‘Opening the lid’ on toilet innovation: Q&A with author Chelsea Wald

Toilets: They’re not any easy subject to discuss. Even though eliminating waste from our bodies is an essential function we all must do, talking about how we deal with that waste as a society, along with the intertwined issues of public health and environmental impacts, doesn’t make for easy conversation.

Undaunted, science writer Chelsea Wald takes the subject head-on in her new book, Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet, published by Simon & Schuster. In nearly a decade reporting on human sanitation, Wald has developed the sort of comfort level with talking toilets that allows a nuanced probe into the past, present and future of an everyday subject that has nearly immeasurable implications for ecosystems, the climate, sources of water, and our own health.

Perhaps most compelling in the text are Wald’s trips to the field to understand what the challenge of sanitation means to huge proportions of the world’s people. At its root, access to safe, reliable toilets — in all their myriad varieties — boils down to a human rights issue. Diarrheal diseases due to poorly managed waste kill 432,000 people a year. Globally, around 2 billion people don’t have access to a “minimally adequate toilet,” Wald writes.

And we can’t stop producing waste. “It’s the only resource that increases with population,” she said a source once told her. “We can’t stop pooping.”

Throughout the book, we tag along with Wald as she peers down into “helicopter” toilets suspended over rivers on the Indonesian island of Java, learns of the cultural place that communal outdoor toilets hold in parts of India, and looks over the shoulders of innovators in the U.S. using cutting-edge technology with the goal of conserving not just water, but also other resources by doing something useful with human waste. From turning poop into fuel for brick-making, to feeding it to soldier flies that could ultimately fatten fish and poultry, she pursues the innovation of toilets, sewage management and sanitation with an irresistible zeal.

“The toilet is fascinating, it’s ubiquitous, and there is no good future without it,” Wald writes.

The frustration, which also imbues Wald’s writing, is that dealing with human waste isn’t an insurmountable problem. It’s just a problem on which we haven’t yet unleashed our collective creativity and intellect. Tracking the drive to develop better systems that serve the planet’s 9 billion people is a strength of the book. One of the keys, she says, is getting beyond the “gold standard” ideal of a toilet to which much of the world aspires: a porcelain throne connected to a sophisticated sewage treatment system. This iteration has served society well over the past century or so, she said, allowing wealthy societies to essentially “flush and forget.” But now, the time has come to for an update.

Toilets that are culturally appropriate, as well as safe and sustainable, could take different forms in different contexts. Sophisticated sewage systems might make the most sense in densely populated cities, where inadequate waste treatment wipes out riverine life. But elsewhere, well-drained and -managed pit latrines that minimize flies might be the most appropriate option. (A favorite of Wald’s is the “arborloo”: Once this composting, shallow pit latrine is full, a tree is planted in the spot, and the toilet is moved to a new location.)

The upshot is that to take care of our waste responsibly, communities and society must come together to come up with the suite of solutions that fit the myriad contexts in which humans dwell, she says. To her mind, there’s hope.

“These are problems that are solvable,” Wald says. “It’s just a question of putting our minds to it.”

Mongabay spoke with Wald ahead of her book’s release on April 6.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What motivated you to write this book?

Chelsea Wald: One of the things that I tried to do is show that this is a problem for our whole species. It is not just a problem in other places or just a problem over there. Everyone can say, OK, this is a problem we all have to solve together. And it’s not been solved. It’s a problem that we have yet to solve.

Mongabay: How did you first get started reporting on how we handle with human waste?

Chelsea Wald: I got an assignment to write about sanitation. It was an open-ended assignment to start. But it turned into a story about new ideas for technologies in developing contexts, where people have poor toilets or may not have any toilets. That’s billions of people. As it turns out, more than half of the world’s population doesn’t have what experts call safely managed sanitation, which is a term of art meaning that the waste doesn’t make it to safely to treatment, so it will end up somewhere in the environment.

At that time, the [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation was getting a lot of attention for reinventing the toilet. So that’s what that story turned into.

At the same time, I got another assignment to write about all the wasted heat in cities. It turns out that a lot of that heat is in our sewer systems. I always thought that when you take a shower, you’re wasting water. But actually, you’re wasting a lot of heat as well. The hot water, after it flows over your body, goes into the sewer system. The same thing happens with hot water from washing dishes or washing clothes, so we put a lot of heat into our sewer system. But there’s actually the potential to get it back out. Heat pumps are not a super complicated technology, but we’re not doing it, so there’s a huge amount of untapped potential. Very few places are doing this.

Here I had two touches on this big elephant that is our sanitation infrastructure.

I was fascinated. I felt there was something bigger here that I don’t quite understand, and I just wanted to learn more and more. Eventually, I just gathered so much material, as you can see in the book. There’s so much work being done. I was amazed, and I felt that I could write a book that would amaze readers on every page. It’s everything that’s happening under your feet after you flush the toilet. There’s really a lot to know, and I wanted to share that with people.

