Poop, Pee, and Efficiency

San Diego is about to construct a major desalination plant that will cost $900M to build, and will produce 50-million gallons of potable water a day from sea water. That’s enough to supply 7% of the population of San Diego, costing each resident $678.

That’s great, except for two things.

One, there are environmental concerns. These are serious enough, but probably can be addressed.

Two, in a better world, a readily achievable world, 50-million gallons of water could supply at least 35% of the San Diego population, not a paltry 7%. In an arid city heavily dependent on water from elsewhere, a city whose water supply will probably soon be compromised by global warming, this is a vital consideration.

In a better world, 50-million gallons of water
could supply at least 35% of the San Diego population,
not a paltry 7%.

How might it be possible to get so much more from this plant? Let me digress briefly to discuss the poor way we manage human waste, an important and germane topic generally avoided in polite society.

The first Victorian flush toilet was a huge improvement over outdoors privies, 130 years ago, and an even greater improvement over dumping the chamber pot out the second story window onto the sidewalk. It was a significant step forward not only for our dainty sensibilities, but, more importantly, for public health. But the water-flush toilet is becoming increasingly untenable in a world where the population is moving rapidly toward ten billion people, because it relies on vast quantities of water, which may end up being our most valuable and expensive resource. Our antique system wastes drinkable water on an epic scale.

Our antique system wastes drinkable water
on an epic scale.

Consider this: Urine is virtually sterile, and poses no danger of bacterial infection under any circumstance. Most fertilizer value of human and other animal waste comes from this sterile substance, not from feces. Thousands of years ago the Chinese collected urine from public facilities and distilled it into dozens of useful products, which included a number of significant medical products as well as fertilizer. For our purposes, however, fertilizer will probably be the only use.

Feces, by contrast, contain a multitude of bacterial dangers that make their direct management more problematic. Not untenable, just more difficult. It’s worth noting that the Chinese commonly used human feces as fertilizer for food production for thousands of years, and still do in some places. This was safely done because Chinese food does not include uncooked vegetables, which might otherwise increase the danger of bacterial contamination from incomplete composting. Cooking removes this possibility.

Enter Lowell Wood and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Wood’s design for an inexpensive system to manage human waste is focussed on the third world, but his system could also have major effects on San Diego. And Wood is not the only one working on such a device.

Imagine clean and odorless waste systems in the home,
with no plumbing or sewage systems.
The costly public treatment facilities
could eventually be removed entirely.

Imagine Wood’s clean and odorless waste systems in the home, using fecal fuel to evaporate urine and generate electricity. The excess electricity would be fed into the grid, the dried urea used as fertilizer. No plumbing, sewage, or septic systems would be necessary—at all—reducing both domestic and public infrastructure construction costs considerably. Most importantly, the millions of gallons of potable water presently used only for flushing away waste would be saved. The vast, complex, and costly public sewerage and treatment facilities would become unnecessary except for storm water, and even that should be drained into swales, where it would be absorbed to replenish groundwater.

Other water in the home is used for laundry, cooking, and bathing. The used water is called “gray” water, with contaminants from detergents and food waste. This water is easily purified in the home using current technology, including such things as ponds with living plants, and can be directly recycled within the home as water so pure it could conceivably even be used for medical injections. Home water consumption would be radically reduced. Systems like these have been used with excellent results in a number of commercial and domestic buildings. Wood’s device and others will also do these things, and utilize food waste as well.

Water for laundry, cooking, and bathing
is easily purified using current technology.

Now consider again the costs and benefits of San Diego’s very expensive new desalination plant. Wood’s toilet/water treatment device uses presently available technology, and could be put in place in many new and old homes in San Diego by the time their desalination plant is operational. Just looking at the changes outlined above, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that a typical home could require some 80% less water than we currently use, probably even less. If that were the case, the plant could serve not a mere 7% of the population in San Diego, but at least 35%, maybe even half. In addition, a significant chunk of municipal infrastructure could be simplified.

I am not a believer that technology will be our savior in all things. We are far too stupid politically and socially for that to happen. But we will soon be compelled by population growth and global climate change to make major changes in the way we do things. We are wasting far too much of what we have by failing to make integrated use of the technologies that are already here, let alone technologies that will be ready to use virtually within months. Projects like the San Diego desalination plant are a golden opportunity to do better thinking than we have exercised in the past.

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44 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting blog post.

