Transporting anything into space is extremely expensive, including water.That leaves astronauts drinking a filtered mixture that includes recycled shower water, old astronaut sweat, and urine. So why can’t we do what astronauts can and overcome the stigma of “toilet to tap water”?
The phrase “toilet to tap” has become synonymous with the public’s aversion to water reclaimed from domestic sewage. Humans have a deeply ingrained disgust to anything that they associate with human waste even if there is overwhelming evidence that the object has been completely cleaned and sterilized. So what can help to overcome this “yuck factor” and make directly reclaimed water more palatable? The solution lies in education.
Increasing people’s understanding of the water cycle helps them become more open-minded and accepting of recycled water. For instance, rain is an example of recycled water, and once you know that you realize that we have been drinking reclaimed water all along. In fact, most water treatment plants take their water from rivers, some of which are downstream of sewage plants, and yet people find this acceptable. The public needs to be educated on these facts and on the high quality standards tap water has to meet, whether it is reclaimed waste water or water which is drawn from natural aquifers. Emphasizing the importance of reclaimed water for future global economic success is also part of the education, as is pointing out examples where waste water reclamation has already been implemented successfully.
The oldest existing municipal water treatment plant, which reclaims water directly from a sewage treatment plant and then treats it to be safe enough to drink, is located in Windhoek, Namibia. The Goreangab Water Reclamation plant started cleaning water in 1968, and to date no negative health effects have resulted from the use of this reclaimed water. Other examples for successful implementation can be found right here in the US, both Orange County in California and Wichita Falls in Texas, have begun successfully recycling waste water. However looking at the map of states that have adopted potable water reuse regulations, one sees that there is still work to be done to develop local and federal legislation to insure future implementation of potable water reuse. Just 12 out of 50 states so far have pro potable water reuse regulations in place.
Opening up this option to other states, can contribute to making reclaimed water more palatable, as well as instill a sense of urgency to act now on behalf of future generations.
There is no denying that the global population is growing. In 2050 there will be 9.7 billion people living on the earth, 2.4 billon more than today. As a result the world will need 40% more water. So we’d better start drinking astronaut’s water now!