Have you heard the expression, “water will be the next oil” –meaning that water shortages all over the world may drive conflict? Well, there’s an amazing innovation that may change all that, and it’s got Bill Gates’ backing!

[Preface from Dr. Lynda]

A couple years ago you may remember seeing a very funny video clip that circulated, with Bill Gates drinking water processed from sewage on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. (We’re going to share that with you in a moment!)

Well, we wrote an article on this about the fabulous innovation that Bill Gates was introducing that night, and we wanted to circle back to this topic to keep you updated. As luck would have it, we recently received a terrific email from a great fellow in Australia who wanted to contribute something on this very subject!

So, here’s our latest EWC Guest Writer, Bob Gorman, to get us up to speed on both an innovation and a mindset!


Can We Embrace a New Water Cycle?

Water is undoubtedly the most vital resource in our world, which is why it can be shocking to learn that globally, one in nine people don’t have access to running water. But there is good news on the horizon!

A brilliant technology will soon enable us to exponentially and dramatically increase our water efficiency. The only problem? We will need to welcome the advent of toilets that recycle human waste and turn it into drinkable water, or as they are commonly called, toilet-to-tap schemes.

Here’s that fun clip with Bill Gates introducing us to this remarkable innovation:

We’ll learn much more about the Omniprocessor today, but there’s a key factor here to consider:

Can we get over the “ick factor?”

You may not find drinking toilet water appealing, but solid science and testimonials tell us this water is safe to drink and tastes just like any other tap or bottled water. 2 It’s just basic chemistry. Pure water is just Hydrogen and Oxygen. If we invent a system to remove absolutely everything but those two elements, then the Omniprocessor’s water contains nothing but the stigma we attach to it!

And here’s a bottom line: propelled by growing populations and drought, a lot of cities around the world are already incorporating recycled wastewater into the water supply. If we aren’t drinking recycled wastewater already, we may soon be.

Image: Young people in dark glasses questioning thingsBut let’s remember that wastewater is not only toilet water; it also includes other water sources that would normally be wasted, such as water used to rinse our food or wash our cars.

That all adds up, and recycling could end up dramatically reducing the city’s need for water, according to Peter Scales, a chemical engineer at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“The fact that people haven’t got the ability to take dirty water and turn it into clean water is a real problem in the world,’ Scales told the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute ‘Recycling gives you a lot more resilience in your water supply.’” 3

“Resilience”: now that’s a word we may hear a lot more often as we design systems to cope with the outcomes of our out-dated notions. For years, we’ve been demonstrating the wisdom of recycling wastewater for irrigation. It starts by removing the solids in the water and then using reverse osmosis to filter the smallest particles.

However, seemingly unavoidable, there’s an “ick” factor when it comes to recycled wastewater. In a study conducted by Paul Rozin and Brent Haddad, psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania, the findings were that 49% of Americans were willing to try recycled wastewater, 13% of them refused, and 38% weren’t convinced.

So, before you decide which group you would be in, let’s learn how this innovation became a reality. It’s a fascinating story of a new kind of innovator; the kind who will probably solve most of our problems in the future. Here’s the inventor of the Ominprocessor to get our minds around this!

Via: TEDMED 4

So, what do you think now? Maybe this all seems a lot easier to swallow (pun intended) once we know more.

Changing Public Perception

To change the perception of the public, we could be focusing on telling a different story about the water, perhaps focusing on the water cycle, which ultimately shows that all water is recycled. Long story short, all water has probably already been in someone’s toilet, and all water can be made pure again, either filtered by technology or nature.

Rozin and Haddad also advise municipalities to focus on the “undecided” group in order to shift the perception of the public when it comes to reclaimed water.

This approach seems to have worked for Perth, Australia, which is located in Western Australia, that is one of the driest places in the world and is already a hot spot for drought. The Water Corporation completed a three-year trial in 2012, where millions of liters of water were recycled, while also trying to change people’s minds about the process. To do so, they built a visitors center and gave various communities, Aboriginal, and government groups access to the water recycling plant.

Their movement gained approval from the population, and in 2013 and 2014, the Water Corporation recycled 10 billion liters of water, eventually providing around 20% of Perth’s water supply from recycled wastewater.

An Abundance of Water

Recycling wastewater, along with water conservation, has helped make Perth resistant to droughts. They have become an international case study for how they’ve managed their response to climate change.

It’s essential that we all start to think about water from a multi-faceted approach and take some inspiration from places like Belgium, Singapore, Namibia, and even Texas, who have all started to recycle wastewater. There may be no other choice. Regardless of climate change and drought, places with little to no access to potable water are more prone to public health tragedies beyond measure.

Therefore, no matter what you call the process–recycling, purification, or its popular toilet-to-tap name–we come to the conclusion that it’s fast becoming a necessity, and eventually, all the world will have access to clean water.

Keep thinking about what’s possible, even if it challenges what you think is “normal”.  No, especially if it challenges you!

“Life is a beautiful struggle”

– Bob Gorman

Want to see more innovations changing the way we interact with the planet? 

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Notes:

  1. “Bill Gates and Jimmy Drink Poop Water.” YouTube. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 Dec. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHgsL0dpQ-U&feature=youtu.be>.
  2. Chowdhry, Amit. “Watch Bill Gates Sip Water Made From Sewer Sludge [Updated].” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2017. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/amitchowdhry/2015/01/10/janicki-omniprocessor/#620df3d71a82>.
  3. Melbourne Sustainable Institute. “Clean Drinking Water for the World.” Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. University of Melbourne, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2017. <http://sustainable.unimelb.edu.au/scales>.
  4. “Turning Waste into Wealth.” YouTube. TEDMED, 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Dec. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lE0Y82Nv3E8&feature=youtu.be>.

Bob Gorman is a freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia who enjoys writing articles that cover environment and sustainability-related topics. He has written numerous articles and contributed to several other blogs. When he is not writing, he enjoys spending time on the beach with his family.