Why Aren't Bidets Common in the U.S.?

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iStock

In a famous scene from Crocodile Dundee, Mick Dundee stands in the bathroom of his upscale New York City hotel room toiling with the bidet, attempting by trial and error to determine what it is and how to use it.

The hotel where Dundee is sizing up the bidet must have been outfitted in European style. The majority of bathrooms in the U.S., including those in the fanciest hotels, often lack a bidet, and encountering one is just as likely to confound someone born and raised in the U.S. as it is a leathery, affable man from the Outback. When there is a porcelain toilet-side wash station installed in a U.S. bathroom, it is often an unexpected extra.

Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and parts of Europe and South America, people would find it unsettling to enter a washroom devoid of a bidet. As it turns out, the standard practice of something as basic as cleaning up after the restroom varies greatly in approach around the world.

Where there's a will, there's a bidet

The bidet is believed to have originated in France in the early 1700s, which is also where it found its name. Bidet means “horse” in French, or more specifically a “cob,” which is a strong, short-legged horse. For the uninitiated, the term is a visual allusion to how one is supposed to use the contraption. (Furthering the horse theme, Napoleon’s men also likely utilized the bidet to freshen up after long rides.)

One of the earliest-known bidets was installed in the bedroom—these were the days of bedside chamber pots, too—of the French royal family in 1710 by Christophe des Rosiers, who is widely credited as the bidet’s inventor. Pots and bidets eventually moved out of the bedroom, and as technology developed, so did both appliances. In 1750, for example, the bidet was upgraded with a hand pump to allow for spraying.

Since its first days providing cleanliness for French royalty, the bidet has spread internationally. It is considered standard in many European countries, particularly in Italy and Portugal, as well as in South American countries like Argentina and Venezuela. They also are commonly found in Middle Eastern countries and throughout East Asia, especially in Japan. According to estimates, bidets are present in about 80 percent of bathrooms in these areas.  

The American Way

One developed country conspicuously absent from that list is the U.S. Why the bidet never caught on stateside is a bit of a mystery. In 2007, NYU professor Harvey Molotch offered a few theories to The New York Times. Because the fixture was a French invention, it was rejected by the English, and that sentiment drifted across the pond. During World War II, the Times notes, American soldiers saw bidets in European brothels, "perpetuating the idea that bidets were somehow associated with immorality."

Another issue is bathroom size. Most bathrooms in the U.S. aren't big enough for an extra appliance. Whether this prevented the spread of bidets in the U.S. or bathroom size developed as such because extra room was unneeded (the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg debate) is unknown.

One of the most successful bidet models, interestingly enough, was invented in the U.S. in the 1960s by Arnold Cohen, also known as “Mr. Bidet.” As Cohen has said, when he first began marketing his model, 99 percent of people in the U.S. had never heard of or seen a bidet, which made sales stateside for American Bidet Company slow growing. A company named Toto Ltd. saw the potential and repackaged Cohen’s concept as a “washlet” in the 1980s. That hybrid toilet-bidet appliance is now installed in more than half of Japanese homes and, based on 2007 numbers, has sold in excess of 17 million.

Most people reared on the bidet perceive it as unsanitary to skip, while people used to solely paper tend to think similarly about using the bidet. Bidet proponents cite improved cleanliness, more comfort (less abrasion, to get specific) and environmental sustainability as reasons to hop on the bidet. It is estimated that in North America, where paper is the way to go, 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper go to waste annually.

While the opportunity for the clunky, standard bidet to catch on in the U.S. might have passed, manufacturers like Kohler are producing new iterations of the bidet, or at least incorporating underside-cleaning appliances into toilets. The fresh take might just work the bidet into more U.S. homes.

What Caused Pangea to Break Apart?

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iStock.com/alfimimnill

Emily Devenport:

There's another way to look at this question. People tend to think in terms of supercontinents forming and then breaking up again due to convection currents in the mantle, hot material rising and causing rifts in weaker spots, possibly in old sutures where the continents were shoved together—but what is really happening is that ocean basins are opening and closing, and the ocean has an active role in subduction.

The opening and closing of an ocean basin is called a Wilson Cycle. It begins when hot material rising from the mantle stretches the overlying crust. As molten material rises, a rift is formed. The rift is widened as material continues to squeeze into it. If that rifting goes on long enough, through a broad enough swath of a continent, ocean water will eventually flow into it, and an ocean basin begins to form. The upwelling of hot material will continue to rise through that thinner area of crust, pushing the plates apart. The Atlantic Ocean is an example of a basin that is well along in the Wilson Cycle; eventually subduction is going to begin at its margins, and the whole shebang will pivot.

This will happen because at the edge of continents, sediments accumulate. The weight of those sediments, combined with the weight of the water, drives the heavier, denser edge of the oceanic plate under the continental crust, which is fatter and lighter. Eventually subduction begins, and the basin begins to close again. The Pacific Ocean is an example of a basin that's closing.

If you look at a map of the oceanic rift zones, you'll notice that the one in the Atlantic is pretty much in the middle of that ocean, but the Pacific rift zone has been pulled all the way over to North America above Central America. Subduction is actively occurring on all margins of that plate.