Mongabay: It’s a subject that’s somewhat sensitive for a lot of people, but you write about developing an ease with the topic. How did that evolve?

Chelsea Wald: I’m not a potty humor person. People might describe me as reserved or proper even. But I think that makes me a good person to write this book because it shows that anyone can find comfort with this with this topic, that you can keep your dignity and you don’t have to be making lots of jokes.

At first, I was uncomfortable with it. I tell a story in the book about how my friend wanted to talk about toilets with me once, and I just gave her this look like, why would you want to talk about toilets? Now, I’m the person who can’t stop talking about toilets.

Since I’ve been writing about this, I think that culturally we’ve changed a little bit. People are very open, for example, online about what they talk about. There’s an increasing number of museums and podcasts about poop and toilets. So I think people are becoming more open to the topic.

I think it probably helped that I had a child in the meantime, because to have a baby you really deal with a lot of poop, and you really can’t be squeamish about it.

One of my sources said that she was working on the archaeology of toilets for 20 years before she had this breakthrough. She realized she needed to imagine ancient people using the toilet. She had to invade their privacy mentally in order to have the insights that she ended up having. I do think it’s something to happen slowly, but it’s an enjoyable process. I just call it opening the lid on your mind.

Mongabay: That seems like that’s a hurdle to coming up with better toilets. Do you see that stigma around toilet issues as something that’s keeping us from managing our waste better?

Chelsea Wald: I do, and I think that a lot of the experts I talked to think that’s the case. As a writer, you often see articles about toilets, toilet technologies, or toilet failures, but they tend to be rather short. Discussion like the kind in my book is extremely rare. People like to be titillated by the topic, but then maybe don’t stick around for the long, important conversation, or maybe no one really invites them to do it. Another problem is that I think people maybe automatically have a negative reaction to the topic. So they get to be disgusted. It can be hard to see the good. So if you’re blinded by the disgust, for example, when you’re talking about reusing poop as fertilizer, then you might not be able to embrace that solution.

Mongabay: That makes sense. I think it mirrors my own reaction in some ways. There’s this initial interest. But then it’s like, how far do you go?

Chelsea Wald: And then you have the next barrier, which is actually being part of the change. I think that’s really something we need to also work on because you might think that new toilet technologies are great for places where toilets don’t exist or there aren’t good toilets. But if someone came to you and said, ‘Hey, will you install this new type of toilet?’ most people would hesitate in a way they wouldn’t hesitate to, say, try out a new computer. It’s just really different. One expert said people just don’t like to be early adopters of new toilet technologies.

Mongabay: Do you consider those changes to be part of “the global toilet revolution” that you write about? What is that?

Chelsea Wald: I see it moving from this singular idea of what sanitation is or should be to the development of a wide variety of new options for dealing with our waste. Some of those options are going to be appropriate for high-income contexts like big, wealthy cities. Some are going to be appropriate for low-income countries and slums. Some are going to be appropriate for rural areas. What I see is the creation of not just one new toilet, but many toilets. I think that’s revolutionary, because it really does require getting people to think in a whole new way about your waste.

‘Opening the lid’ on toilet innovation: Q&A with author Chelsea Wald

The world holds up as this gold standard, especially for cities, a flush toilet connected to a centralized sewer system connected to a plant that does microbe-based treatment. It’s a system that has served us really well — I don’t want to knock it. It was developed 100-plus years ago, and the people who developed it weren’t thinking about a lot of the challenges that we’re facing today, including water scarcity, fast-growing cities, toxic pollution, climate change, of course, inequality that we face in the world.

Mongabay: It’s interesting to me how sanitation is an indicator of quality of life and the circumstances under which people live. It’s a human rights issue, isn’t it?

Chelsea Wald: I do think that the fact that more than half the world’s population doesn’t have safely managed sanitation is a scandal, and it’s something we’re not doing enough about. There’s a lot of reasons for it.

But for sanitation and lack of access to toilets, it’s not something that’s limited to any one place. It’s something we can find all around us. Many U.S. cities hardly have any public toilets. The rural sanitation in the U.S. in many places is scandalously poor.

These are problems that are solvable. It’s just a question of putting our minds to it. Now, I tend to think that new technologies will help solve these problems because they will mean that we can provide a more sustainable option, both financially and environmentally, to all of these different contexts. But ultimately, it’s a political and a social problem to be solved. It requires putting attention and resources toward it.

It is easy to overlook because people don’t want to talk about sewage. Politicians don’t want to talk about sewage. They don’t want to be seen cutting the ribbon at a wastewater treatment plant a lot of the time. It’s not a sexy thing for them to do. There’s some exceptions to that. In some places, when politicians do take on sanitation, they can actually get a lot of credit for it.

