Monday, January 21, 2013

What's in a Flush?

To be human means to love, to experience regret and loss, and to aspire to transcend the existential limitations of our mortal being.  It also means—more prosaically to be sure—having to eliminate the liquid and solid wastes that have built up in our bodies as a result of the process of consuming food and drink.  In the not too distant past, people would have eliminated such wastes in an outhouse (basically a big hole in the ground with four walls placed around it), in an open field or stream, or by simply throwing such waste out of the windows of their squalid tenement apartments.  Only in recent history have human beings had the luxury of evacuating their food waste into toilets and flushing these waste products miles away from where they are living.

None of us, I’m sure, would like to return to pre-toilet days.  And, provided our toilets are connected to modern sewage treatment systems, the consequences of our modern methods of waste elimination are convenient for society and much more beneficial for local ecosystems than simply disposing of our waste products in whatever hole in the ground we are able to find. 

But, in our effort to forget that being human also means having to piss and crap, we have created a system to dispose of solid and liquid waste that is so inefficient, so wasteful of the most precious resource that our planet provides us, that we literally commit an act of ecological evil every time we flush our toilets. 
Before you think that I’m exaggerating, consider these facts:  If you live in a home built before 1994 (the vast majority of homes in the United States), each flush of your toilet consumes 3.5 gallons of water.  The average person in such a household, therefore, wastes 19.5 gallons of water per day and 7,135 gallons of water per year simply flushing their toilets.  If the typical household includes four people, that household, then, is responsible for wasting 78 gallons of water each day and 28,540 gallons of water each year.

Consider further that water is our most precious natural resource; that we human beings are made up of over 50% water, and without a clean, steady supply of this precious liquid, we simply couldn’t survive as individuals or as a species.  Finally, consider the fact that many parts of the world—and many parts of our own country—have been experiencing severe drought conditions as a result of climate change.  It has been suggested that water will become such a contested commodity in the 21st century that the wars of the future may very well be fought, not over access to oil, gas, gold, or silver, but over access to a reliable supply of potable water. 

And most of us are content to waste 3.5 gallons of this “liquid gold” every time we relieve our bladders!

The solution to this problem doesn’t involve having to squat in our backyards (the neighbors probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much anyway).  The easiest solution is to replace older toilets with more efficient models that waste less water.  New toilets have a tank capacity of 1.6 gallons of water—more than enough to flush away whatever comes out of our bodies. Better still, European-style toilets are made with dual flush options, so less water is used to flush liquid waste than solid.  If money is an issue, a free solution is simply to put a 1 or 2 liter soda bottle filled with water into your toilets tanks, which will reduce the holding capacity of the tank and automatically use less water.

The most important thing that we can do, however, is to stop thinking about water as a free resource with no consequences attached to its use.  While there is a constant amount of water on the planet and in our atmosphere, making waste water potable enough to drink requires building enormous water purification systems that are energy intensive (Singapore has been experimenting with this).  Even in a country as wealthy as the United States, building enough purification systems to “reclaim” all of the water we waste flushing our toilets would be prohibitively expensive.   The solution then is conservation, not reclamation.

This demands that each of us develop a new relationship with water that recognizes just how precious this resource is. If something is truly precious to us, we wouldn’t consider simply flushing it away without any further thought. 

I used to take a group of students to West Virginia as part of our Appalachia Project every summer. The two Catholic nuns who were in charge of our group spent a significant part of the students’ orientation educating them about how important it was to live in harmony with the local ecosystem. They then went into a lengthy discussion—much to the student’s dismay, I’m sure—about their system for flushing the toilet. The students were instructed that, if they absolutely had to use the toilet in the house (as opposed to using the outhouse), they had to follow the following rule: “If it’s brown, flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” It took the students quite a while to get used to this system (their natural inclination, of course, was to flush immediately regardless of whether the waste they produced was brown or yellow), but eventually they got into the routine. The students probably didn’t continue this practice when they returned to “civilization” (as they called it), but for a while it certainly did make them conscious of an issue they probably never gave much thought to before. 

So, the next time you feel compelled to eliminate waste products from your body, you may want to consider if the flush you are about to produce is, in fact, absolutely necessary (if it’s yellow, could it stand to mellow for a while?), or, at the very least, whether that flush is wasting much more water than necessary to achieve your desired goal of getting what you eliminate from your body out of your house with reasonable efficiency.

Then we can discuss just how much toilet paper you absolutely need to wipe your posterior before you even consider flushing the toilet. But that’s a topic for another post.

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