Have you ever thought about something as commonplace as the flush toilet having a huge impact on our environment?
Only one natural resource on this planet is more valuable than soil: clean water. When the Romans invented indoor plumbing, it was heralded as one of the greatest triumphs of the empire. At the time it seemed like a brilliant idea. Times have changed, and as with many early technological advancements, we were not able to project into the future to see how these “advances” might affect our environment.
Seventy five percent of this planet is covered with water, with 97% of that held by oceans. At best, only 3% is potable (safe, fresh, usable). I read an article in “Smithsonian” recently about the Colorado River, responsible for the vast majority of water used to support agriculture and human needs in the Western US. It once flowed all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting myriad aquatic, biological and human needs; it now stops shy of the Gulf some 150 miles inland, its original river bed now a dry parched wasteland of desert. As populations and water needs increase out west, demand for water continues to climb. Keep in mind that the main sources of water for rivers like the Colorado are the glaciers and heavy snow accumulations on western mountain ranges. Shifting weather patterns resulting from global warming are increasing. The rate of melting is increasing while reduced snow fall accumulations are less, resulting in less water as time goes on.
What do we do? Let’s start with the bathroom!
According to conservationists and the EPA, flush toilets are responsible for 26% of all daily water use, more than showers, which scored a whopping 18%. In 1992 the EPA set forth a new regulation for flush toilets reducing their water use from 3.2 to 1.6 gallons per flush. Regulations like these definitely help. Many states, especially out west, have water conservation programs in place that provide major financial incentives for replacing old toilets with new, high-efficiency models and, in many cases, “composting toilets”. If you pay for household or business based water, now is the time to take advantage of these state and federal incentives.
Just like oil and food, your water bill is going to go up. Guaranteed! Most water companies are privately owned. They don’t care whether you are drinking it from plastic bottles or flushing your toilet. They are in business to make money. Save every time you flush.
Composting toilets are available in numerous styles and types, ranging from high volume use for public restrooms to occasional use. Engineering of composting toilets has incorporated many important sustainability details, specifically energy needs and water use. Composting toilets are now available that operate with no water, or in the case of the unit I have, “low flush.” It uses 1 quart of water per flush and has a small fan that insures proper venting and drying of the accumulated waste. Larger units are available that depend on natural venting using no water, and I’ve even seen units that are incredibly efficient, employing red wiggler worms and microbes. The resulting “compost” extracted from these systems is safe and easy to handle, and can be periodically spread around your landscape. When used properly, these systems have NO odor or sanitary issues. Saving on water? Assured.
Most cities and towns now allow use and installation of these systems, but they must be connected to an approved septic system. Most composting toilets have an “overflow” connector which means that if it is used more than the “average” amount, it empties into a normal sewage disposal system. The cost for these systems ranges from $1,000 to $3,000. It may seem like a considerable expense, but as the availability of water decreases and the water price goes up, you will feel better, every time you hit the lever.
If you are not ready to remodel the bathroom, but want to be proactive, place one or two quart soda bottles (filled with water), in the back of your toilet tank. This will reduce water use every time you flush.
Josh Nelson lives in southern Vermont, develops environmentally friendly products for the pet and livestock market, and is a composting specialist addressing the needs of homeowners and large scale operations domestically and internationally.
Book: “Humanure” by Joseph Jenkins