“Toilet-to-Tap” is a concept that demonstrates a circular economy, where “all the resources coming into our cities are recycled after they are used.” We are already using recycled materials in every day household items, such as toilet paper, glass, and food scraps. In Portland, there is a Jewish market and deli on NW Glisan, with a recycled interior of reclaimed lumber supplied by ReBuilding Center. The same thinking can be and has been applied to drinking water. Water is one of the most necessary resources on Earth with clean drinking water accounting for less than 1% of the total water available. Due to droughts caused by climate change, increasing urban populations, and continued agricultural and industrial needs, water scarcity is a serious environmental issue. Bill Cooper, director of Urban Water Research at the University of California-Irvine, predicts that “Water is going to be the oil of the 21st century.”
Recycled water must first be clean enough to drink. Using modern technologies and three processes to make it drinkable: microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet filtration. First, water passes through a membrane to remove bacteria, protozoa, and suspended solids. Then, the water passes through plastic sheets that remove microscopic pollutants and harmful molecules. Lastly, ultraviolet radiation removes harmful viruses (Thornton, 2019). The water is so pure after the three-step process, minerals must be added back into the water to give it the familiar taste to which we are accustomed.
There are many hurdles to overcome before recycled water is pouring from your tap, despite implementation in California where 20% of daily drinking water comes from recycled wastewater or how in Windhock, Namibia, drinking purified wastewater has been the norm for decades (Ahmed, 2011). First, people are influenced by the power of disgust. Social scientists that have studied every culture determined that humans revile excrement and everything it is associated with (Dingfelder, 2004). Public perception is influenced by the magical law of contagion (Mills, K., 2011), which states that “when two objects come into contact with each other, there is potentially permanent exchange of properties between them. (Rozin et al., 1989). So, even when told every conceivable thing had been done to purify the water, people still will not drink it. I find this aversion to be interesting since a common baby shower game for large groups is “Dirty Nappie,” where chocolate, caramel, or nut chocolate is smeared into a diaper, passed around and tasted, so that members can guess what is inside.
In addition to necessary shifts in public perception, companies and initiatives must fight to gain and retain the trust of the community. This can be done with continuous monitoring to ensure public health. Physicians and public health specialists should be integral parts of monitoring boards to help develop trust through transparency and competency. Additionally, creating mental barriers or blind-spots by adding an extra step in the water-recycling process (Dingfelder, 2004). My solution would be to normalize public perception through science literacy. Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi was an innovative story to help parents educate their children about bowel movements. Perhaps public messaging through digestible formats such as these are helpful to power “yucky” innovations like reclaimed water into more common practice, because everyone could drink toilet water.
Ahmed, S. (2011, June 2). Toilet to Tap: The Future of Water | AIChE. AIChE ChEnnected . https://www.aiche.org/chenected/2011/06/toilet-tap-future-water
Dingfelder, S. F. (2004, September). From toilet to tap -Psychologist lend their expertise to overcoming the public’s aversion to reclaimed water. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep04/toilet
Harris-Lovett, S., & Sedlack, D. (2019). From Toilet to Tap: What Cities Need to Overcome to Make That Happen — WSJ. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-toilet-to-tap-what-cities-need-to-do-to-make-it-happen-11558105505
Mills, K. (2011, October). From toilet to tap: Getting people to drink recycled water. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/recycled-water
Thornton, S. (2019, August 1). From Toilet to Tap | National Geographic Society. National Geographic Society. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/toilettotap/