Monday, July 18, 2011

Working Waste Into Water

We're living in a time when it's becoming more and more popular, even trendy, to live simply and waste less.  Technological advances encourage us to rethink some of our traditional ways of dealing with life's challenges, including how we get water and what we do with our human waste.

So how do you feel about drinking urine?

If you think about our modern-day water cycle, where pee is typically flushed down a toilet, transported through pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, treated, and discharged to a waterway; and this treated water evaporates, condenses, precipitates, and travels to another waterway, where it is pumped to a water treatment plant, purified, and used for drinking water, we are drinking recycled urine.  There's just a lot of time and space between flushing the toilet and turning the faucet.  This distance - this disconnection - helps us feel comfortable; we don't feel like we're drinking waste.

But how do you feel about using a toilet that treats urine and changes it into drinking water?  Would you be willing to drink it?  Frank Rijsberman, of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is dreaming of this and other out-of-the-box options to take care of the world's water supply and waste problems.  You can read more his ideas at Pee-Cycling: Bill Gates Is Getting Creative with Human Waste.

A related article, titled The Water Cycle (with a Decidedly Human Twist), describes the technology and advantages of the Orange Country Groundwater Replenishment System (OCGRS), a facility that creates drinking water using sewage.  OCGRS treats 70 million gallons of sewage every day, satisfying the needs of nearly 600,000 people in a water-strapped region.  Bernadette Clavier of the Stanford Center for Social Innovation writes that "the real genius of the project lies in the fact that it has convinced the residents of one of the country’s richest counties that the toilet is a viable source of drinking water (albeit one with a $500 million plant standing between their toilets and their faucets)."

Perhaps viewing water as a precious and limited resource will help us to take some steps towards its preservation.  Any of us can learn to turn off the water during showers and teeth brushing, flush the toilet less often, fix leaks or use collected rainwater for watering plants.  Maybe this changed thinking will even help us to get over the yuck factor that keeps us from supporting new technologies.  


  1. Have you seen 127 Hours (the movie about the outdoor-adventurist who gets his arm stuck while exploring)? He totally drinks his pee to stay alive!

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts... Good to know people in Orange County are doing something good to save water.

  2. Hi Betsy!

    I missed that part of the movie (or rather, I fell asleep...somewhat on purpose...thought the movie would be pretty disturbing...clearly it was!). Yes - it's nice to know that there are some good things happening in CA related to water supply. Perhaps it's more obvious there (as compared to PA) that water isn't to be taken for granted.