Close window  |  View original article

World Toilet Summit Plumbs New Depths

Hands off my john!

By Will Offensicht  |  November 25, 2008

On November 19, 2008, in commemoration of "World Toilet Day," the Australian site published "Experts call for end of flushing toilets on World Toilet Day."  The story opened:

As the world celebrates World Toilet Day today, sanitation experts have called for the end of the flushing dunny to save water and provide fertilizer for crops.

The World Toilet Summit was held in Macau under the sponsorship of the World Toilet Organization.  One might think from its name that this organization is in honor of Thomas Crapper's humble device, but no: in his address to the assembled delegates, Jack Sims, founder of the organization, said that the concept of the flushing toilet was "unsustainable."

You can be excused for thinking that the global environmentalist great and good were calling for a return to outhouses.  After all, ordinary flush toilets have been outlawed in the United States for some years now, with predictably scatological results, and no less a global eminence than actress Sheryl Crow famously called for rationing of toilet paper - one sheet per time, or else!

Surprisingly, however, the Summit's conclusion is a lot more sensible than it sounds, particularly regarding Australia which is suffering a long-term drought.  The Australian water shortage is so severe that the government is buying up farmers' water rights along major rivers, diverting water out of the agricultural system and sending it to cities.  It's pretty obvious that something profound needs to be done, so it's not at all foolish to look under ever rock, log, and toilet seat cover for ideas.

Water, Water Everywhere...

Australia isn't the only country facing a severe water shortage.  The International Herald Tribune reports that half of the world's population will face severe water shortage by 2080 and that large parts of India and China are already short of water.

The World Toilet Organization claims that there are 2.6 billion people without access to toilets of whom 2/3 live in southern and eastern Asia.  Giving these people access to flushing toilets would greatly increase water consumption.  As Mr. Sims put it, this is "unsustainable" in parts of the world which already suffer from water shortages.

The normal flush toilet uses between 5 and 7 gallons of water per flush.  The notorious "water saving" toilets use 1.5 to 3.5 gallons per flush.  This could save a great deal of water considering that most people flush the toilet several times per day, but even so, giving 2.6 billion people access to new flush toilets is impractical - there simply isn't enough water available to support even low-flush toilets for that many new users.

When it comes to shortages, there are two approaches: 1) get more or 2) conserve what you have.  The Australian government is considering imposing a tax to encourage people to use less water.  The Japanese have approached the problem of conserving water in two major ways:

  1. Moving the flush lever in one direction releases a small amount of water for getting rid of urine; moving the lever the other way releases more water for dispatching solid stuff.
  2. As the tank refills, the incoming water first sprays into a small catch basin set in the lid.  You're supposed to wash your hands in this stream so that you don't run water in the sink.

Japanese toilets have a third feature which facilitates sewage recycling - the toilet sprays water on your bottom, somewhat like a European bidet, so that you use less paper.  This leads to a significant reduction in the volume of toilet paper passing through the system.  Taking lots of soggy paper out of the effluent stream doesn't save water, but it does save a great deal of energy and makes sewage treatment easier.

This illustrates a third approach to a shortage - recycle.  The Japanese make extensive use of sewage treatment to recycle their water, and reducing paper use saves considerable energy at the sewage plant.  There are facilities in America with the ability to do the same thing, which output water straight from sewage that is actually cleaner than tap-water - but squeamish drinkers can't overcome the psychology of its origin and don't allow it to be put back into the mains.  Instead, the water is used for less-finicky industrial processes that don't care about where it came from as long as it's totally pure.

Sometimes even science can't overcome human nature.  Australian environmentalists are protesting a plan to introduce recycled sewage to increase water flow in a river because the recycled water is "too clean."  The Age reports:

"The purified recycled water that will be coming from the Eastern Treatment Plant will be the equivalent of distilled water," she [environmental spokesperson Leonie Duncan] said.

"It sounds bizarre, but it will actually be too clean for the Yarra. It will lack that real physical and chemical composition that is required to feed the chain of life in a river."

These Australian environmental purists insist that any water put into a river must be exactly the same as the water already there.

There are places in the US where even that is forbidden.  Some lakes and rivers have greater concentrations of pollutants than sewage plants are permitted to discharge.  In those cases, you can take a bucket of water out, but you can't put it back - the water in your bucket is now more polluted than permitted and you can't dump it back in.

Some people are never satisfied.

No-Water Solutions

As inspiring as innovations in low-flush toilets are, they are not sufficient for the apostles of greenery.  The World Toilet Organization is sponsoring research projects based on zero-water toilets.  These toilets separate urine from feces so that there's no need to flush at all; the device then converts solid waste to biogas and fertilizer.  A demonstration project at the Zhao Jiagou Village school in Tianzhen County, Shanxi Province, China, replaced open-pit latrines with toilets; the biogas was used to heat water for hand-washing.

The goal is to develop toilets which can bring improved sanitation to billions of people without adversely affecting water supplies.  This is not a bad idea, in principle; in many parts of the world, feces is the only potential power-generating fuel source both readily available and affordable.  Bad sanitation causes millions of deaths every year, and spreads all manner of deadly diseases, so providing equipment like this in places where no toilets have ever existed is a worthy cause.

All is not well in toilet-land, however.  The Asian approach is to try out new toilets in separate locations, test them long enough to make sure that they work without excessive maintenance, and publish well-tested system designs which are suited to different conditions and user educational levels.

When You Gotta Go?

We at Scragged have noted that our government takes a considerably less systematic approach to "innovation."  When the EPA forced the elimination of sulfur from diesel fuel, for example, they tested the change for 30 days in sunny California, then mandated it nationwide.

Unfortunately, sulfur is needed to make diesel fuel flow at low temperatures.  My sons ended up stuck on the highway in a stalled school bus at ten degrees below zero when the diesel fuel in their bus congealed.

We've written about what happened when low-flush toilets were first mandated - it took years for them to work well enough to actually save any water because earlier models simply didn't get the job done and had to be flushed two or three times.

On the one hand, the humanitarian in us wishes the World Toilet Council well.  If they are able to develop workable zero-flush toilet systems, they will have struck at least as big a blow for public health and longevity as Mr. Gates' investments in malaria vaccine.

On the other hand, if history is any guide, our eco-fascists are more than likely to seize on their work before it's ready for prime time.  Experience suggests that the moment that zero-flush toilets seem to work, they'll pressure the EPA to mandate them on the grounds of saving water, cutting carbon footprint, recycling methane, and Saving the Planet.

The Japanese are a much more government-friendly nation than we are, but not even the Japanese mandated toilet design.  They simply priced water at what it cost to deliver it including capital costs, operating costs, recycling, and accumulating money for future repairs.

In crowded Japan, high energy costs and absurd right-of-way costs make it expensive to provide water.  Once water was priced at cost, the market and Japanese ingenuity ended up producing toilets that saved a lot of water - no bureaucratic action required.

The Japanese are smart enough to know that subsidizing water users leads to wasting water, so unlike many other countries, they priced water to market.  By removing government interference and reducing red tape, Japan allowed the market to develop a system that is environmentally sound, commercially successful, and politically neutral - arguably the world's most effective system for minimizing resource use with respect to toiletry.

If our EPA would allow the market to work, we could support their initiatives.  Given their history of heavy-handed over-regulation of politically-favored technologies which aren't ready and the unfortunate outcome of various experiments with providing public toilets, however, we're anticipating another bureaucratic attempt to flush our toilets down the drain.