In Defense of Wastewater (Yes, That Means Drinking Recycled Urine)

'Last Call at the Oasis' director Jessica Yu wades into the deep end of an icky water issue.

waste water
Thirsty, anyone? (Photo: Scienceblog.com)
Sal holds a Political Science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Roughly 884 million people—one out of every eight around the world—don’t have access to safe drinking water, and world water usage has risen by more than twice the rate of the planet’s population growth during the past century.

That’s the bad news toplining the current global water conversation issue.

The good, dare I say hopeful, news is that a safe and viable solution to our water woes is just sitting there, ready to be deployed en masse. Problem is, we think it’s too gross. We cringe when we hear it, make a bitter beer face, and declare, “Yuck!”

Yes, I’m talking about wastewater—or, to be frank, the liquid formerly known as urine.

In a New York Times op-ed, Jessica Yu, Academy award-winner and director of the upcoming documentary Last Call at the Oasismakes a spirited defense of wastewater, arguing that with our water reservoirs tapped like never before, we might have no choice but to fully embrace recycled and treated pee into our liquid diets.

“While we can’t ‘make’ more water, there is one solution to water shortage problems that addresses issues of both quality and supply,” writes Yu, whose film reveals citizens, activists and scientists preparing for the impending global water crisis. “Without mining an ancient aquifer, draining a natural spring or piping in the pricey harvest from a greenhouse-gas-and-brine-generating desalination plant, there is a solution to provide a valuable source of extremely pure water: reclaim it from sewage.”

In some parts of the world, including the United States, drinking wastewater is already a way of life. 

In Israel, more than 80 percent of household wastewater is recycled, providing nearly half the water for irrigation. A new pilot plant near San Diego and a national “NEWater” program in Singapore show it’s practical to turn wastewater into water that’s clean enough to drink. Yet, in most of the world, we are resistant to do so.        

Yet those are the exceptions to the ick rule.

According to a study conducted by the University of California, Santa Cruz, more than 60 percent of respondents flat out refuse to drink any form of water that has had any direct contact with sewage.

This position, says the head researcher of the study, is loaded with irony.

“We are all downstream from someone else,” says psychologist Carl Nemeroff. “And even the nice, fresh, pure spring water? Birds and fish poop in it. So there is no water that has not been pooped or peed in somewhere.”

If we could just get out of our own way, we could embrace a solution to the world’s water crisis—one that’s sure to worsen as exploding global populations in the 21st century compete for the same amount of water that’s been around since the age of the dinosaurs—that’s right there (in our bathrooms and sewage plants) for the taking.

We can’t, of course, because “our primitive instincts are more programmed to fear the murky water hole,” writes Yu. 

Or, as Nemeroff told NPR earlier this year: “It is quite difficult to get the cognitive sewage out of the water, even after the real sewage is gone.”

Would you ever drink wastewater?

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