Sunday, December 8, 2019

Countering Toiletgate - Some Fast Facts About Modern Toilets and How They Are Better for the Environment

Toilet technology has improved greatly over the last several decades. That is why it was such a shock to hear the President of the US say recently, "We are looking very strongly at sinks and showers and other elements of their bathrooms because people are flushing their toilets 10 times, 15 times."  The whole thing has blown up into what someone on Twitter called the President's Hurricane Latrina. While I certainly do not know anyone who flushes their toilet that much, it is clear that there is a perception out there that the modern toilet isn't working for some reason.

Before I delve into toilet technology, it is worth checking our potty privilege and recognize that according to the World Health Organization there are 2 billion people in the world who do not have access to toilets. They don't have the ability to flush.

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For those of us who have access to toilets, we know that toilet technology has changed. Obviously, the whole goal of a toilet is to remove human waste efficiently. Toilet technology uses water to wash away the waste down sewer pipes. However, improvement in toilet technology has cut the water requirements by concentrating water to do a better job in removing the waste.

Prior to 1980, a single toilet flush could use 8 gallons of water. On a per person basis, this meant that if you flushed 6 times a day, you were flushing 48 gallons of water down the drain. This amounts to about 17,500 gallons a year. In the United States, we have a population of about 372 million people. This amount of people, using the old technology, would use about 6.5 trillion gallons of water per year just for toilet flushing. This volume is equivalent to the volume of 7 Lake Okeechobee. Obviously, as our global population grew, we needed to cut the volume of water needed to flush a toilet.

Today's toilets use about 1.6 gallons per flush which is a reduction in water use of 80%. I think anyone will agree that this is a big improvement for the environment--not to mention the infrastructure needed to handle sewage waste. In addition, there are special toilets that are certified Water Sense toilets that use less than 1.28 gallons. Plus, there are composting toilets that do not use water at all. I won't even get into the Japanese toilets with massagers, cleansing jets of water, and blow driers. Obviously there may be times when more than one flush is needed. But 10 or 15 times?

A major sustainability issue with toilets is that we use highly treated drinking water to flush our toilets. One of the most interesting improvements in toilet technology is the use of grey water in toilets as opposed to using highly treated drinking water. Grey water is untreated water that one collects from runoff of buildings or other sources. The Bank of American Building in Midtown Manhattan, the US's first LEED Platinum skyscraper, uses rainwater collected in 270,000 gallon storage tanks to flush toilets (and for irrigation and building cooling). In large buildings, this technology is easier to employ than in homes which is why grey water collection systems are becoming quite standard in new large commercial and industrial buildings.

We have come a long way in toilet technology in recent decades and I am certain that technology will continue to improve to try to reduce water and help the environment while ensuring that our bathrooms are sanitary. We don't need to go backward.

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