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Down the Drain: You, Your Toilet and the Looming Water Crisis

Photo credit: jessicareeder via photopin cc

Photo credit: jessicareeder via photopin cc

My well pump died last Sunday which (a) left me with no water; and (b) left me reflecting — as I found myself sending my son next door to the neighbour’s to fill up an assortment of plastic water jugs every couple of hours or so — on how much fresh water it takes to run a modern, Canadian household. The result? Shock and awe.

I’ve always been a bit of a “tree hugger”. Granted, at this point in my life, it might be argued that I’m more of an environmental “self-identifier” than an “active fundamentalist”, but still, when all is said and done, the fact remains that I much prefer Mother Nature to Father Mammon.

As an architect, especially, I have always tried to pay close attention to how best to seek to limit the expenditure of scare resources, like energy and water, in the construction and operation of the structures I help to design and build. But it’s not always an easy sell, mostly because “greener,” more efficient buildings cost more money to build and nobody’s particularly thrilled about that initial, sometimes quite significant, up-front cost. The other part of the problem is that we aren’t typically in a position to understand or observe how wasteful we are with our resources in any meaningful or viscerally instructive way.

This hit me — personally — like a ton of bricks several years ago when my wife and son and I stayed at my wife’s parents’ house for a few days while they were out of the province. When we arrived and let ourselves in we soon realized there was some issue with their well pump and that we were going to be stuck without water until we got it fixed (like us, they live in the country so their water came from a drilled well rather than a piped municipal water supply). Luckily they also lived just across the street from a small country convenience store so I marched right over and bought a half a dozen of those big, four litre plastic jugs of water and lugged them — unless you do it every day, you don’t really appreciate how heavy it is to schlep bulk water — back to the house where I figured we’d now have enough water for at least a day or so and mentally assigned three or four of the jugs for on-going toilet flushing and a couple for drinking, cooking, making tea, brushing teeth, etc.

Very quickly, however, I realized the disconnect in my “mental math.” Even though the water I carried over from the store was really heavy and took up a lot of room on the kitchen counter, and even though as an architect I knew — intellectually — that the standard, older-style toilets in my in-law’s house were 13-litre per flush models rather than the newer-style, six-litre flush models that were just starting to find their way into the marketplace, it wasn’t until I physically stood over the toilet and poured three full, four-litre bottles of fresh drinking water in to the reservoir tank to flush a few hours of my family’s bodily waste down the drain that I had to stand back and think “WTF?”

For some reason, which I image had to do with the fact that a four-litre jug seemed like a lot of water (and weighed a fair amount), I had just assumed that each container would easily provide at least one complete flush. Four jugs, four flushes. If, as a family, we were judicious with our flushing, four flushes should easily get us through the day.

The problem, I suppose, is that toilet flushing, for those of us who are lucky enough too live in the “developed” world, is nothing short of magic — especially in as much as there’s a bunch of stuff going on in the background that we don’t usually perceive or pay conscious attention to. We push a lever and, WHOOSH, several ounces of urine, of which we have just rid ourselves, is neatly whisked away. But through what twisted, mind-dead scenario did we ever determine that it made good sense to use 13 litres of scarce, fresh drinking water to flush a few ounces of pee?

And, yeah, sure, I’ll grant you that the newly-required, code-mandated six-litre flush models have helped to cut water consumption for toilets by more than half (and the dual-flush models that also allow you to use a limited three-litre flush for liquid-only waste have minimized total consumption even further), but still, even using as little as three litres of water to flush away an average “urine event” of 0.207 litres (i.e. nearly a gallon to flush away 7 ounces) still seems like a poor use of a valuable, diminishing resource. Like trying to kill a mosquito with a sledge hammer.

I know I'm being emotionally manipulative here, but imagine having to look these boys in the eyes and tell them you waste at least 10,000 litres of drinkable water a year by simply urinating / dedicating into it. (Photo credit: US Army Africa via photopin cc)

I know I’m being emotionally manipulative here, but imagine having to look these boys in the eyes and tell them you waste at least 10,000 litres of drinkable water a year by simply urinating / dedicating into it. (Photo credit: US Army Africa via photopin cc)

And what lots of folks may not realize — ‘cuz unless you’re a plumber, who really gives this stuff much thought — is that the water that you flush your toilet with is exactly the same water that comes out of your taps and you use to drink and cook with. Potable (i.e. drinking) water enters your house via a single supply line and is then routed either to taps or toilets. But do we really need to use drinking-quality water to flush our toilets?

So, the next time you polish off a two litre bottle of pop, set it aside. Then finish a second one and set it aside. Then a third. When they’re all empty, fill them with water, carry them around the house for a bit, and then set them on your countertop. That’s how much water it takes to flush less than a cup of urine. Now multiply this by the more than 1,500 or so times a year you use the toilet in the run of a year. And multiply that by the more than 528 million people who live in North America.

Worried yet?