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Melody Chandler and Will Grunewald / MEDILL

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District serving Cook County runs the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world in Stickney.

Friendly flushing: Water-efficient toilets help make sustainable homes

by Melody Chandler and Will Grunewald
Dec 06, 2012


Will Grunewald / MEDILL

A lineup of water-efficient toilets at K&B Galleries in Chicago's Merchandise Mart.


Courtesy of Nancy Klehm

This compost pile contains human waste from dry toilets, mixed with food waste to foster heat-generating microbes. The microbes break down the wastes into a sterile and nutrient-rich soil.


Courtesy of Nancy Klehm

Seedlings grow in "Humble Pile" compost, Nancy Klehm's test of dry toilets.


Courtesy of sustainable sanitation / flickr

This commercially produced dry toilet from Ecodomeo doesn't require the addition of sawdust or any other carbon-rich material to suppress odor and begin the composting process.  A built-in ventilation system takes care of odors, and earth worms do all the necessary composting in a contained chamber.


Data from Mayer, DeOreo, et. al.  "Residential End Uses of Water," 1999. Chart produced by Will Grunewald and Melody Chandler / MEDILL

Toilets consume more water than any other indoor appliance, this chart shows.


Data from City of Chicago.  Graph produced by Will Grunewald and Melody Chandler / MEDILL

Chicago water prices are scheduled to rise over the next three years. Higher prices might motivate city residents to conserve more water.


Wendy Pabich / SASQUATCH BOOKS (2012)

In her book "Taking on Water," Wendy Pabich provides an easy-to-follow cheat sheet of ways to reduce your water footprint. 

Commode, can, the Oval Office, and the Super Bowl. Throne, pot, loo, John. The royal flush.

The toilet, in its illustrious career, has earned a variety of affectionate nicknames. But variety extends well beyond just puns when talking about those porcelain perches: Eco-friendly options, from low-flow to entirely waterless toilets, are an important part of bringing water sustainability into homes.

Toilet flushes account for about 30 percent of in-home water usage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Toilets consume more water in American homes than any other individual type of appliance, such as showers, dishwashers, and washing machines.

And with climate change, drought and demand straining fresh water resources, methods of decreasing water consumption are increasingly important to environmentalists and policy-makers.

“It’s easy to think that we have this enormous indispensable water supply, that we do have about 20 percent of the world's supply of surface fresh water right here at the Great Lakes,” said Nancy Tuchman, an aquatic ecology researcher and director of the Institute of Urban Environmental Sustainability at Loyal University. 

"We have the biggest supply on the continent, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be there forever – and especially with global climate change and all this evaporation and little precipitation that could build the water back up. So we need to conserve.”

Studies show that Great Lakes water levels are dropping toward record lows.

Toilet Alternatives

One radical toilet-based solution takes water out of the equation altogether. A so-called “dry toilet” can begin as little more than a bucket filled with a layer of a carbon-rich material such as dry leaves, sawdust or newspaper. “For five bucks, or if I find a bucket and have some carbon material, I can actually build out a solution really fast,” said Nancy Klehm, who founded a Chicago-based eco-solutions company, Social Ecologies, in 2010. “It takes hardly any capital; it just takes some ingenuity and knowing what to do with it.”

After a visit to the dry toilet, users cover their wastes with a new layer of carbon-rich material. Once the bucket is full, the contents can be dumped out and composted.

Klehm organized a dry toilet trial-run for a group of 22 Chicagoans from 2008 to 2010, and she continues to work with dry toilets and composting today. For the aptly dubbed "Humble Pile" program, she collected waste from participants for a three-month period, and then composted it with more carbon-rich material for two years.

“People were really surprised by how much they liked dry toilets,” she said. Participants in the aptly dubbed “Humble Pile” program liked the fact that the toilets were quiet and mobile, and that the toilets could be designed ergonomically. Most of all, they were pleasantly surprised that the toilets didn’t smell.

It's important that anyone considering a dry toilet understand how to handle the waste. "People can generally compost anywhere at anytime," Klehm said.  "They just need to do it well so not to present a nuisance or attract animals." 

When dealing with the dry toilet waste rather than food or landscape waste, it is important to kill pathogens from the human body by composting at high temperature created by heat-generating microbes.

