People who fantasize about traveling back in time to the ancient past often forget that modern rolled toilet paper was invented in 1895, and other paper wasn’t widely used in the west for long before that. Prior to the 1850s, things like corn cobs were commonly used. Ancient China had forms of toilet paper, but most of the rest of the ancient world used everything from sponges on sticks (shared communally) to wooden spatulas, to sea shells to get clean (or not, and die from it).
Indoor plumbing is also a relatively new invention. An elderly member of my family grew up in Mexico and didn’t have indoor plumbing as a child, so there are still people alive today, even here in the States, who remember outhouses.
We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period, so what might the toilets of the future look like? Perhaps more importantly, will they be better for human health and the environment?
A Topic We Avoid (But Shouldn’t)
Can fiction give us a clue? After all, ideas for things like cellular phones, smartphones, and tablets came from science fiction, right?
It turns out that science fiction and science fantasy franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars avoided the topic entirely for decades. Apparently it’s too crappy of a topic for viewers to care about. Sure, a toilet does appear in one of the Star Trek movies, but we don’t know how it works, or why it can’t be used in space dock. All we do learn in one episode of Star Trek: Enterprise is that Starfleet recycles its waste in some manner. A bathroom finally appeared in the Star Wars universe in The Mandalorian, but it took a lot of guesswork and zooming in on screenshots to even guess at what all of the multi-species bathroom tools do.
Grittier series like the more recent incarnations of Battlestar Galactica went into the bathroom, but only to hint at social differences, like unisex bathrooms (a topic that frightens a lot of people, apparently). We don’t know how their better space toilets worked, either.
Apparently we can’t learn much from fiction in this case. We don’t know how the bathrooms of the future (or those of an advanced civilization a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) work, but do real space programs give us a clue?
Anyone who has been to any event with astronauts knows that there’s one big question that always gets asked: “How do you use the toilet in space?” It’s an embarrassing question, but NASA and the people at tourist-oriented spaces like Space Center Houston are happy to answer it.
Living in an environment like a space station requires that as many things get reused as possible, so astro-pee and cosmo-poop both get vacuumed up, and the pee is recycled (poops go in vacuum-sealed poop bags, which get put in a spacecraft that burns on reentry or taken back to earth for disposal). Letting either of those toxic things build up in a small, sealed environment would mean certain death for the crew, so they can’t just leave it somewhere like mankind did for most of its existence.
Some lessons from space toilets aren’t helpful, but others are. We don’t need vacuums on earth because gravity is much stronger here, so we don’t have to worry about our tinkles floating away and getting everywhere. What we can learn from space “business” is that our toilets are part of a larger system, and that these systems must be carefully planned to keep from sickening or killing people.
The bad news is, our current toilets often do just that.
Our Toilets Don’t Just Stink, They’re Making Us Sick
I’m fixing to buy a house. Like many environmentally conscious new owners, I’m already looking at how to lower the house’s impacts. Solar seems obvious in sunny New Mexico, as does battery storage. Converting gas appliances to electric so they’ll also run on the sun makes sense, too. Sealing up doors and windows, improving insulation, and other steps also help. I’ve got to put in an EV charging station first, though.
What many people don’t know is that their toilets are causing problems. If you’re among the 20% of Americans using a septic tank, you already know what those problems might be, and you’re responsible for solving them when they come up. If you’re on a municipal sewer system, all your troubles go down the drain, and the poopies are someone else’s problem, right?
Not so much. It turns out that our sewer systems are making people sick and hurting animal and plant life. After heavy rains, it’s common to see a marked increase in emergency room visits for gastrointestinal problems. Chance are that you’ve had a nasty stomach bug that was going around after a rainstorm at least once in your life, but what you didn’t know was that the symptoms your friends and family were experiencing was caused by an overflow at the sewer plant that ended up pushing raw sewage into your city’s water supply.
Even if your city doesn’t have a problem with frequent rain-induced sewage disasters, those problems don’t stay close to home. Sewage gets dumped into rivers tens of thousands of times a year, and it often flows into the Mississippi, and on into the Gulf of Mexico, where 40% of US seafood gets caught. They also end up in many other rivers and lakes. If you’re anywhere downstream of the pooptastrophe (which happens regularly), your city is at risk of a stomach bug.
Many of these problems happen with combined sewer systems (systems that take all types of sewage and stormwater in one set of pipes), but even newer sanitary sewers (that separate the flows of poop and rain) have problems that sicken and kill people. Stormwater that leaks into the sewers can cause the same problems as with combined sewers, but other problems like blockages, malfunctions, and broken pipes can cause untreated sewage to spill onto the streets and/or into streams and lakes.
Most of us don’t want to know that both of these kinds of malfunctions happen tens of thousands of times per year, and that it regularly sickens ourselves or people we know.
In Part 2 of this article, I’m going to explore even more bad news about sewer systems: they still cause big problems even when things go right. I’ll then move on to finding alternative solutions and actually implementing them in the real world.
Featured image: a wastewater treatment plant. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.