Whenever I get to travel for work, I try to find out where my drinking water comes from, and where my poop and pee go.
This has earned me the nickname "The Poo Princess" in my family, and it's ruined many family vacations, because this is not normal. But thinking about where it all goes is the first step in activating what are actually superpowers in our poop and pee.
Yeah. And if we use them well, we can live healthier and more beautifully.
Check out this landscape in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Just notice what kinds of words and feelings come to mind. This landscape was watered with treated sewage water. Does that change anything for you? I imagine it might. And that's OK. How we feel about this is going to determine exactly how innovative we can be.
And I want to explain how it works, but what words do I use? I mean, I can use profane words like "shit" and "piss," and then my grandma won't watch the video. Or I can use childish words like "poo" and "pee." Eh. Or I can use scientific words like "excrement" and "feces." Humph. I'll use a mix.
It's all I got. (Laughs)
So, in this suburb, the poo and the pee and the wash water are going to this treatment plant right in the middle of the community. It looks more like a park than a treatment plant. The poo at the very bottom of all those layers of gravel — not touching anyone — is providing solid food for those marsh plants. And the clean, clear water that comes out the other end is traveling underground to water each person's yard. So even though they're in a desert, they get their own personal oasis.
This approach is called Integrated Water Management, or holistic or closed-loop. Whatever you want to call it, it's in conflict with the status quo of how we think about sanitation, which is contain, treat, push it away. But in this approach, we're doing one step better. We're designing for reuse from the very beginning, because everything does get reused, only now we're planning for it. And often, that makes for really beautiful spaces. But the most important thing about this system isn't the technicals of how it works. It's how you feel about it. Do you want this in your yard? Why not?
I got really curious about this question. Why don't we see more innovation in sanitation? Why isn't that kind of thing the new normal? And I care so much about this question, that I work for a nonprofit called Recode. We want to accelerate adoption of sustainable building and development practices. We want more innovation. But a lot of times, whole categories of innovation — ones that can help us live more beautifully — turn out to be illegal. Today's regulations and codes were written under the assumption that best practices would remain best practices, with incremental updates forever and ever. But innovation isn't always incremental. It turns out, how we feel about any particular new technique gets into everything we do: how we talk about it, how we encourage people to study, our jokes, our codes ... And it ultimately determines how innovative we can be.
So, that's the first reason we don't innovate in sanitation. We're kind of uncomfortable talking about sanitation, that's why I've gotten called "The Poo Princess" so much. The second reason is: we think the problem is solved here in the US. But not so. Here in the US we still get sick from drinking shit in our sewage water. Seven million people get sick every year, 900 die annually. And we're not taking a holistic approach to making it better. So we're not solving it.
Where I live in Portland, Oregon, I can't take Echo for a swim during the rainy season, because we dump raw sewage sometimes into our river. Our rainwater and our sewage go to the same treatment plant. Too much rain overflows into the river. And Portland is not alone here. Forty percent of municipalities self-report dumping raw or partially treated sewage into our waterways.
The other bummer going on here with our status quo is that half of all of your poop and pee is going to fertilize farmland. The other half is being incinerated or land-filled. And that's a bummer to me, because there are amazing nutrients in your daily doody. It is comparable to pig manure; we're omnivores, they're omnivores. Think of your poo and pee as a health smoothie for a tree.
The other bummer going on here is that we're quickly moving all the drugs we take into our waterways. The average wastewater treatment plant can remove maybe half of the drugs that come in. The other half goes right out the other side. Consider what a cocktail of pharmaceuticals — hormones, steroids, Vicodin — does to a fish, to a dog, to a child.
But this isn't just some problem that we need to contain. If we flip this around, we can create a resource that can solve so many of our other problems. And I want to get you comfortable with this idea, so imagine the things I'm going to show you, these technologies, and this attitude that says, "We're going to reuse this. Let's design to make it beautiful" — as advanced potty training.
