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The Science of Holding in Your Poops to Save the Planet

The President of Brazil is a sociopathic monster, but does that mean we can’t trust his opinions on how often to go plop-plops? Let’s find out.

Could you hold your poop in to save the planet? Should you hold your poop in to save the planet??? Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro thinks you should!

That, at least, was the narrative everyone ran with this week, because although what he actually dared to suggest was that we could all do with eating a little less, “world leader says stop shitting” gets more clicks. “It’s enough to eat a little less,” he told a journalist who’d asked asked him about the increased deforestation of the Amazon happening under his government. “You talk about environmental pollution. It’s enough to poop every other day. That will be better for the whole world.”

None of which is to give Bolsonaro a pass — this, after all, is a man who is against abortion; same-sex marriage; gun control; equal pay and affirmative action; who once said General Pinochet “should have killed more people”; and has claimed in the past that climate change is a “Marxist plot.” Not to mention, when it comes to the environmental issue at hand, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which tracks clear-cutting of the rainforest, reports that around 2,254 square kilometers (870 square miles) of the Amazon were cleared in July alone — that’s an increase of 278 percent from a year ago. The INPE previously reported a 90 percent year-over-year increase in June, after which Bolsonaro sacked the head of the institute, claiming the statistics were “lies.”

So, he’s clearly not very nice. But is he right about the shitting thing? Let’s investigate.

How often do most people poop in the first place?

While plenty of people have a perfectly regular once-a-day habit, there are already a lot of people who only drop a deuce every other day. Opening your bomb bay doors anywhere between three times a day and once every three days places you in the normal category, in fact (three times a day just means your body has the same one-in, one-out rule for meals as busy nightclubs have for customers). Your poo-pattern can be affected by age, diet, fiber intake, stress, caffeine or just being somewhere there isn’t anything to do a shit in. Dramatic changes or massive inconsistencies in your shit-schedule (or spending too long on the porcelain throne) might mean you need to take a look at your diet, or a doctor needs to take a look at your bumhole.

Wouldn’t pooping less frequently just mean bigger poos?

A dump doesn’t disappear if it goes undumped. Assuming Bolsonaro is working from a one-dung-daily model, he’s suggesting that we halve the number of times one goes to have a sit down and put some thoughts on paper by doing it every other day. But while the mass of the plop you’d do on day two might not be quite as large as the combined mass of the two number twos you’d have hypothetically otherwise pressed out, this difference is likely to just be the amount of water in the stool — the amount of undigested food, bacteria and dead cells expelled from your body will remain the same. Essentially, the same amount of fecal matter will end up in the same place it would have gone if you’d just shat twice — the only difference is that by holding it in, you might produce a feculent, pipe-blocking beast.

Holding it in also isn’t particularly healthy, and can result in abdominal pains, constipation and eventually an impacted bowel. None of those conditions are famed for being particularly beneficial or harmful for the environment, though, so are apparently irrelevant to this discussion.

How could fewer poos help the environment?

Fewer poos would mean fewer flushes (especially if you adhere to the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” rule) and less wiping, so even with the amount of bacteria you expel remaining the same, less water would be wasted and less toilet paper would be flushed. Toilet paper generally breaks down and is composted, so its disposal doesn’t have much environmental impact (although wet wipes definitely fuck up everything), but it is made from trees, which as you’d imagine, is a problem. National Geographic estimates that toilet paper production uses 27,000 trees per day, so halving that (which ignores toilet paper used for pees, noses and wiping the seat) would actually make quite an impact, sparing nearly five million trees annually. 

However, according to this paper in Science, the Amazon contains 390 billion trees across 2.1 million square miles. With a mean density of 186,000 trees per square mile, Bolsonaro’s deforestation program did more damage just in the month of July, than two and a half years of the whole world reducing ass-wiping to once every two days would be able to make up for.

Every toilet flush, meanwhile, uses about 1.6 gallons (7.3 liters) of water, so only flushing the toilet once every two days would reduce your water use fairly dramatically — for the average American, that’s a 90-percent reduction. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, as we’re running out of the stuff, but it must be said that vastly more water is used in things like food production than private plumbing, with one pound of beef requiring up to 18,000 gallons (82,000 liters) to produce. Compared to going without a few burgers, not doing a shit won’t do shit.

Does the thing he said about eating less make any sense, at least?

It does, sort of, ish. Not in a way that makes him seem like any less of a dickhead, because it requires extensive rephrasing, but modifying one’s diet can really reduce an individual’s toll on the planet. The single biggest way to reduce your impact on the environment is to forego meat and dairy, as their production requires far more land than growing vegetables, and so is a major cause of deforestation. Seventy-five percent of the deforestation in the Amazon, and one-third of biodiversity loss, is down to animal agriculture. 

All in all, when ranking the causes of damage to the Amazon region on a daily basis, the list goes:

  1. Fossil fuels
  2. Animal agriculture
  3. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro

“Having a shit when you need a shit,” as you may have guessed, is so far down the list as to not be worth mentioning.  

Let’s say I’m totally convinced anyway and want to poop less. Advice?

There’s a WikiHow. So good luck with that.