has come up on BPL before, and I’ve never seen a definitive set of test results regarding TP degradation. That’s why I did this myself last fall. I am beginning to appreciate that there are all sorts of variables involved here. Things like how organic the soil is, the weather and the amount of precipitation the poop site gets, animals digging up and scattering the TP, etc., etc., etc. And now, worms–who knew?
Some years ago I was camping near the Maze overlook in Canyonlands. When I dug my morning cat hole I found someone else’s rock-hard log. No TP, just a petrified log that likely had been there for years. That desert soil has minimal organic material, if any, and there is such scant precipitation that things don’t degrade much at all.
One thing is quite clear, though. When the BPL forums go into a ho-hum phase, you can usually count on me to bring up a fairly insipid topic; in this case, it’s Forensic Scatology.Apr 15, 2016 at 11:27 am #3396195
Yeah, Stephen, my neighbors generally think I’m crazy. This winter especially so. You know that Bob Moulder and I have collaborated on dialing in his Moulder Strip concept to warm up a fuel canister in very cold conditions. When we had zero degrees F, I would sit on my patio in a down suit, testing stoves for a couple of hours before sunrise. My neighbor buddy just shakes his head when I do things like this.
Then Komperdell gifted me a pair of carbon fiber snowshoe poles to do some beta testing for them. I did my snow dances often, was rewarded with several serious snow dumps, and I was able to do some good testing in my big yard. I set up a 200 yard course around the place, and I did lap after lap after lap to test the various snow baskets, proper pole length, etc. Then I would swap out the snowshoes for xc skis and repeat the procedure. Again, my neighbor just shook his head.
One day the sales gal at REI said to me (when I told her what I’d been up to this winter), “You’re not married, are you? A wife wouldn’t let you do things like that.” I didn’t tell her that I also had buried toilet paper in my back yard.Apr 15, 2016 at 1:47 pm #3396221David ThomasBPL Member
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
Gary, thanks for advancing the science of backyard scatology. Have you found a journal that will publish your results?
Sewage passes through sewer treatment plant in hours to days (the liquid portion in hours, the solids in some days). Of course, that is engineered to really help the microbes and they add atmospheric air or in some cases, hyperbaric oxygen. Point being, when the moisture and temperatures are right, things can go very quickly.
I’m am surprised that you got such complete degradation through the winter (and it was, at times, a cold one for you). For most of those 6 months, that ground 6 inches down was frozen and any worms had retreated to greater depth. If a rerun the experiment in Summer, I’d estimate it will all be done within 2 months, so you should look at tighter intervals than that.
If this is somewhere out of the way of lawn mowing, etc, you could stick a thermometer in with the bulb at 6 inches of depth. I’ve geeked out on frost fronts and “trumpet curves” in soil columns and biological activity is such a strong function of temperature, it would be interesting to note the soil temps. Even one of the remote-read thermistor set-ups could be used if you buried the thermistor and mounting the readout on a tree or stake under a plastic bag or overturned jar.
My wife is pretty much resigned to this sort of thing going on. And really, out of the alternatives:
Apr 15, 2016 at 2:28 pm #3396228
- 1. puttering in the garage with PVC pipe, aluminum tubing, a torch and household chemicals,
- 2. going out drinking with the guys,
- 3. joining a bowling league (see #2),
- 4. collecting and fondling guns, or
- 5. owning a boat,
a little backyard science isn’t so bad.
Thanks for validating my geekhood, David, and also for the bit about temperature driving the worms deeper into the soil. Maybe it really wasn’t them that made the tissues disappear after all. However, after early-mid January our ambient temps weren’t all that cold, and I doubt that the ground was frozen much.
I placed three more tissues in the holes this morning, and I will be sure to check them monthly now. Of course the conditions in the mountains won’t be the same as here at home, but I do want to settle on some sort of LNT approach in using TP when camping. I kinda think I’m onto the solution, as the Charmin and the KanDoo flushable, biodegradable wipes seem to work pretty well. But I am certain that regular Wet Ones would be a bad idea–those things are like a cotton bandana!
edit: In addition to your excellent list of alternatives that might alter a marital scene, I will submit that owning a light plane, and flying into/over mountains every weekend doing daredevil maneuvers would rank high as well…Apr 15, 2016 at 2:43 pm #3396237Clifford DeakyneBPL Member
@cliffdeakyneLocale: Colorado Rockies foot hills
I have noticed a number of gear lists have 1/4 blue shop paper towel listed as their TP. Any chance you could include one of these with the others. I have worried that it would not degrade as well as TP, but thought it might clean better.Apr 15, 2016 at 2:50 pm #3396240Tipi WalterBPL Member
Please try wet paper towels like Bounty—it’s all I ever use for TP when out backpacking.
Or to paraphrase Jerry Adams-
TP, poop, urine, shaken not stirred.
Then again, field use of wiping materials may have to take in account a very angry Turtlehead whereupon you squat and release in unlaced boots whereupon the laces fall into the poop hole and get covered in effluvia.
Or you squat and have an explosive event with hurling flecks, not good when wearing down pants.
