Pipe Dreams: Drilling deeper

Based on the hype it’s getting, I know I’m not the only one who was gripped by Chelsea Wald’s 2021 book Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet. The book tackles a big topic, and takes readers on a fast-paced ride through the fringes (and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways) of the toilet and sanitation world. Nearly every page touched on something I wanted to know more about. To satisfy my curiosity, and perhaps yours as well, I allowed myself the luxury of going back to track down more information on the items that most piqued my interest. Because I’m that kind of person, I share these links with you below, starting with her first chapter “The New Toilet Revolution”.

  • New Sanitation in Sneek, a city in the Netherlands, is home to Waterschoon a 232-home community uniquely designed to capture and treat grey water and black water within the community. Grey water is collected without mixing it into the more challenging “black” water (coming from toilets), so that it can go through a more simple, less energy-intensive cleaning process. The toilet waste (relatively concentrated because the vacuum toilets use very little water), is combined with household organic waste and sent to an onsite anaerobic digester where it recovers biogas which, in turn, provides roughly 12% of the community’s needs. In addition to the design linked above, the community itself has a website that proudly describes the system. (Note – if you’re reading this you’re likely an English speaker like myself. If so, be sure to click on the English translation.)
  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015, can be found here.
  • Energy & sanitation: On page 19, Wald correctly points out that “Wastewater treatment plants consume vast quantities of energy to pump and aerate sewage.” For those who would like to understand this better, this 2019 report from the Australian government documents the energy demand of pumping and aeration at a typical wastewater treatment plant, and how to cut back on the energy use. Keep in mind that this assumes one sticks with the traditional centralized treatment model. My quick search did not come up with anything that compared the energy use (including embedded energy) of a Waterschoon-type operation versus a highly efficient centralized system.
  • I found a link to the Tiger Toilets (using tiger worms) being piloted at the Center for Alternative Technology in rural Wales, but apparently in the days between my original search and now the link was broken. However, I did find reference to Tiger Toilets being manufactured for regions of Asia and Africa.
  • For those who want to know more about shit-flow diagrams pioneered by public health engineer Barbara Evans (aka SDFs) this website seems to be the place to start: https://sfd.susana.org/ . Along with background information, there’s a map of SFDs from around the world. I’m surprised that there are only four shown for the U.S. (I think there are a few more), but I’m even more surprised at how little discussion these get among mainstream wastewater folks in the U.S.
  • Run4Life is an EU-sponsored effort much like the Waterschoon project, but is focused on recovering agriculturally important nutrients (N, P, K) for use on nearby farm fields.
  • And of course I have to give a shout-out to Dr. Francis de los Reyes III of North Carolina State University, whom Wald cites as a leader in ensuring that environmentally sustainable technologies are being developed for people from all walks of life. Francis is one of those rare individuals who is able to do it all, and can translate between the mainstream wastewater world, the socially minded WASH community, and those who want to do it all while also designing for climate and circular economy needs.

That pretty much wraps the first chapter. Each one of these links is fascinating enough to merit a treatise of its own, but life has limits. I’ll try to do this again for her 3rd chapter, “Pipe Down”. Stay tuned, and hold me accountable!

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