September 30, 2011 By Wayne Hanson
I'm seeing more news items about scientists converting urine to drinkable water, converting raw sewage into food products, sources of useful bacteria, and so on. Unfortunately scientists seem to think that the American public -- who are already paying for bottled drinking water in lieu of drinking free or at least less expensive tap water -- will consent to this.
We've already heard about the increase in pharmaceutical waste products in tap water. People take old pharmaceuticals and dump them in the toilet or -- to be delicate about it -- "excrete" them. Turns out water treatment plants can't deal with things like anti-depressants. Water treatment plants can filter the water to remove sticks, rocks and fish, pour in the chlorine to kill the bacteria, and then it's bottoms up.
I'm not ungrateful. Water treatment is a well-established technology that has worked well for a long time, and for the most part American tap water is safe to drink. I've lived in several countries where you couldn't drink the water, because it was teeming with bacteria, parasites and such things as laundry detergent and human waste. I carried a small camping stove at all times and learned to drink nothing but well-boiled tea that tasted slightly of soap. Or bottled beer that came from far away. In Oregon, I drank well water for six years before learning it contained a relatively high concentration of arsenic.
In Mexico City, the sewer system is so bad, that used toilet paper is not flushed, but put in the waste basket. And while we're on the subject, we used an outhouse when I was a kid and that tends to squash any slightest interest in doing anything scientific with human waste.
Humans could not urbanize successfully without separating waste and poisons from air and drinking water, which eliminated a host of deadly diseases. The Romans were the first to do it successfully. Keeping water pure took a lot of work. And we've been separating sewage and potable water more or less successfully since the Industrial Revolution. Now, however, we're being told that drinking processed "graywater" or even sewage is perfectly acceptable given the miracles of modern chemistry.
I'd suggest that the only people who will benefit from this idea, are those who have invested in the companies that bottle drinking water. I'm about to invest myself, even though for years I've ridiculed the idea of paying for a bottled tasteless liquid.
The Earth is covered mostly with ocean water and while lots of waste runs down into it, it is big enough and salty enough to -- so far -- remain fairly clean. So let's take sea water and distill it. The best and cheapest way to distill water is in hot climates using solar energy. Fortunately, hot places need fresh water the most. So far so good. The salt, chemicals, spilled oil and fish droppings remain in the sea, drinkable water ends up in the pipes, and the sun does the work.
I would also recommend that we use our research prowess to make sewage treatment plants much more effective, so that water coming from them is pure as the driven snow, and is disposed of somewhere other than in our drinking glasses. A separate household graywater system to flush toilets seems like a good idea, even rainwater catchment tanks for watering plants and washing the car.
At Boy Scout camp, filling someone else's canteen with urine was a favorite joke. Unfortunately, if we accept the idea that sewage should be recycled for consumption, the joke's on us.
Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?