Quirks and Quarks

Dethroning our old toilets. A new book looks at the environmental revolution in toilet tech

A new book examines the old and outdated "gold standard" of sanitation, and explores how to transform the toilet so it's more efficient, sustainable, and attainable for all.

Science journalist Chelsea Wald wants us to ask more of our toilets

A shopkeeper cleans toilets inside his shop in Lahore, Pakistan on World Toilet Day, an official UN event to bring awareness to the 4.2 billion people around the world living without properly managed sanitation systems. (ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)

They say nothing in life is certain but death and taxes, but there's another certainty I'd like to add: Everybody poops.

As much as we don't like to talk about it, the elimination of waste is something we all do. And the way we get rid of our waste — via the humble toilet — is something that science journalist Chelsea Wald thinks we really should be talking about. 

Because on one hand, toilets themselves are vital for things like curbing disease. But they're also horribly inefficient, unattainable for half the planet's residents, and dependent on centuries-old sanitation systems that desperately need an upgrade.

Bob McDonald spoke with Wald about her new book Pipe Dreams - The urgent global quest to transform the toilet. Here is part of their conversation.

What do you feel is the problem with the current toilets that we use in North America? 

The toilet systems that we use were developed piecemeal more than a century ago in order to take care of odour and to clean our cities of stink and of filth. And the people who designed them weren't thinking about the challenges that we have today, and that we will be facing in the next century, like climate change, rapid urbanization, resource scarcity, soil degradation, toxic pollution, plastic pollution, new disease outbreaks and inequality. And we can ask our toilets, in fact, to help us deal with many of those problems instead of exacerbating them.

Workers building the Northern Outfall Sewer in London, 1860. Sewerage was becoming all the rage in the mid-19th century, but because of the work put into to building cities around them, science journalist Chelsea Wald says it's often difficult to re-think the system. (Otto Herschan Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

You talk about the case of cities like Chicago, where they had some issues with the sewage systems and around sanitation. Tell me about that. 

Chicago is a good example of how we ended up locked into these systems that we have. So in the first half of the 19th century, Chicago was dealing with a lot of disease and they really needed to do something about it. Sewerage was really taking off in the world, and they decided to build a comprehensive sewer system in Chicago. 

Chicago was very flat and that presented a problem for sewers because sewers work by gravity. And so what they ended up doing was lifting parts of Chicago up, raising Chicago by as much as 12 feet in some places, and put the sewers underneath so that the water could flow down away from the city. 

So much investment went into the system over the years that all there is to do is really continue to improve on it. And no one has really invested in rethinking the system altogether. 

Take me through your "Pipe Dreams." What do you want the toilets of the future to do? 

I think we can ask more of our toilets. We can ask them to give us a better understanding of our health. We put a lot of information into our toilets, if you think of them as taking urine and stool samples from us every time we go. And there are innovators working on analyzing those samples. 

Another way is we can ask them to be more sustainable. We can use the resources that we put in our toilets. And then the third way is we can ask them to be more equitable. It is scandalous that so many people in the world don't have toilets, or safely managed toilets. And we should look for new technology, yes, and also demand the investment to bring toilets to all of those people. 

A woman stands in front of her toilets, near Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The vast majority of Congolese are among the billions of people around the world who lack decent toilets. (SAMIR TOUNSI/AFP via Getty Images)

Can you give me some examples of sustainable toilets that you found in your research? 

Right now we have one gold standard, and that is the flush toilet attached to the sewer attached to the treatment plant. What I am seeing being developed is a wide range of toilet technologies appropriate for different circumstances, different places with different resources and different needs. And that, I think, is the most hopeful thing and a trend that should continue. 

I went to Cap-Haitien, which is the second largest city in Haiti, to visit a program there called SOIL. Cap-Haitien doesn't have sewers, and in fact, many people use extremely inadequate toilets or may not have toilets at all. And SOIL has a different approach to the transportation and treatment of poop. So what they do is they rent these toilets that have containers inside of them — they're basically pails — and people can put them anywhere that they want, but somewhere where they have privacy. And then a couple of times a week, they put out the pails and workers come and collect them and take them to a central composting facility where they turn the poop and the cover material into compost. 

Toilet systems are vulnerable to climate change, they contribute to climate change, and they can be a solution to climate change.- Chelsea Wald, science journalist

Haiti's soils are depleted, and so this compost is a really valuable resource for them. And it also helps, of course, with preventing health issues for their users and for the city at large. 

Is it possible for toilets to help us in our fight against climate change? 

Toilet systems are vulnerable to climate change, they contribute to climate change, and they can be a solution to climate change. So they're vulnerable in the sense that storms can cause problems for sewer systems, overloading them and causing overflows. Sea level rise contributes to this. And droughts can also be a problem because sewers need a certain amount of water to work. 

They contribute to climate change because these conventional systems can be heavy users of energy, because they use a lot of pumps and they aerate the sewage in order to treat it. And they also have a certain amount of emissions associated with them, like methane. 

Pipe Dreams: The urgent global quest to transform the toilet by Chelsea Wald. (Simon and Schuster)

But they can be a solution because our waste has energy that can be recovered through processes like anaerobic digestion. Poop from these container based systems or from pit latrines can be turned into a sort of dry fuel that can even be used in people's homes. And I reported on a project that takes sewage sludge and treats it under high temperature and pressure to kind of reproduce very quickly the conditions that created fossil fuels. And this creates a kind of bio crude that can then be used as a transportation fuel. So there's a lot of potential that hasn't yet been tapped. 

It's sometimes hard to get people to think about how to change toilets and revolutionize sanitation when there's this ick factor associated with it. So how do we de-stigmatize the toilet? 

Yeah, the ick factor is something that these innovators worry about when you're talking about, for example, recycling water from wastewater treatment plants and asking people to potentially drink that water. And I think I'm noticing that that's changing as people start to value solutions for the climate crisis and for water scarcity and other problems that we're facing. They can also do clever things to open people's mind to it. For example, you can take that recycled water and turn it into beer. Beer uses a lot of water, and so if you can put it into beer, then that kind of makes it cool. 

I think that toilets can be cool and our toilet systems can be cool. And that might be the way forward, taking the "gross" and turning it into a "gee whiz."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Amanda Buckiewicz