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Think Green, Drink Brown: Recycled Water

Slate recently highlighted the fastest-growing industries in the USA – everything from hot sauce to self-tanning products to 3D printers to generic pharmaceuticals. Here’s one industry they missed: the recycled water industry. Within the next decade, people living in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas could be drinking recycled water as regularly as they now drink bottled water today. As the national water crisis intensifies – especially in the most arid, over-developed regions of the country – cities are being forced to contemplate the unthinkable: drinking “reclaimed” sewage water. In response, a vast new industry – let’s call it Toilet Water, Inc. – is starting to emerge.

The poster child of this “reclaimed water” movement is Singapore’s NEWater, which has been singled out by the likes of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for its innovative efforts in solving the global water crisis. What NEWater does is relatively simple – it takes raw sewage water, massively filtrates and treats it, and then repurposes it for civilian use. In Singapore, in fact, recycled water now accounts for 15% of all water consumption. While most of this recycled water is used for agriculture and industrial use and not for drinking – the bigger picture is important: in cities around the world, people are slowly acclimating to the idea of recycled water. Not because they want to — but because they have to.

Last Call OasisAnd it’s no longer the case that America can close its eyes (and nose) to what’s happening on a massively global basis.The water crisis – once thought to be relegated to the emerging areas of the world – you can supply the visuals yourself of indigent peasants drinking from a dirty riverbed – is making its way to the continental United States. In Last Call at the Oasis, the new documentary film from Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu, the urgency of the water problem facing our nation becomes clear: in places like San Diego and Los Angeles and Las Vegas, municipalities are preparing for the eventuality of drinking recycled water. Yep, that’s right – your fellow Americans drinking wonderful, brown toilet water and loving it. In over-built areas of the Southwest, there are already rumblings of water rivalries between municipalities and states.

America being a capitalist system and all that, there’s an opportunity here, natch. As the New York Times recently pointed out, a number of different companies and municipalities are experimenting with solutions that are based, at least loosely, on a technique developed in the 1950s for the U.S. space program. (See – there are plenty of innovations from the space age that we haven’t even talked about yet!) In an op-ed for the New York Times this past weekend for Earth Day (“Taking the Waste Out of Wastewater”), Jessica Yu of Last Call at the Oasis outlined in greater detail the emotional, psychological and mental hurdles that we – as a nation – are going to have to get over if we are going to accept recycled water into our lives.

Getting past the “Yuck!” factor is the major problem in the global development of Toilet Water, Inc. In Last Call at the Oasis, marketers try to dream up clever brand names (Porcelain Springs is one favorite) that will resonate with the American public. They even try to bring in Jack Black as a potential spokesperson: Drink recycled water – it tastes better than regular water! At one time, the thought of drinking water out of a plastic bottle seemed “strange” and “alien” – now it’s something that we do everyday without thinking. In the future, the same may be true for recycled water industry, as innovators transform our beloved brown waste water into something we consider tasty, nutritious and clean.

image: Environmental Pollution Research / Shutterstock


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