03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

World Toilet Day: A Modest Proposal

No, I am not suggesting that the world is in the toilet, nor that it belongs there.
I have been reading a fascinating and informative book by Rose George called The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

This is where I learned about World Toilet Day, an actual day of note, established on Nov. 19, 2001 by the World Toilet Organization to increase awareness of the importance of toilet sanitation and each person's right to a safe and hygienic sanitary environment.

Today some 2.6 billion people live without access to any kind of improved sanitation.

Four in ten people in the world have no toilet, says George. They must do their business instead on roadsides, in the bushes, wherever they can. Yet human feces in water supplies contribute to one in ten of the world's communicable diseases. A child dies from diarrhea - usually brought on by fecal-contaminated food or water - every 15 seconds.

Now consider this: in our system of sanitation, we essentially use fresh, potable water as a wheelbarrow to transport waste. In Cook and eastern Lake County, Illinois, we take water out of Lake Michigan, filter it through sand to remove particles and treat it with chemicals to make it safe to drink, we pump it out through miles of pipe to our homes and businesses, and then we use that fresh, drinkable water in catchbasins called toilets to convey our human waste to a sewage treatment plant. I ask you, how smart is that?

Here's another key point: unlike oil and other fossil fuels, there are no substitutes for freshwater. Yet today, in Cook County at least, we use water once for residential and industrial purposes, and then we essentially throw it away. That's because we reversed the Chicago River more than 100 years ago. So now, though we treat our sewage before discharging the effluent into the Chicago area waterways, our effluent flows down to the Gulf of Mexico. It is not returned to the lake. (Is it any wonder we call effluent waste water? Our current system assumes that water used once is garbage.)

My point is this: using freshwater in toilets is not smart and it is not sustainable. I believe the homes of the future will be designed to use "grey" water -- the water from our washing machines and dishwashers, the water from our showers and from rain captured in barrels and cisterns -- to flush our toilets. This kind of redesign of water use, both residential and industrial, will be one of the growth industries of coming decades. (In the meantime, one of the simplest and best things you can do at home to conserve water is to replace old toilets with a new dual-flush model.)

My best friend used to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where water is more scarce and more costly. She kept a plastic bucket in her shower and every morning when she turned the water on and waited for it to warm up, she captured that water in the bucket. She used that bucket to water her plants and her garden. If you live in an apartment, you can use it to flush your toilet. It's perfectly good potable water just flowing down the drain. So I got a bucket and started trying that and I found that I am capturing 15 gallons a week in that minute or less while I am waiting for the water to warm up. You can try it too.

So, on World Toilet Day, here is my plea: monitor your water use. Think about ways to conserve water. And consider how lucky we are.

Blue is the new green and we in the Chicago region can be leaders in this transformation if we apply ourselves to the challenge.

Here are a few additional tools and resources for you to, ahem, dig into:

Sustainable Sanitation Alliance

Stool Box (provided by the World Toilet Organization)

The Alliance for Water Efficiency moved its headquarters to Chicago several years ago and is a great source of information:

Play around with the Green Values Calculator developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology to determine savings from the installation of green infrastructure (permeable pavement, green roofs, rain gardens, etc.); calculate your water footprint.