November 19 is World Toilet Day, an annual event launched by Singaporean businessman Jack Sim who in 2001 founded the World Toilet Organization. Go ahead and snigger, then wake up: 2.5 billion people – that’s one in every three people worldwide – do not have access to a clean toilet.
Unmanaged human waste carries diseases which makes people sick. It pollutes drinking water. It affects productivity, hampers economic development and shortens life expectancy.
Pre-industrial peoples like Romans and Egyptians and cities in India and Pakistan treated human waste by connecting toilets to flowing water sewage systems. According to Wikipedia, the flushing toilet was invented by John Harrington in 1596. Joseph Bramah of Yorkshire patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778. George Jennings in 1852 also took out a patent for the flush-out toilet. No, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet but did much to increase the popularity of the toilet in the 19th Century.
Here in the Northwest we take care of some household sewage on site by flushing waste into a septic tank which, if properly working, breaks down solids using bacteria in an anaerobic process and distributes liquid effluent to the ground via a drainfield. In large cities, the process of separating solids, disinfecting pathogens, removing metals and chemicals takes place on a larger scale before effluent is discharged into a water body like the Salish Sea.
Over the last 40 years, Washington’s Puget Sound jurisdictions have invested— both willingly and not so willingly-- in sewage treatment plants and technologies. The most recent example of this type of large-scale, water-based sewage system is the Brightwater sewage treatment plant, built at a cost of $2 billion, to handle the waste of King County and its municipalities. Brightwater people, hug your toilets today.
The out-of-sight, out-of-mind technology of our modern waste disposal system in the capital city of Victoria is still stuck in the mid-20th Century where human waste is not treated but simply screened to remove litter then flushed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. What seemed like a positive forward movement to take responsibility for disinfecting their own shit by building a primary treatment sewage facility for three-quarters of a million dollars has found local politicians and interest groups now in opposition. Hug your toilets, Victoria— just don’t flush.
As populations increase and potable water resources diminish, a technology of using clean water to flush away human waste so it can be disinfected in a costly process before returning the water to the environment comes to look more and more impractical and irrational. What next after the flush toilet?
In rural areas with high ground, outhouses and squat toilets and pit toilets work fine to protect human health. It’s in our towns and cities around the world where we need our best and brightest minds to engineer waterless toilets, businesses to market a new culture and installations, and activists and elected officials to push the regulatory envelope forward.
In the meantime, hug your toilet today.