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The Ick Factor of Recycled Waste Water: Why We Need to Get Over It

​While I was at work the other day, I overheard a conversation between some female coworkers about the office’s water fountain:

“Do you know that it’s connected to the same water pipes as the ones in the men’s bathroom?”
​“Are you for real? That’s disgusting!”
​“Why do you think the fountain’s water pressure drops every time you hear a toilet flush in there?”
​“Ew, no way!”

​The girls got a good laugh out of it as they swore their allegiance to bottled water and vowed to never touch the water fountain again. Why? The perfectly clean water is guilty by association – bathroom association.

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Water flushed down the toilet may be a crucial source of drinking water. Image via IAPM Online.

​In most parts of the country, drinking water supplies not just water fountains and kitchen sinks but also toilets, sprinklers, pressure washers, and laundry machines. The average American consumes nearly 100 gallons of potable water each day. With droughts affecting nearly one third of the United States this spring by the National Climactic Data Center’s numbers, causing California in particular to declare a state of emergency this year, we’re beginning to realize the serious limitations of our water supply and the consequences of flushing it down the toilet, quite literally.

​Instead of losing water down the drain, California, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina have considered or are already converting recycled waste water back into a clean, purified state. The result is water that is cleaner than what’s available from most tap or even bottled water. But what about what people think of it?

When it comes to things that gross us out, the psychology of association is very powerful. Studies have shown that disgust drives our decisions over logic or even facts. A University of Pennsylvania study, for instance, found that just about all participants refused to drink apple juice from a brand new, never-been-used bedpan. Yet we think nothing of operating an ATM machine or making a call on a payphone. What my coworkers think would happen if they drink from the water fountain or where they believe the water comes from is unclear, but what’s unmistakable is that the vague connection to the bathroom is well beyond their comfort zone.

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NEWater Visitor Centre in Singapore. Image via Wisata Singapura.

For American cities to benefit from recycled waste water, the challenge is not how to properly clean the water but how to remove from it the psychological “ick”. The work of University of Pennsylvania’s Paul Rozin, PhD, has been the poster child of “bathroom” psychology and offers insight into strategies to dissociate good water from gross water. One approach is simply to change how we talk about recycled waste water, instead calling it “reclaimed water” or another name that’s custom made. Another tactic is to extend the treatment process, creating a longer channel for the water to travel or incorporating another filtration step. Adding distance through space or time helps to mentally distance the source from the final product. Rozin also recommends partnering with an environmental organization to have their image be tied with the facility, which essentially imparts the organization’s positive qualities such as nature and altruism to the wastewater treatment.

​Perhaps the exemplar of reclaimed water is Singapore. The country has led the way and inspired success through its NEWater facility founded in 2003. With its beautiful treatment site, public tours, and upbeat name, NEWater produces 3 million gallons of clean, potable water daily.

Singapore’s facility is nothing to turn a nose up at, and the hope is that similar endeavors in the United States will be not just as efficient but also as pleasant. We may reach a point in the near future where recycled waste water will no longer be a dirty word.

Feature Image: Drought conditions mean water is increasingly scarce in places like California and Texas. Image via TAMU Times.

About The Author

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Molly is a student at the Boston Architectural College obtaining a Masters in Sustainable Design. Originally from Mount Desert, Maine, Molly is a lover of both the natural world and city living and hopes that the two can coexist practically, responsibly, and beautifully. Molly's interests lie particularly in food supply and nutrition.