When your subject is the humble but essential toilet, bathroom humor is unavoidable. So expect a few potty jokes in Chelsea Wald’s very interesting Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet. Late in the book, Wald actually explores why people from many cultures use humor to mask their squeamishness or outright disgust at the thought of human excretions. And then she points out that during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news was full of stories about store shelves emptied of toilet paper. We don’t want to think about it, and yet we cannot avoid thinking about it.
So why an urgent quest to transform the toilet? Well, the gold standard of sanitation—a toilet connected to a sewer system connected to a waste treatment plant and then usually to some large body of water to carry away the effluviants—may now be fool’s gold. In our urge to rid ourselves of unpleasant materials, we flush all kinds of inappropriate things down the drain. Because of this, much of our once gleaming sanitation infrastructure is on deferred maintenance, heading for collapse.
Should drought-stricken California make massive repairs to a system that uses fresh water in this way? And what about the Netherlands, where Wald now lives, and where a quarter of the country is underwater and half is merely three feet above sea level? Wald tells us that the average human produces about 100 pounds of solid waste and 140 gallons of urine per year. Put that in your calculator and multiply it by the human population. Meanwhile, roughly half of that population has no access to safe sanitation.
Much of Wald’s book is a sort of travelogue, wherein she talks to innovators in sanitation science and witnesses contemporary and historical attempts to bring best practices to human health. Her view is that, in our wide and varied world, one solution does not fit all, but we all deserve a sanitary environment.