Modern plumbing is nothing short of a miracle. Flush toilets have existed in some form for thousands of years, but today’s bathrooms are something special. Humans have perfected the ability to separate ourselves from our waste, and this has reduced outbreaks of infectious disease, noxious smells and any other icky side effects from the far end of our digestive tracts.
Unfortunately, one consequence of removing ourselves from this ickier side of life is that modern humans in developed nations are blissfully unaware of what’s happening downstream. Of course, I’m sure many of us are happy to keep it that way – after all, our public utilities are engineering marvels being looked after by real professionals. What could possibly be so important about our poop that everyday people need to consider it after we flush?
It's true that our Metropolitan Sewer District does an incredible job. These people work day and night to process the millions of gallons of daily wastewater Cincinnatians send their way. But keeping our natural waterways poop-free is ultimately an impossible task. Aging plumbing infrastructure and an expanding population is keeping the MSDGC on their toes, and we’ve already fallen behind. Outdated combined sewers run under most of the heart of Cincinnati, and during heavy rains, these old pipes release a potent cocktail of untreated wastewater and rain into the Mill Creek, Little Miami and Ohio rivers.
These old sewers draw from stormwater drains and bathrooms alike, making them more susceptible to overflowing during wet weather. Cincinnati is one of the worst cities in the country for combined sewage overflows, and on an average year, our sewers release more than 8 billion gallons of untreated water into our neighborhoods and natural spaces. Luckily, our city, state, and federal governments are hard at work renovating our old pipes. By restoring damaged streams and manufacturing environments to soak up excess rain our city has been able to divert billions of gallons of rainwater from our combined sewers.
Despite these city-wide environmental solutions, the sewers aren’t the only thing to blame. Our toilets have gotten more efficient since the 1990s, but we still waste several gallons of freshwater every time we flush. While mixing human waste with clean water is great for getting it safely out of the house, this process makes it much more difficult to treat and much more susceptible to leaks, backups and overflows.
In a natural environment, animal waste stays solid and stationary to be eaten by a healthy host of microbes, plant roots and scavengers. Human populations are far too large to just use the forest floor like our ancestors, but by taking this original waste management system into account, we can hopefully come up with a cleaner, less wasteful way to poop. Composting and vermiculture toilets are slowly being adopted into the mainstream, and population explosions in the developing world are making water-free methods like these increasingly necessary.
The flush toilet has been around for a while, and maybe it’s time for a change. We can’t just rely on updated infrastructure to keep our city, streams and planet clean. With composting toilets, we can keep our bathrooms safe and clean while processing our waste in a mindful manner.