So, do you like it low-flow or HET? How about dual-flush? Or is a brick in the tank all you need? When it comes to water conservation, toilets are always big news. In fact, one of the “most searched terms” on the Water Efficiency website is … you guessed it … toilet. And all of you who’ve downloaded Waterprint know that one toilet flush in the US equals almost a day’s worth of water use in the developing world.
The typical American uses an average of 100 gallons of water a day at home—and 30% of that water could be saved by installing water efficient fixtures; including low-flow toilets. The new high-efficiency toilets (HET) can actually cut the number of gallons per flush by more than half—1.3 gallons per flush—a 60% improvement on their older, less efficient counterparts. According to EPA, installing a WaterSense-labeled toilet could save a family of four more than $90 annually on their water bill (as compared to a household using a standard, 3.5 gallons-per-flush toilet) and almost $2,000 over the lifetime of the toilet.
In California, high-efficiency is now the law, thanks to AB715, which requires that all new construction in California include high-efficiency toilets and urinals. AB715 also set new water flush volume standards, 1.28 gallons per flush for toilets, 0.5 gallons per flush for urinals). In 2010, 50% all of the toilets sold in the state were required to meet these new standards, with 100% compliance stated for 2014.
And while AB715 was a first of its of kind, the truth is that, in the developed world, everyone has access to flush toilets—low-flow or otherwise. But in third-world countries, the situation is much grimmer. It’s not just a hygiene problem—although lack of basic sanitation can be blamed for a host of serious illnesses and death—it’s also a water resource management issue. More than 2.6 billion people do not have accesses to safe sanitation, and as a result, communities must deal not just with widespread disease, but with compromised water sources and ineffective (and nonexistent) conveyance systems.
This week, the Gates Foundation announced plans to “reinvent the toilet.” With an acknowledgement that plunking down a toilet is not enough, the foundation (along with a slew of partners) has announced a $3 million dollar grant as part of the “Reinventing the Toilet Challenge.”
The hope is that the challenge will inspire innovative and inventive solutions, solutions that will take into account existing infrastructure (or lack thereof) and community needs to develop a toilet that can combine cutting-edge technology (including waterless fixtures) with increased sanitation.
So what do you think? Although it makes sense to focus on improving the efficiency of the traditional toilet, could the toilet challenge create a whole new paradigm that takes us beyond the low-flow fixture? Some of the solutions proposed by the Gates Foundation include toilets that do not have to rely on sewer connections, but instead work like our traditional septic systems (emptying directly into a treatment pit or container) and also include a water reuse component—couldn’t that sort of system be successfully deployed in the US as well? And since it is often true that adversity spurs innovation, what can we learn from the toilet challenge?