When You Flush, Don’t Flush Our Planet

By Simran Sethi, Intent

What you may not realize, cherie, is that whatever you flush down comes back around. Our waste fertilizes our fields and is pumped back into the waterways that are our major sources of drinking water. Let’s take the journey from toilet to tap, shall we? Oui oui. (We’re affecting French here for a touch of sophistication in a post centering on fecal matter.)

Americans use about 70 gallons of water indoors, every day. About three-quarters of that is used in the toilette–shower, bath, sink, crapper–and over one-quarter is used whisking away our waste. You can cut this water usage by making sure your toilet isn’t leaking, using a composting or low-flow toilet or even displacing the water in the tank with a brick or container filled with sand. Your toilet is not a trashcan, so save cigarette butts, tissues and used condoms for the basket, not the bowl.

We don’t want to bum you out, but cutting water usage means a lot in an era when more than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. According to Claudia McMurray, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, “On any given day, approximately 50% of the world’s hospital beds are filled with patients suffering from water and sanitation related diseases. Each year 1.8 million children in developing countries die from diarrheal disease–the second leading cause of death after pneumonia.”

When aiming for more equitable water usage, hippie wisdom comes in handy: If it’s brown flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow. S’il vous plait. (Our hippie is French.)

After the solid and liquid waste leave the bowl, they’re routed through your house pipes to what’s called a sanitary sewer. This is where the magic happens. Your precious cargo arrives at the treatment plant and passes through a series of mechanical screens. The solids get sent to a landfill, while the smaller bits get separated into sludge and liquid waste.

During secondary treatment, the sludge is pumped into concrete digesters where oxygen-hungry bacteria chomp on our crap and break organic sewage into simpler inorganic compounds. This concoction is drained, and the dehydrated “bio-solids” are sent to farmers to use as fertilizer on our fields. Unfortunately, these refined poo pellets contain heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs, pesticides and hundreds of other toxic chemicals. They pollute surface water and cause rashes and infections in farmers and livestock. Not surprising, the use of fecal fertilizer is causing shitstorms all over the place. Some green groups maintain that with better safeguards, sludge might be one of the best ways to handle our waste, but until there’s better oversight, you may want to seek out certified organic produce grown without bio-solids.

Back in the sewage treatment plant, the remaining water is disinfected chemically and discharged into a stream, river, lagoon or wetland or used for irrigation on golf courses or highway medians. Despite being chemically treated, that water is still rife with birth-control, anti-depressants and other pharmaceuticals we once ingested and wee-weed out. Sources of drinking water like the Puget Sound and the Potomac River harbor trace amounts of caffeine, heart medication, estrogen and more.

What are we to do? Don’t flush your drugs, for starters. And rejoice in the fact that scientists have now developed a way to turn pee into electricity, sprinkling a few drops onto copper chloride paper and generating about 1.5 volts of energy.

One more suggestion that will lighten the load: Get yourself a bidet (those French!) or use recycled toilet paper. Recycled, mon ami, not reused. The average American uses over 100 rolls a year, most of which is made from a combination of softwood and hardwood trees–Southern pines and Douglas firs make the paper strong, while maples and oaks make the paper soft. Zut alors! Oak trees have been felled to give our asses a little more comfort! And to ease our eyes, the paper is brightened with chlorine bleach which results in dioxin contamination. T.P. made from recycled paper uses colored and white stock (with staples and pins removed, natch) and is usually whitened with hydrogen peroxide.

C’est bon.

Get More 30 Days to a Greener You Ideas

This post was written by Simran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh, and originally published on The Huffington Post. Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Lacey Johnston for research assistance.

Intent.com provides content and community for who you aspire to be–personally, socially and globally.


Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin4 years ago

never thought of recycled toilet paper

Emily Drew
Emily Drew6 years ago

Thank you. I am considering using a compostable toilet when i get my own house.

Marcia Machado
Marcia Machado6 years ago

I don't use my toilet as a trash can and i always use recycled toilet paper.
I also altered my flush system to spend less water.
I have aquariums and when i change the water, use that water to flush the toilet.

Walter Firth
Walter Firth6 years ago

Use recycled water and flush every time.Who wants a toilet to smell like an outdoor thunder box,and the bowl to be the colour of jaundice.

Bon L.
Bon L7 years ago

Thanks for the info.

BMutiny TCorporationsEvil

I live alone in an apartment, do the "mellow yellow" thing and I perceive no smell at all, nor do my apartment neighbors. Pee is actually quite "clean" and other cultures have used it for bleach and for washing; it is a CULTURAL matter that we consider our own pee "unclean" and something to be ashamed of and gotten rid of as quickly as possible. I also have started using a washcloth to wipe pee; this saves so much on toilet paper! and is quite satisfactory, as the cloth can be washed when I wash my hands... it doesn't matter if the cloth is wet or dry. I "go" frequently because of my age I guess; 9 out of 10 times {or 4 out of 5 times, more likely}, I don't have to use toilet paper or flush! Gives a VERY good Green feeling! Saves $$ also! [If I had space for a garden, I would even recycle my pee, oui! oui!]

Jacs Bate
jacs Bate7 years ago

I don't mind leaving it to mellow, as long as you chaps will PUT THE FLIPPING LID DOWN!!! No-one wants to look at your frothy yellow when we go into the bathroom!

Nicole C.
Past Member 7 years ago

Janice P, my bathroom never smells from pee being in the bowl all day. I am a very OCD clean freak so there is no way I would be able to stand any smell. As for germs, you spread germs every time you flush so if you flush less, you actually spread less germs.

Nicole C.
Past Member 7 years ago

I flush about once a day and use 100% recycled, non-bleached TP. I used to use regular non-recycled TP until I heard that using it was the environmental equivalent of driving a Hummer each year. I was traumatized that even though I am the type of person to bike or use public transport, recycle every little scrap, and buy organic, I had never thought about toilet paper. The brand I use now is Cascades. Soft, comfy, and as good for the Earth as TP can be.

Janice P.
Janice P7 years ago

I do not nor have I ever flushed anything down a toilet but what belongs in there. As to the "hippie" yellow/brown idea, forget it. We do not make our planet better by accumulating germs in any room of our house. If you want your house to smell like an outhouse, I suppose that's okay, but I chooose to be clean and sanitary.