In rare cases, a Turd’s vestigial arm may grab your ankle as you stand and cause you to fall into the Turd Hole; or tie your boot laces together after squatage with vestigial fingers—great sport!! for the fun-loving feces.Apr 15, 2016 at 2:52 pm #3396242
Hi Clifford. I don’t have any of those blue shop towels. Why don’t you try it yourself? In the meantime, I’ll see if I can snag a couple of them next time I get my oil changed, but I can guess as to how well they degrade. May the science project continue… (at least until the next one pops up).Apr 15, 2016 at 3:01 pm #3396245
You’re as crazy as I am, Tipi! But since our impending spring storm hasn’t started yet, I’ll head outside and dig a 4th hole for one section of Bounty Pick-a-Size. You’re right–we need to also know how paper towels perform. But man, I don’t see how you dudes can stand to use something as rough as a shop towel or a paper towel. That’s like the coarse Russian-made TP that was in the Madagascar hotels in the ’80s. Baaaad TP!Apr 15, 2016 at 6:02 pm #3396271Tipi WalterBPL Member
I only use bounty paper towels after moistened with water, otherwise OUCH.Apr 20, 2016 at 11:35 am #3397029HeathPBPL Member
This is fantastic! This is one of the reasons I love the forums here. Keep up the great work!!Apr 20, 2016 at 11:53 am #3397040
Thanks Heath. Now you’ll have to wait until May 15 to see the next set of results. And somebody needs to bury a blue shop towel in their yard to see how that works. So what else needs to be tested? What else do people use for TP in the woods? Newspaper, a couple pages from a Marvel comic book, the cellophane wrapper from a Twinkie?
By the way, absolutely NO small rocks in my yard showed one bit of degradation over the winter, but they seemed to be somewhat cleaner after each snow storm. So maybe Mike Clelland! is onto something. But if the grasses under his rocks show greater proliferation,might that perhaps be construed as “leaving a trace?”Apr 22, 2016 at 2:17 pm #3397464Diane “Piper” SoiniBPL Member
@sbhikesLocale: Santa Barbara
Maybe I should try to see how long it takes various sages, chamise and grasses to degrade as that’s what I use out there.May 24, 2016 at 8:59 am #3404446
OK folks, it’s now time for the long awaited and much anticipated 38-day TP degradation results (wild applause–the crowd is going nuts!).
On April 15, I placed various TP samples in 4 different holes. In the photo, left to right, were the following: 3 squares of Charmin, 1 Kandoo flushable wipe, 1 Wet One, and 1 section of Bounty Pick-a-size. On May 23 I opened the holes for a look-see. Here’s what I found:
Absolutely nothing in the holes. Nada. Zilch. There was no sign of any of the TP samples, not even the Wet One. However, there WERE a bunch of worms in each of the holes. Big worms, medium size ones, and even a few babies. I saw maybe 5-6 in each hole, as well as a few that were in the moist soil that I dug up and set aside. Did the worms just happen to be there, or did some momma worms make nests in the TP, lay the eggs (or whatever they do), and consume all of the TP? Nobody knows…
This test yielded no new information. All I can say is that there was no sign of any of the TP samples, and that there were worms in the holes. Whether these two observations are causally related, who can say? I’m not about to dig another 8-10 six-inch deep holes in my yard to see if there is the same concentration of worms everywhere in my yard. Nor will I repeat the test using a 4″ x 4″ piece of 1.43 oz./yard cuben (which I assume a worm won’t be able to eat).
So now I’m forced to return to the campsite where my buddy and I enjoyed a splendid “forest bath” this past weekend and see what happened to my TP and Kandoo wipes a month later. After all, this would be a more representative sample of how things work in the real world (8200′ elevation, mountain soil, etc.).
What’s up with these worms messing with my scientific scatology studies anyway?May 24, 2016 at 9:37 am #3404458Nick GatelBPL Member
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
You need to test:
May 24, 2016 at 11:07 am #3404473
- dig hole
- wipe with TP
- add urine
Nah, Nick. I think that YOU need to test those parameters. I’m done, having learned what I think I have. Now it’s time for me to test some alcohol stoves, which will happen this afternoon when my pal shows up.May 24, 2016 at 5:53 pm #3404552Roger CaffinBPL Member
@rcaffinLocale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
I would be concerned about trying to use ‘shop towels’, as some of them have synthetic reinforcing threads in the paper. That would be less smart.
Otherwise – dig hole (I insist on that!), poo, wipe, bury, mark. All the rest is just overblown political correctness based on rumour.
My 2c. CheersMay 24, 2016 at 6:21 pm #3404556Jim ColtenBPL Member
Did the worms just happen to be there, or did some momma worms make nests in the TP, lay the eggs (or whatever they do), and consume all of the TP? Nobody knows…
The worms know, maybe? :-)
I would be concerned about trying to use ‘shop towels’, as some of them have synthetic reinforcing threads in the paper.
Hmmm, I’ll have to check into that with what I’m using.May 24, 2016 at 10:03 pm #3404584
No, Roger, the point here is just what type of TP does one use. I agree that shop towels, as well as the fiber-based Wet Ones, would be seriously non-biodegradable. But what about the incessant worms? They don’t much live in high alpine environs. Wood ticks do, however, as I just found out. I had my first ever tick bite last weekend, and I’m watching it closely. But I don’t think that ticks give a tinker’s damn about what type of TP one uses. They look for blood, worms seem to look for tissue paper. So many conundrums to consider, and so little time to figure it all out…May 24, 2016 at 10:12 pm #3404587Roger CaffinBPL Member
@rcaffinLocale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
No worms in an alpine environment? I am not so sure about that one. And I suspect there are plenty of low-level ‘consumers’ up there – it’s a niche just like all the others. The niche will be occupied.
Ticks – oh, all the time. But maybe not relevant to TP?
Iceworms actually living ON a glacier. Worms in the grass, or under it? No problems imho.
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