Water is a finite resource and meeting the world’s ever increasing demand for water is leading some entrepreneurs and researchers to seek more creative approaches to freshwater shortage issues.  One solution that is gaining momentum around the world is using highly treated toilet water; yes, toilet water.

I have to admit, when I saw the headline “Drinking toilet water: The Science (and psychology) of wastewater recycling” on the Earth Magazine website, I scrunched my nose up and audibly said “eww.”  I’m not the only one that had such an immediate and negative reaction, though.  In the article, Sam Lemonick goes beyond looking at the science and business side of the issue and examines our psychological response to the idea.

“Studies have repeatedly shown that people have a strong aversion to consuming potentially contaminated food or drink. The “yuck factor” applies even when they know the food or water is clean. Two studies are routinely cited to illustrate that point. In one, psychologists sterilized a cockroach and dipped it in a glass of water. Out of 50 people, only one drank from the glass. In a similar study, researchers poured apple juice into a brand-new, never-been-used bedpan. Even though they knew and admitted that it was perfectly clean, most people refused to drink the juice.”

Psychology is a barrier to the widespread adoption of using highly treated wastewater to boost freshwater supplies, at least here in the United States.  Lemonick’s article details the water struggles that Singapore has faced over the year.  The country is actually working on achieving “water independence”, this is similar to the United States’ goal of being oil independent.

One of the ways that Singapore is striving to reach water independence is by recycling wastewater.  The country’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) even manufactures its own bottled water, in this case plastic bottles filled with treated wastewater called “NEWater.”

The whole idea is really fascinating to me but I still have to deal with the ‘yuck’ factor.  Looking at the two experiments Lemonick cited in his report, I would probably be able to drink the glass of water that the sterilized cockroach was dipped in but I do not think that I’d be able to put a bedpan to my lips, even if the liquid inside didn’t resemble a bodily fluid. 


Would you drink highly treated wastewater?

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