Avid Reader Press, $ 27
Everyone poops. But not everyone has a safe place to do it. In addition, existing wastewater treatments consume tons of water and energy while removing materials that could make fertilizers, fuels, and other products.
“We can do it better,” writes science journalist Chelsea Wald in Pipe Dreams, which reports how scientists, business people and activists are finding creative ways to make bathrooms more available and sustainable.
About 2 billion people do not have access to adequate toilets. Pipe Dreams highlights organizations that seek change. One such nonprofit organization is Sustainable Integrated Organic Livelihoods, or SOIL, which serves neighborhoods that lack sewers in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti. Residents there traditionally relied on well latrines, which can poison well water. But SOIL users get home toilets equipped with removable plastic buckets, which SOIL employees collect regularly to dump at a nearby composting site.
Pipe Dreams really lives up to its title when Wald dives into all the weird, unexpected ways that excrement can be used beyond compost. Describes a company in South Africa that feeds human waste to worms; these critters can feed the animals or crush them to make oil. In Kenya he finds an organization that makes briquettes from poop; in the stoves, these burn longer and last longer than charcoal. Pure urine can produce fertilizer, but Wald points out that when mixed with sand and bacteria, it can also make bricks. Inventions like the female urinal Lapee, a pink cubicle in which the user crouches over an oval-shaped receptacle for relief, can help collect this pure pee. But stepping on one is a pretty weird experience that, as one woman who wore one at an outdoor festival said, “You need to be a little drunk to do that,” Wald quotes.
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Wald may not have been sitting on this particular pink throne, but he has enough experience with newly created toilet technology to earn the nickname "Queen of Loo-topia" among his peers. Readers couldn’t ask for a more qualified guide to take them on a world tour of next-generation sanitation systems. In the book, Wald visits a facility in Africa that cleans portable toilets, enriches his garden with Swiss-made urine-based fertilizers, and sits in pebble diversion baths in the Netherlands, which go beyond Lapee to pick up pee and poop. .
After years (metaphorically) dipping in the excrement, Wald is immune to the sprain. His narration is frank and amusing, and his knowledge of wastewater allows him to weave fascinating scientific and historical details, from the health benefits of squatting against sitting to rumors that Joseph Stalin used a special bath to steal the excretions of world leaders.
Pipe Dreams lets readers know everything they ever wanted to know (and probably more) about bathrooms, perhaps inspiring them to start putting aside a shit about shit. That’s good: as Wald demonstrates, issues related to excrement involve social justice and environmental sustainability. “We don’t have to settle for the bathrooms we inherit,” Wald writes. After finishing Pipe Dreams, the reader can’t help but agree and hopes that, thanks to grooming visionaries around the world, one day we can achieve Loo-topia.
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