I think you're ready for it. I think we as a culture are ready for advanced potty training. And there are three great reasons to enroll today. Number one: we can fertilize our food. Each one of us is pooping and peeing something that could fertilize half or maybe all of our food, depending on our diet. That dark brown poo in the toilet is dark brown because of what? Dead stuff, bacteria. That's carbon. And carbon, if we're getting that into the soil, is going to bind to the other minerals and nutrients in there. Boom! Healthier food. Voilà! Healthier people. Chemical fertilizers by definition don't have carbon in them. Imagine if we could move our animal manure and our human manure to our soil, we might not need to rely on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, mine minerals from far away. Imagine how much energy we could save.
Now, some of us are concerned about industrial pollutants contaminating this reuse cycle. That can be addressed. But we need to separate our discomfort about talking about poo and pee so we can calmly talk about how we want to reuse it and what things we don't want to reuse. And get this: if we change our approach to sanitation, we can start to slow down climate change. Remember that carbon in the poop? If we can get that into our soil bank, it's going to start to absorb carbon dioxide that we put into the air. And that could help slow down global warming.
I want to show you some brave souls who've had the courage to embrace this advanced potty training approach. So those folks in New Mexico — why did they do it? 'Cause they're in a desert? 'Cause they save money? Yeah. But more importantly, they felt comfortable seeing what was going down the toilet as a resource.
Here's an average house in Portland, Oregon. This house is special because they have a composting toilet turning all their poo and pee, over time, into a soil amendment. Their wash water, their shower water, is going underground to a series of mulch basins, and then watering that orchard downhill. When they went to get this permitted, it wasn't allowed in Oregon. But it was allowed in five other states nearby. That was Recode's — my organization's — first code-change campaign.
Here's a great example where the Integrated Water Management approach was the cheapest. This is three high-rise residential buildings in downtown Portland, and they're not flushing to the sewer system. How? Well, their wash water is getting reused to flush toilets, cool mechanical systems, water the landscape. And then once the building has thoroughly used everything — aka, shat in it — it's treated to highest standard right on-site by plants and bacteria, and then infiltrated into the groundwater right below. And all that was cheaper than updating the surrounding sewer infrastructure.
So that's the last reason we should get really excited about doing things differently: we can save a lot of money. This was the first permit of its kind in Oregon. Brave and open-minded people sat down and felt comfortable saying, "Yeah, that shit makes sense."
"Let's do it."
I keep showing examples where everyone's reusing everything on-site. Why? Well, when we look at our aging infrastructure — and it is old — and we look at the cost of updating it, three-quarters of that cost is just the pipes snaking through our city. So as we build anew, as we renovate, it might make more sense to treat and reuse everything on-site.
San Francisco realized that it made sense to invest in rebates for every household to reuse their wash water and their rainwater to water the backyard, because the amount of water they would save as a community would be so big. But why were all these projects so innovative? The money piece, yeah. But more importantly, they felt comfortable with this idea of advanced potty training.
Imagine if we embraced innovation for sanitation the way we have for, say, solar power. Think about it — solar power used to be uncommon and unaffordable. Now it's more a part of our web of power than ever before. And it's creating resiliency. We now have sources of power like the sun that don't vary with our earthly dramas. What's driving all that innovation? It's us. We're talking about energy. It's cool to talk about energy. Some folks are even talking about the problems with the limited resources where our current energy is coming from. We encourage our best and brightest to work on this issue — better solar panels, better batteries, everything.
So let's talk about where our drinking water is coming from, where our poo and pee are actually going. If we can get over this discomfort with this entire topic, we could create something that creates our future goldmine. Every time you flush the toilet, I want you to think, "Where is my poop and pee going? Will they be gainfully employed?"
"Or are they going to be wreaking havoc in some waterway?"
If you don't know, find out. And if you don't like the answer, figure out how you can communicate to those who can drive this change that you have advanced potty training, that you are ready for reuse. How all of you feel is going to determine exactly how innovative we can be.
Thank you so much.