That Flushing Feeling: Sustainable Living, Ruined by a Toilet

Picture this.  It’s the first day of trying to live 100% environmentally sustainably.  You are in a constant hyper-alert state about what you choose to do.  You bike to work… doing good.  You eat only from sustainable venues… doing great!  And then… catastrophe.

The porcelain gods are angry with you.

This is the story of my hard lesson about living sustainably in America in 2008, which has since transformed my approach to the sustainable living project.  It came in the form of a toilet.  

The World Health Organization recommended in its 2000 report on global water that “at least 20 liters per person per day from a source within one kilometer of the user’s home” be considered the basic measure of rightful access to fresh water[1].  Of course, fresh water natural resources vary from region to region.  Because of local resources like watersheds and rivers, the amount of fresh water that an individual can sustainably consume each day is probably significantly higher in Western Pennsylvania than it is in Ethiopia.  Nevertheless, lacking this data and expressing my empathy for water-strained populations across the planet (1.1 billion lack appropriate clean water access[2]), I decided that I would accept for myself the measure of 20 liters of water use per day.

One flush of the common public bathroom American Standard toilet at the university’s bathrooms uses 13.2 L of water.  To my dismay, I did the math in my head… that left 6.8 L of water for the whole rest of the day.  As I washed my hands at the sink, my heart sunk.  I would probably use more than 6.8 L that day.  I hadn’t counted on the importance of flushing of a single toilet.  And that was just one flush.  The average person visits the bathroom between six and eight times a day.  That’s at least four times one’s sustainable water usage–wasted on only your personal waste!

Using a composting toilet and conserving water when washing myself, my clothes and my dishes, I am typically living well under a 20 liter per day quota.  This is positive: it illustrates how sustainable living isn’t some far off dream, but rather, possible and normal, right now.  (There are also low-flush toilets that, while still using water, only use .9 to 1.6 gallons per flush.  Plus–you just don’t have to flush each time).

On the other hand… putting myself in a situation that means absolutely NO access to such water conserving mechanisms, such as when I go downtown for a few hours a day to work on producing and editing the Sust Enable episodes, spells disaster for a goal of sustainable living.

In Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte’s 2005 wake-up call about our national waste systems, she documents the process of municipal sewage collection and treatment… and by doing so, naturally illustrates its absurdity.  She muses about “…how little sense it makes, when our population is so large and our clean water supply shrinking, to dilute our solids with water and then, at great expense, separate the two” (227).

On May 1, 2008, that awareness was driven home.  My dream of proving how easy and carefree living 100% sustainably as an American could be, was rapidly flushed away.  

Then, I began to see how my objective should change.  Now, my goal is to learn  how to live 100% environmentally sustainably.  It is not instantly possible for any American to achieve a 100% environmentally sustainable lifestyle that is, within itself, self-sustaining.  However, my hope is that it is still possible to innovate that lifestyle–with the right research, applied practices and original transition period.

Sure, I felt silly about being defeated by a toilet.  But now, the victory will be mine.  I will work to put obsolete, yet common systems like these where the belong–down the drain.


Written by carolinesavery

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