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The toilets of tomorrow (and how we get to them)

Author: Vilhelmiina Haavisto is a MSc student in Microbiology and Immunology at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

Whether you call it the WC, the can, or, like the French in the 19th century, the lieux à l’anglaise (“the English place”), paying visits to the toilet is a fact of life. However, what happens after we flush is hardly at the front of most people’s minds. Toilets may not be everybody’s favorite topic to discuss, but how can we not when an estimated 2 billion people in the world lack adequate access to one?

Enter Chelsea Wald, who certainly doesn’t shy away from toilet talk – or a tasteful bit of toilet humor. She has condensed her considerable knowledge, built over years of reporting on the subject, into Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet. In many ways, the book functions as Wald’s manifesto for a “Loo-topia” – a world where we design efficient and intelligent ways to extract every bit of still-untapped potential that sewage and wastewater have to offer, all around the world. Although most think of toilets as trash cans for human waste, Wald emphasizes that they have the “potential of a recycling bin”, and that it is our job to exploit it.

In Pipe Dreams, Wald merges her enthusiasm for sanitation with all the technical, social, and economic challenges that persist hundreds of years after the invention of the humble toilet. There are uncomfortable truths – local barriers to implementation, failed interventions, and the consequences these have for underserved communities – that we cannot afford shy away from. Accordingly, she spends considerable time discussing the pressing need for access to adequate and safe sanitation for all, with specific emphasis on context-appropriate solutions. These sections are where the stories of Wald’s travels around the world, and the cast of interesting people she meets, really get to shine.

Going in as a student of microbiology, I was most looking forward to learning about innovative wastewater treatment using microbes. However, I found so much more to get excited about, which speaks volumes about Wald’s ability to enthuse readers about topics that many may never have thought about before. One of my favorite parts of the book was the section on the wealth of data about community health and behavior that can be gathered by sampling sewage. A recent example of this in action is tracking SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, but data is not all that sewage has to offer – as Wald details across several chapters, we could harness its potential to make fertilizer or heat our homes, and we could even be feeding it to insects to make protein-rich animal feed.

Overall, I have very few quibbles with this book. I would have appreciated more consistent inclusive language surrounding discussions of toilet-related anatomy and menstruation; though some was scattered throughout, the inconsistency felt a little archaic in a book that is otherwise so forward-thinking. I also found that the coherence of the chapters degrades slightly, maybe because of Wald still having stories worth sharing as the book nears its end. While this leaves the later chapters more varied and somewhat darting in subject matter, it does nothing to detract from the enthusiasm that oozes from between the lines.

Striking an often-elusive pop science book balance, Wald provides something for everyone in Pipe Dreams. I would imagine that even wastewater treatment professionals or seasoned sanitation activists will learn something new, simply because of how much ground she covers. All the same, the writing is so accessible and entertaining that those without such backgrounds should not feel excluded. As a hobbyist science writer, I often found myself taking notes on Wald’s style and neat ways of explaining tricky concepts. She also offers a list of practical tips for readers to engage in the toilet revolution, on whatever level suits, to get us all striving for “Loo-topia” together.

Pipe Dreams is essential reading for a) anybody wanting to dig deeper into a thoroughly underappreciated facet of our society, or b) those looking to learn loads of cool facts to share with anyone and everyone. In my experience with this book, a) often leads to b), and that was probably the intention. As Wald so aptly writes: “There is nothing to fear when we talk about toilets. There’s only something to fear when we don’t.”

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