    I’d be interested to see what you think of my recent post about rethinking economics, as we touch some of the same issues:

  2. What would be the cost of installing Wood’s waste system in every home in San Diego? That’s probably the main deterrent.

    • I don’t know, but his intention is to use it in very poor parts of Africa.

  3. Well thought out. In our changing world and environment, we are going to have to do things differently if we are going to survive at all.

  4. My parents (Germany) both grew up as kids of part time farmers, parents, who grew just enough to supply the own family with food. Human feces as fertilizer was common in Germany as well – my parents ate heaps of raw fruit and veggies rom their families fields. Growing up with worms was a normal thing.
    What I’m saying: it’s not so long ago that even in Europe water has not been used to flush toilets. And I’m not saying: let’s all have deseases. But no-one really died from a tiny inch of less hygiene.

    • Thousands of people die from typhoid every year.

  5. You say we are too politically and socially stupid to employ technology to a seriously effective level, but dude, you went from gray water to medical injections in just 2 sentences. Your article is woefylly short on fact and detail. Thankfully, we are not so stupid as to give this serious attention. Perhaps, though, we should be more concerned with the junk science with which we inflict the third world.

    • This is only a blog, for a general audience. If you want science, this is not where it’s at. You seem to think Dr. Wood is a junk scientist, and that his work is insignificant. Look him up. Look up the forward thinkers who realize we must think about these things. The book “Abundance” by Diamandis and Kotler is a good introduction.

  6. We touched on this in some of my upper-level college courses…but so little progress. I scanned your article, so forgive the question, but is it the usual political cowardice, sewage treatment industry resistance, the “icky factor” among the general populace or what?

    My e-mail: jonathanecaswell@gmail.com. Our blog is: ourpoetrycorner.wordpress.com. Haven’t done any sewage management poetry lately—there’s an “icky factor” at a family-friendly poetry blog, too! Probably will make it singable to THE YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS,…if only ’cause that is one of my standard tunes. We’ll try, anyway! Excellent article about needing to change priorities!

    • In ten years, San Diego may have no choice but to modernize.

  7. I guess the simple way is as suggested- simply do not apply the flush every single time the toilet is used, at least not for urination only.

    I do know of some who use compost toilets to utilise “humanure” as they call it, but…

    • To be effective, ecological solutions must be systemically applied, and not rely on anyone going out of their way.

      • It is hardly out of anyone’s way to make a few simple changes to their behaviour, though. The first suggestion I made is in fact a simple one which doesn’t rely on new systems being installed, which takes effort and upheaval.

        I don’t know “systematic application” is necessary, if everyone takes collective action of their own will. Nevertheless whatever can be done is a great help, and I don’t suggest that not flushing the toilet every time is going to solve water shortages completely.

  8. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing!

  9. Excellent post! There was a college project in Calgary, Alberta, Cananda called Discovery House that was a closed system very similar to what you described here. It is very possible to achieve this if people can change the way they think about waste. Grow your own garden, burn your own poop, make your own power. They all go hand in hand.

  10. Just curious what resources you used to get your facts? This is an incredibly interesting blog. Thanks for writing it. It gives me something to think about today.

    • The book “Abundance” by Diamandis and Kotler is a good place to start.

  11. IF we in San Diego don’t have this treatment plant done, we will have to find some kind of other solution and I don’t know if there is one out there.

  12. This is an important issue and you’re right on about the types of solutions we need. I’m glad to see it getting some freshly pressed attention!

  13. Well written.. Water conservation is the need of today and it must be put into practice in whatsoever possible way.

  14. Well said! I dearly want to see the day when we stop building houses as cheaply and cheerfully as possible and instead stop a moment to think about the future. There is so much technology available to us *right now* that could make our lives infinitely more efficient, (not to mention ensure the safety of future resources) but we ignore it because everyone wants the cute little house with the white picket fence. It drives me completely mad.

  15. When are we going to realize that there are so many better ways to deal with sustainability issues? You know damn well that there will be cost overruns with the desalination plant. All for serving 7%!!
    We need some real solutions and you do a wonderful job of presenting some viable alternatives.
    We also need some politicians with the balls to do what’s right and what needs to be done.



  16. The point you make about “rethinking how we do things” reminds me a bit of “Cradle to Crade Design” by Michael Braungart et al.
    I also think that this is a topic that makes “costs” a borderline irrelevant factor if it’s the right technology, BUT that’s capitalism for you.
    Very good post!

