There’s a photo-word montage on the Internet in which a little boy, presumably from Africa, looks skeptically at a woman who is apparently from somewhere else. The boy asks, “You mean to tell me you have so much clean water, that you (poop) in it?”
Umm…yeah. Yeah, we do. But why?
This probably isn't a question you often ask, because as the wastewater treatment industry says, we have a “flush it and forget it” attitude as a nation. Number ones and number twos disgust us, and we don't want to see, smell, touch, or God forbid, deal with our pee and poop.
Flush toilets magically make all that human waste vanish in an instant, so we can go on with our day in blissful denial that anything unpleasant-smelling ever came out of our bodies at all.
What’s the cost for that modern convenience? An awful lot of water.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an average American family of four can flush over 100 gallons of water per day down their toilet. That number can skyrocket to 200 gallons if the toilet doesn't stop running, and can decrease by over a gallon per flush if you get an efficient “WaterSense” toilet.
Innovations like low-flow toilets and waterless urinals can decrease the amount of water pouring into treatment plants.
Even the most water-conserving systems are still wasteful in two ways. First, they flush away some clean water. Second, they throw away a nutrient-rich resource. Yes, I'm calling your number twos a “resource.”
Our sewage systems combine everything that goes down the drain in homes and businesses with water, mix it together, and then attempt to clean up that liquid. The problem is, so to speak, you can't put Humpty Dumpty together again. Not perfectly, anyway.
Once human waste and once-clean water mix together with pharmaceuticals, pesticides, flame retardants, antibacterial soap, cosmetics, Drano, and everything else that goes down the drain, it’s nearly impossible to separate it once again.
Our current method involves separating solids from liquids to clean the sewage water, which experts want you to call “effluent.” Wastewater treatment is hard and expensive. No matter how well it’s done, the effluent released into the environment is not simply pure water.
For example, scientists found that a common ingredient in antibacterial soap released into the Mississippi River in effluent breaks down into cancer-causing dioxins.
The solids sent to wastewater treatment plants are composted and treated as thoroughly as possible before they are disposed of using various imperfect methods. One such option is applying them to farm fields as “fertilizer,” even though they still contain many toxins in them. Sometimes they even sell the treated sludge to home gardeners under brand names like Milorganite.
Outhouses aren't a real option in crowded cities, town, and suburbs. What else can you do? Well, you could consider getting a composting toilet. In my experience, composting toilets have no smell or other unpleasant features. You sit, do your thing, and “flush” by adding something like pine shavings to aid in the composting process. That’s it. You probably don't want to fertilize your lettuce with your composted waste, but you can easily use it to plant a tree.
Changing our entire approach to dispensing with human waste wouldn’t be easy. But sticking with the status quo means continuing to waste water and compost, even as several regions of our country are suffering droughts. Using composting toilets won't keep soap out of our wastewater stream, but it will keep it out of our, um, fertilizer.
Maybe it’s time for those who can to opt out of this wasteful system by conserving water and putting our number twos to work by switching to composting toilets.