November 21, 2015

Simple Pleasures: A Toilet

Ancient Roman public toilets were among the first of their type in the world. When finished, 
relieved Romans wiped with a wet sponge on the end of a stick.

It was International Toilet Day a few days ago. That makes sense because hygienic toilets are one important piece of an overall sanitation system. But like a fart, this special day puffed into existence, was soon gone, and I forgot about it. But not because toileting isn't a serious issue - it is. Deadly serious as a matter of fact.

My friend, a nurse, says, "if you don't poo and pee you die". Sometimes even if you do eliminate, you still die. Billions of people around the world do not have access to functioning sanitary systems. Many get sick and die because of the failure to provide for this basic need. The world needs more proper places to poop.

I have used a wide selection of toilets in my days - self-dug holes in the ground while wilderness camping (there is a book written about the topic - "How To Shit In The Woods"), western toilets, squat toilets, and outhouses (both conventional and composting) at campgrounds and cabins.

A plastic shopping bag has even done in a pinch (in some places in Africa they call this a "flying toilet" because when done they throw the bag as far away as they can, resulting in country-wide bans on plastic shopping bags).

When we were hunter-gatherers we could do our thing anywhere. But when we settled into cities and civilizations we concentrated our waste to the point of toxicity. I witnessed this level of waste production personally when I worked in the waste water treatment plant in a city of a million people.

In the course of my work I saw first hand what went down the sinks, toilets, and storm drains from a section of the city, and it wasn't pretty. Everything you could think of flowed down to that plant, plus a few things that you may not of thought about, and may not want to think about.

At the time Linda and I were contracted to deliver the treatment plant's environmental education program. We gave tours and instruction for school groups from grades 1 to 12. It was great fun because it was so fantastically gross. And important. But mostly gross.

I learned a lot in this smelly site. I learned that it is a very good thing that all that waste wasn't going directly into local waterways. It is bad enough since no treatment plant can take all the contaminants from waste water. Pharmaceuticals, for example, passed through the plant and into the river via the discharge pipe.

I also learned that there is a very limited range of things you can put down the toilet, sink or storm drain in order to keep your sanitary system running smoothly. It consists of:
  • water
  • small food particles (the fewer the better, so no garburators please)
  • biodegradable soaps (without phosphates)
  • human waste
  • toilet paper
  • non-toxic cleaners
That is all. No grease or oil. No old medicines, or hamsters, or toys, or facial tissue, or wet wipes, or toxic cleaners, rotting leftovers, or anything except what is on the list above.

If you have a functioning sanitary system, you are more fortunate than 2.4 billion of your global neighbours who do without, and suffer the consequences. Cherish it, and treat your sani-system well all the way from the toilet, drain or storm sewer to the local waterway.

For me a toilet has been a simple pleasure that I really appreciate, but for many it means the difference between life and death. 


  1. I used to own a copy of that book, "How to Shit in the Woods" Great read! Creative and talks about things many never think of.

    To counter the general feeling that our governments aren't working, things have gone to hell negativity with, "When I wake in the morning and go to my kitchen sink, I have clean drinking water that comes out of the tap. When I flush my toilet, it goes to a waste water treatment plant. I am not sick from not having clean drinking water or from having raw sewage around me. I am certain that if there is a fire in my home, I can call the fire department and trained fire fighters will rush to my home, attempt to rescue me, my cat companions and save as much of my belongings as they possibly can."

    That's not to say we don't have enormous problems with our governments, we do. But some things are working well. It is our tax dollars that pays for clean water, sewage treatment, roads to drive on, fire department services, parks to walk in, and a whole bunch of other things that contribute to a healthier and safer place for me to live. I'm thankful for those things every day of my life. Terri

    1. Anonymous11/22/2015

      Well said Terri! I am ever grateful for having safe clean water, a roof over my head and a safe place to live.

    2. Anonymous11/23/2015

      Ditto!! Running water, toilet, a roof over my head and the grocery store a mile down the road with everything you could ever want in there (and money in my pocket to buy). I feel like a is enough..I don't want or need anything else.

    3. It is very fashionable among some to demonize taxes, as if they are all "take, take, take". But you get something for your taxes, as you point out. Life is a cooperative venture, whether that fact is acknowledged or not, and it is our taxes that make life better for all.

      The government isn't "stealing" our money - it is investing it in the things that give us the quality of life that we have.

      It is good to be grateful for the basics, and enjoy them for the awesome things that they are. If opposed to taxes, earn less, or consume less, or both.


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