An Ideal World Without Flush Toilets

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

According to U.N. water statistics, conventional flush toilets in middle-class homes account for approximately 30 percent of their water use. The average daily water use per person among middle-class populations is about 200 liters, although in some countries the volume is larger. (In the U.S., for example, it is 380 liters per person.) Thus, on average, each middle-class person uses 60 liters of fresh water per day to flush their urine and feces down the drain. Considering that there are almost 7 billion people on earth (expected to reach 9 billion by 2050) and that only three percent of the world's water is fresh, is it reasonable to use this water to flush toilets?

The s-trap watercloset facility, known as the flush toilet, appeared in Europe and North America in the late 19th century, when the earth's human population was approximately 1.8 billion and water was considered an infinite resource. Today, with almost four times as many people on earth and the majority of water sources either polluted or over-exploited, we are still using the same inefficient device. Moreover, it is being adopted throughout the developing word, accelerating the extraction and pollution of fresh water sources.

The solution to this unsustainable situation has already been invented. The approach is generally known as ecological sanitation (eco-san), which aims at making efficient use of the water and nutrient cycle in each household/neighborhood — a form of permaculture. This is very difficult to manage with flush toilets. A more appropriate device is the dry toilet. Ecological sanitation combines this technology with effective policy, education and funding mechanisms to effectively minimize the wasteful consumption of fresh water water supplies.

Credits: Photo of a sewer dumping waste water into a river from Preparedness Pro. Illustration of early flush toilet design by J. G. Jennings (1877). Dry toilet graphic from Gold Mine.

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  1. any cold hard examples of reliable / proven / solutions for natural ventilation from private (family unit)dry toilets? immediate real world project needs answers not ideas.

  2. Thanks for the comment. There are plenty of reliable, proven solutions for natural ventilation for private dry toilets. Dry toilet technology goes from simple rural isolated toilets to modern multi-storey apartments buildings in Northern Europe. Some of these buildings pay their maintenance with the revenues from selling urine and dried faeces; urine has many valuable minerals, such as phosphorus. Fermented urine, mixed with dried faeces and vegetal composting material make an excellent fertilizer. The ventilation issue is a key part of the design, mainly because of its drying function. If the toilet is well managed, odor is not an issue at all.

  3. I think your statistic about flush toilets accounting for approximately 30 percent of global water use is staggeringly off. According to your link only 8% of freshwater use is domestic and that 8% includes many attributes (showers, sinks,dishwashers, etc...), not just toilets. Don't get me wrong, I agree that your post brings up a good topic of our toilet condition, but the flush toilet itself has done loads to prevent health issues in all modern cities. In the book "The Big Necessity" Rose George quotes a Harvard geneticist stating that the toilet is the single biggest variable in increasing human life span. I agree we should not be content with the status quo, however, accurate stats and a more contextualized view would present a more stable post and argument. Also, 3/4 of the worlds water is not fresh, only 3% is fresh, 1% is accessible. Again, your stats are discerningly wrong.

    1. Thank you very much for this wake-up call to more rigorously fact-check our posts. In this case, that must have been me who made the 3/4 of all water error while editing too quickly and without enough sleep. I just fixed it above. I also linked to the U.N. water stats instead of checking with Jordi about the source he had in mind, another bad practice on my part. He should be able to provide the source of the 30% figure. Thanks again for bringing this to our attention and helping us correct any misinformation.