Mongabay: You quote a statistic early on in the book, that $1 invested in universal sanitation gets a return of about $5.50 in terms of public health gains. That’s incredible.

Chelsea Wald: My understanding is that, because of the nature of sanitation, you get those returns when everybody has safe sanitation because one person getting a toilet doesn’t take all the feces out of the environment. You have to really invest enough so that sanitation is universal, and then you get these massive returns.

I wish I had the answer on how to get politicians to do this. One thing that I learned about sanitation is that it’s very local. We treat it like there’s this one technology that can work for all contexts. But that’s not true. That’s one of the problems.

Mongabay: Would you call sanitation a communal good?

Chelsea Wald: It’s another reason why it’s a good idea to have these conversations together, because it’s a problem we have to we have to solve together.

Mongabay: What works depends on population density as well, right?

Chelsea Wald: There are sewers in many cities, but those sewers just go right on into the water. That’s also considered, I guess, minimally adequate because it’s not putting the specific person at risk. But it’s obviously not safely managed, because it doesn’t get treated at the end.

Pit latrines can be a good form of sanitation. Even in cities, if it’s properly built and serviced in a way that keeps everybody safe, then it’s not really different from a septic tank, and it can be a perfectly safe form of sanitation.

In many rural areas, there’s some really nice options like the arborloo, where you can plant a tree in it, when you’re done, and you just move the latrine. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s of course very sustainable.

Mongabay: What are people doing to turn this constant resource of human waste into something valuable?

Chelsea Wald: One of them is definitely creating compost. There’s a lot of places with depleted soils, so compost is really a good idea in some contexts. There’s the idea to make fuel. You can make fuel briquettes or powdered fuel that could potentially take pressure off of deforestation.

Then the trick is just creating the right products to feed into the existing need. I talk a little bit about the potential also for feeding feces to black soldier flies. That works best with you have like a really dry fecal sludge. But the larvae of the black soldier fly eat anything and then they can be fed to poultry or fish. That is promising as a replacement for fish meal to help with the problem of overfishing.

Mongabay: If you can take pressure off of another resource, that makes a lot of sense, assuming you can get it to scale.

Chelsea Wald: The problem we’re trying to solve here is the problem of sanitation. It’s not going to solve the problems of overfishing or climate change. But all these things are interconnected. There’s plenty of shit. You could address several problems at one time.

Mongabay: You point out in some parts of the U.S., that lack of sanitation infrastructure is an issue. What can be done about that?

Chelsea Wald: This is a hard question as well. First, wastewater infrastructure in the U.S. is pretty severely underfunded. It gets a D-plus on the infrastructure report card. A lot of this is down to funding, and we need to solve these problems communally rather than leaving it to individuals. We need to fund it adequately. I think there’s an opportunity if there is a new infrastructure package [in the U.S.] to do that.

My hope is that people will look to some of these innovations to come up with some new ideas about how they can address it. So for example, when you’re talking about nutrient pollution. A lot of those nutrients are in our urine, and there’s a real opportunity to keep the urine out of sewage and to reuse it. Urine is very low in pathogens, so it’s much easier to handle as well. You can transform it into fertilizer in a variety of different ways. You can sell it to fertilizer companies who can then mix it into their fertilizer mixes and sell it on. Or you can take it directly to local farmers.

Solutions like that are a bit outside the box but could make a huge difference and actually are low cost. It’s just about thinking about things differently, rather than just upgrading everyone’s septic tanks.

There’s other options: Communities can create small-scale distributed wastewater treatment systems using small pipes that aren’t necessarily that expensive. I visited one place in the north of the Netherlands called Sneek, where they’re doing that as a pilot project.

Mongabay: What would you say to somebody who sees the investments in places like California or the pilot project in Sneek and says, well, these are wealthy communities that have the ability to invest in these things?

Chelsea Wald: The first thing I would say is that we need to be willing to experiment in places where we are privileged, rather than just leave it to poor contexts to experiment. There’s been so much of that work developing these technologies for poor people that we wouldn’t use, and that doesn’t seem fair. We should bring some of the experimentation to the wealthier contexts.

One of the nice things about that idea in general is that, if you make a product that you have a demand for, then it’s going to help drive the whole system. If someone is out there waiting to buy the fertilizer or the black soldier fly larvae that you’re making, then you’re incentivized to go and get the raw materials that you need from the toilets in order to make the product. And then, people are incentivized to have the toilets that they need.

Mongabay: Is this a solvable problem?

Chelsea Wald: I think the answer is also very much yes. I do think it is possible. We can do this. This is one of the solvable problems. We just have to get out of our own way in a sense with our idea of what toilets are in order to make sure that everybody has sanitation that’s safe, that’s more or less in balance with nature, and is culturally appropriate. It’s a hard problem, but it’s not the hardest.

Banner image of urban art by Art Nectar via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Correction: A previous version of this article had a transcription error. The word should have been sanitation, not sensation.

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