That Flushing Feeling: Sustainable Living, Ruined by a Toilet

Picture this.  It’s the first day of trying to live 100% environmentally sustainably.  You are in a constant hyper-alert state about what you choose to do.  You bike to work… doing good.  You eat only from sustainable venues… doing great!  And then… catastrophe.

The porcelain gods are angry with you.

This is the story of my hard lesson about living sustainably in America in 2008, which has since transformed my approach to the sustainable living project.  It came in the form of a toilet.  

The World Health Organization recommended in its 2000 report on global water that “at least 20 liters per person per day from a source within one kilometer of the user’s home” be considered the basic measure of rightful access to fresh water[1].  Of course, fresh water natural resources vary from region to region.  Because of local resources like watersheds and rivers, the amount of fresh water that an individual can sustainably consume each day is probably significantly higher in Western Pennsylvania than it is in Ethiopia.  Nevertheless, lacking this data and expressing my empathy for water-strained populations across the planet (1.1 billion lack appropriate clean water access[2]), I decided that I would accept for myself the measure of 20 liters of water use per day.

One flush of the common public bathroom American Standard toilet at the university’s bathrooms uses 13.2 L of water.  To my dismay, I did the math in my head… that left 6.8 L of water for the whole rest of the day.  As I washed my hands at the sink, my heart sunk.  I would probably use more than 6.8 L that day.  I hadn’t counted on the importance of flushing of a single toilet.  And that was just one flush.  The average person visits the bathroom between six and eight times a day.  That’s at least four times one’s sustainable water usage–wasted on only your personal waste!

Using a composting toilet and conserving water when washing myself, my clothes and my dishes, I am typically living well under a 20 liter per day quota.  This is positive: it illustrates how sustainable living isn’t some far off dream, but rather, possible and normal, right now.  (There are also low-flush toilets that, while still using water, only use .9 to 1.6 gallons per flush.  Plus–you just don’t have to flush each time).

On the other hand… putting myself in a situation that means absolutely NO access to such water conserving mechanisms, such as when I go downtown for a few hours a day to work on producing and editing the Sust Enable episodes, spells disaster for a goal of sustainable living.

In Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte’s 2005 wake-up call about our national waste systems, she documents the process of municipal sewage collection and treatment… and by doing so, naturally illustrates its absurdity.  She muses about “…how little sense it makes, when our population is so large and our clean water supply shrinking, to dilute our solids with water and then, at great expense, separate the two” (227).

On May 1, 2008, that awareness was driven home.  My dream of proving how easy and carefree living 100% sustainably as an American could be, was rapidly flushed away.  

Then, I began to see how my objective should change.  Now, my goal is to learn  how to live 100% environmentally sustainably.  It is not instantly possible for any American to achieve a 100% environmentally sustainable lifestyle that is, within itself, self-sustaining.  However, my hope is that it is still possible to innovate that lifestyle–with the right research, applied practices and original transition period.

Sure, I felt silly about being defeated by a toilet.  But now, the victory will be mine.  I will work to put obsolete, yet common systems like these where the belong–down the drain.


  1. Bobby B.

    Two other options:

    1. Provide the resources from YOUR OWN POCKET to replace the old commodes at your home and favorite away-from-home pitstops with water saving toilets.

    2. Return to the glory days of the outhouse.

  2. David Bradley

    Replacing the toilets with low-volume flushers is going to cost far more water and energy in their manufacture and installing than you are likely to save even after a few years of use I’m pretty sure.

    Instead, stick a “hippo” in the cystern and follow the refrain:

    If it’s brown, flush it down,
    But, if it’s yellow, let it mellow

  3. Bobby B.

    David, that’s disgusting…but hilarious!

    However, considering the author’s 3.5 gallon per flush example for a moment, it stands to reason that such a volume of water has the capacity to evacuate the “brown” and the paper in one pass. Most of the 1.6 gpf-ers are woefully inadequate when it comes to removing solid wastes from the bowl, and require multiple flushes. When you have young boys in your home, you will understand how this affects your water bill.

  4. Caroline Savery

    I have used the most modern dual-flush toilets a few times, including for solid wastes. I have never had an issue with them. I think this criticism of low-flow toilets is outdated. The newer ones seem to have improved.

    Also, the public toilet uses 13.2 gallons per flush, not three. It’s hard to argue that 13.2 gallons could be needed for any amount of evacuation.

  5. Bobby B.

    Look at the photograph in your post again. It reads “13.2 Lpf / 3.5 ggf”. Lpf = Liters per flush. A liter is a metric unit that has slightly more volume than a quart (English unit). gpf = gallons per flush. 3.5 gallons X 4 quarts/gallon = 14 quarts; or 13.2 liters.

    Most people would probably fall into a bowl built to handle 13 gallons per flush. Forcing 13.2 gallons through a standard toilet – if possible – might pull enough of a vacuum to pop one’s ears.

  6. Liz

    Probably more than you want to know about your teacher: Emily and I follow the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” in our house. Also, we have at least 2 bricks in the tanks of our toilets. It doesn’t make flushing completely sustainable, but it does save more water than by doing nothing, especially since we can’t have an outhouse since we live in city limits. Thanks for all of the info in this entry!

  7. hannah

    this is using a 2 gallon flush as average.

    “So, if we followed the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow – if it’s brown, flush it down” mantra, the “average” person could save about 10 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by 300 million people in the United States, and that’s over 3 billion gallons of water saved each day. Over a year, that’s over 1 trillion gallons of water.

    Even if you’re dealing with the most abundant natural resource on the planet, that’s a lot of water saved with very little effort.”


  8. Ron

    I have an American Standard 4260 that I have upgraded to their new flush valve. It is a mistake to think that it saves water or cleans the waste more efficiently than larger volume flusher. I have changed the flush valve twice since I purchased, which requires the removal of the tank. It has a 4 inch trap so it is not possible to upgrade to a pressure flush.
    How much water do you think is wasted when the gasket fails and it might be two or three months before you realize that the toilet is running to refill many many times.
    I have a ten year warranty on this product and will be looking for American Standard to replace it with a pressure flush of comparable quality, even though this is supposed to be their best seller.
    This is a do not waste your money notification.

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