"Composting human waste should not be taken on unless someone is a very skilled composter," Klehm said. When done correctly, though, microbial digestion should naturally turn waste to soil and the process should be odor-free.

After the two year "Humble Pile" composting period that Klehm took on for the participants, she returned the compost to its original owners, which she said grew participant’s appreciation for dry toilets even more. “They were really excited that they were building soil," she said.

“It’s a larger issue than just how much water we’re using,” explained sustainable water expert Wendy Pabich, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “When you buy a dry compost toilet, that’s all about recycling the nutrients and carbon in our waste, rather than sending them to rivers where the organic and nutrient loads drive eutrophication – algal blooms, fish kills and ecosystem changes.”

Dry toilets probably aren’t for everybody. “The ‘yuk’ factor is definitely there,” but that reaction is largely a cultural bias, Pabich said. She added that commercially produced dry toilets have eliminated many of the un-pleasantries consumers might expect.

But there are many other, more conventional toilet options for people looking to lessen their lavatory’s environmental impact.

If every American home were to swap out old toilets for new, water efficiency-certified toilets, the EPA estimates that it would collectively save 640 billion gallons of water every year – equivalent to two week’s flow over Niagara Falls.

Toilets from before 1980 can use up to 7 gallons of water per flush, but federal regulations require that new toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush. Simply by replacing old toilets, people can dramatically reduce their water consumption. And new dual-flush toilets (with one setting for wet wastes and one for solids] or low-flow toilets), marked with an EPA WaterSense label, are certified to use at least 20 percent less water than that national baseline.

A water-efficient home

In her recent book, “Taking on Water,” Pabich shared her personal experience renovating her entire home to be more water-efficient. The process involved installing meters on every water-consuming element of the house, analyzing the results, and devising ways to minimize water consumption. She chose the low-flow toilets, for instance.

Improving water sustainability at home need not be so involved for everyone, though. “I don’t think people need to go through all the effort I went through, nor to the level of analysis and understanding,” Pabich said. Instead, they can focus on a few core changes that Pablich shared in the form of a “Water Cheat Sheet” when she spoke at Chicago Ideas Week in October.

Some changes are a matter of updating home hardware. Pabich switched out her hold toilets and self-installed low-flow alternatives. “It’s not very hard, and it’s not very expensive,” she said. Toilets, though, are only a piece of the puzzle. The cheat sheet prescribes other improvements such as water-efficient washing machines and dishwashers.

Other conservation measures requires behavioral changes, though. From eating less meat (livestock consume an enormous amount of water) to turning off the shower while lathering, small adjustments in daily routines add up. Turn off the sink while you brush your teeth, and don’t run your dishwasher until it’s full.

“One thing that’s become really clear to me is the impact of our aggregate decision-making,” Pabich said. If each one of us does something to reduce our direct water use or our larger water footprint, by eating less meat or replacing our toilets, the collective impact is significant.”

The big picture: water pricing

Though individual choices have major impacts on water conservation, achieving long-term sustainability will require top-down policy changes too.

“There are clearly some major structural problems,” Pabich said. “Water is entirely underpriced, and the second that price signal is corrected I think things will dramatically change.”

Bill Christiansen, program planner for the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency, agreed.  “Here in Chicago, the water rates are very reasonable, so that’s probably not going to be a motivator for lots of people.”

The city of Chicago will charge $2.89 per 1,000 gallons of water beginning Jan. 1, 2013, up from $2.51 this year. The rate is scheduled to increase again for 2014 and 2015 in increments of 15 percent. Sewer rates will be at 92 percent of water bills for 2013, but will hit 100 percent in 2015.

“I think the public will be most interested in water efficiency when the need is more urgent,” Christiansen said.

People such as Klehm and Pabich promote water-efficiency initiatives, but it will take a concerted effort of people to achieve all the necessary changes.

“It requires another level of involvement in your home,” Klehm said. “So your home is not just this passive space that you retreat into at the end of the night with your carryout Chinese food and pop in a Netflix movie.”

“You have to watch the flows of all the different things that are coming into and out of your house. And there aren’t a lot of people who want to have that level of engagement in their homes.”