    • I know the book, and it’s an approach that must become much more common.

      • Agreed.

  17. Reblogged this on The Cinquecento Project and commented:
    My favorite “Freshly Pressed” from today’s offerings…may you enjoy it too!

    See ya tomorrow – I’m busy freaking out about the race on Sunday.

  18. So smart! Definitely wished I heard this kind of discussion at the policy-maker level. We at least need to be taking these ideas into account and weighing them instead of bulldozing ahead with antiquated ways of doing things.

  19. Great blog and I agree with you! Unfortunately capitalism is based on waste. Waste is a business. Conservation drives up costs. We could save energy and water in so many ways but those ways don’t lead to corporate profits. When corporations can figure out how to charge us for sunlight and wind and rain our own waste products then maybe we just may see this all happen.

  20. I would like start off by saying i absolutely agree with you. there are far too much wasted resources especially water that we can use.

    There are systems designed to recapture and filter water that we use in the house (The gray water systems) and use it for our lawn. Imagine the hundreds of gallons you can save yearly if you implement this new system. Furthermore, their are other systems in place to help us grow and become more efficient. There are government incentives and other programs in places to help us get to a new standard. lets save money, time, and resources.

    http://www.socalpb.com offers the kicbox and the grey water system for environmental individual ready to make a difference. check it out

  21. Very good point about 7% and 35%

  22. Thank you for an article which prompts our household once again re-evaluate how we live. Water awareness for sure but now awareness expanded – just forgot toilet bowl is potable water. Pets seem to know that. LOL But waste and alternative well explained here. Water will be the new oil.

  23. This man’s way of thinking could help: http://jasondrew.blogspot.com/2012_08_01_archive.html
    At the moment his poop and pee project is based in Kenyan slums, but the main idea is that our attitude towards organic wastes should change and recycling of these wastes should become the norm. As far as I know he is also working with the Gates Foundation on mosquito reduction programs.

  24. some thing i do give a poop about

  25. Two words: compost toilets! We are the only land species taking a pooh in our water supply. It’s not polite; it’s downright nasty and wasteful (makes me feel increasingly guilty every time I flush a turd). Compost toilets can be lovely if you do it properly. There is a big effort going on in Costa Rica with this, so the rest of the world should follow suit. Composting your pooh is one of the best ways to save our water supply.

    • Composting toilets are undoubtedly good. It seems to me that Wood’s is a better system for cities. Only the status quo is not so good.

  26. Great post John. I don’t think we are really all that stupid we are slow (maybe another word for stupid?)– we get around to doing stuff — but it takes us much longer than it could if we weren’t so slow. Once most of us depend on infrastructure it takes too long to change. Internal combustion engines are another good example but something is being done — slowly — about that. I do hate our political processes – you have a point there. Maybe we’ll stop wasting water once we are faced with the coming world-wide shortage (not just the current shortages in Africa and other hard-up places)

  27. Reblogged this on Sailing Leeward and commented:
    Interesting …

  28. This is a phenomenal post. I enjoy economic topics (check me out!) and I love the parallels you make here. Thanks for sharing.

  29. Very interesting. I visited a self-sufficient house just south of Taos, New Mexico once, that had an indoor pond for purifying gray water. If this kind of thing every happens, it will have to happen from the bottom up, because you;re right, politics and money will prevent anyone in leadership taking the lead on this. So spreading the word on blogs like this is where it will start. Good on ya!

  30. This is an excellent article. People hear “desalination” and immediately say yes. I love the monetary breakdown you did. Good job. We need to constantly be thinking of alternatives.

  31. Good Evening: Excellent post, and congratulations on a well-deserved FP. I work for the San Francisco PUC, and you might want to check out our new HQ with its recycling and wind facilities at sfwater.org. I do have a question about using the dried urea as fertilizer: what if you live in apartment buildings and have no garden or lawn? Vonn Scott Bair

    • Thank you. My understanding is that the dried fertilizer would be collected in a small household container and collected for commercial use, probably along with the trash and recycling. I will definitely check out the PUC HQ.

  32. intense. although…sorry, maybe this is stupid, but i don’t really get how it’s that intelligent an option if it can only supply 7% of the population and it costs that much to make?

    • That’s sort of the point. Desalination is expensive, but it may be necessary in arid places like San Diego. But we can make the most of it by minimizing water use.

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