The simple picture is that the continents are moving toward each other across the Pacific Ocean while the Atlantic Basin continues to widen. The truth is more complicated. When plates subduct, the water in the crust lowers the melting point of those rocks, so partial melting occurs. The partially melted material begins to rise through the overlying rocks, because it's less dense, and decompression melting occurs. Eventually, the upwelling of hot material forms plutons and volcanoes above the subduction zones. Fore-arc and Back-arc [PDF] basins can form. As the oceanic crust is pulled under the continental plate, island chains and other chunky bits get sutured to the edge of the continent along with sediments, making it larger. Our world is ~4.6 billion years old, so our continents are really large, now. They're unlikely to rift through the ancient cratons that formed their hearts.

What will happen if subduction begins on the eastern side of North America before the Pacific Basin closes? The margin next to California is a transform fault; it's not subducting. Will it eventually push itself under that part of North America again, or will the transform zone get bigger? The hot spot that was driving the ancient Farallon Plate under North America was eventually overridden by the southwestern states (Arizona, New Mexico, etc.) forming a rift zone. Will it continue to rift or poop out?

There are computer models predicting what supercontinent may form next. They will continue to change as our understanding of tectonic processes gets more accurate.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Do Those Recycling Symbols and Codes Mean?

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iStock.com/ChrisSteer

Earth Day is here again, serving as an annual reminder of the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle our way to a better planet.

When it comes to the last part of that familiar three-”R” mantra, most people know enough to separate certain items from the rest of their garbage, but much of our modern recycling routine remains a mystery. From the recycling symbol itself to what those numbers on plastic containers actually mean, there's a lot you can learn from your trash before it becomes someone else's treasure.

An International Symbol With An Earthy Origin

The universal recycling symbol—three folded arrows that form a triangle, with the head of one arrow pointing to the tail of the next—was created in 1970 by University of Southern California student Gary Anderson as part of a contest tied to the very first Earth Day. Each arrow of the design represents one of the steps in the recycling process: collecting the recyclable goods after use, breaking them down and reforming them, and then packaging new products in the containers.

Originally designed as an inverted triangle, the symbol was later rotated to the pyramid-like orientation commonly used now.

The Number Game

The American Society of Plastics Industry first began using numbers inside the recycling symbols on plastic containers in 1988 as a way to assist with sorting them. The "Resin Identification Code" uses seven numbers to identify the type of synthetic material used to manufacture the container, with the higher numbers representing less commonly used plastics.

Here's a primer on each of the codes:

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE/PET)
Usually accompanied by the letters "PETE" or "PET," this resin is generally used for soda bottles and other containers for edible and non-edible goods. When it's not being used to manufacture containers, you might recognize it by another name: polyester. (Yes, it's the stuff that insulates your jackets.) It's also one of the most widely accepted forms of plastic in curbside recycling programs, though the amount of useable material available for new products after breaking down this plastic is relatively small.

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
The second most widely used resin for plastic bottles, HDPE is a stiff, strong material with a high resistance to chemicals, which has made it the go-to plastic for food items like milk and juice, as well as household cleaners and trash bags. It's also easy to break down in the recycling process and easy to reform, making it one of the most efficient consumer plastics. Most curbside recycling programs have no problem with accepting products made from this plastic.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
First discovered in the 19th century, PVC is commonly used in building materials today—especially pipes and plumbing material—due to its strength and chemical resistance (although it's occasionally used for some household products). It has a nasty habit of releasing highly carcinogenic toxins into the atmosphere when it's burned, so recycling is a significantly less appealing option for PVC disposal, and it's usually not accepted by curbside recycling programs.

4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
This plastic is becoming more common today, especially for manufacturing squeeze bottles and grocery bags. Plastics made from LDPE are usually very strong, and they're regularly used as sealants because of this quality. While they weren't included in curbside recycling programs at first, plastics made from LDPE are now becoming more commonly accepted.

5. Polypropylene (PP)
Regarded as one of the “safest” plastics produced today, PP is generally used for squeezable bottles, bottle caps, and straws. Along with LDPE, it's also used for food-storage containers that can be reused over time. It has an extremely high melting point, so it's one of the best consumer plastics for items that will be exposed to heat. Like LDPE, it's becoming more common for curbside recycling programs to accept items made from this plastic.

6. Polystyrene (PS)
More commonly known as styrofoam, this type of plastic is not only notoriously difficult to recycle, but it's also been shown to leach dangerous toxins over time into anything packaged in it—and even greater amounts of toxins when it's burned. This is the resin usually found in disposable serving trays, egg cartons, and cups, and it's rarely accept by curbside recycling programs due to the danger it poses and the difficulty of recycling it. Basically, this is the worst of the bunch.

7. Everything Else
There are countless other plastics, but very few of them are easily recycled in curbside programs, making this category the catch-all for everything that could conceivably be broken down and reformed, but might be better off reused or reformed in some way that doesn't require a chemical process. This category encompasses everything from bulletproof material to those large water jugs on office coolers, and is rarely included in curbside recycling programs.

Safety In Numbers

For anyone wondering which plastics are safe to reuse in their current form, it's widely accepted that HDPE (2), LDPE (4), and PE (5) can be reused multiple times for edible items, as they're generally resistant to chemicals, haven't been shown to degrade, and don't leach dangerous substances into their contents.

This story first ran in 2013.

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