Is Courtesy Flushing Out of Control?

For those of you who may not know, a courtesy flush is done to protect other bathroom occupants and sometimes one's self from the foul and unbearable odor of a public bowel movement. We have all experienced the odor of a BM that is arrestingly pungent. Some of us even pride ourselves on both the odor and magnitude of our BM. I would have to include myself in that category.

Today, I plan on evaluating the environmental consequences of the courtesy flush. As we all should know, water is in distressingly short supply in many parts of the world and is expected to get more difficult to obtain in industrialized nations over the next century. So, why would educated folk such as you and I decide to waste a gallon or two a day with a courtesy flush? Well, there are many possible reasons ranging from ignorance of the impending water shortage, unbearable nasal invasion of putrid odor, to simple embarrassment. None of these serve, IMHO, as an acceptable excuse for a courtesy flush.


The average household uses about 25-28 percent of its water to flush poo and pee. Now, let's all do some courtesy flushing and see if we can increase that percentage a little! Okay.. read on.

There are an estimated 326 million trillion gallons of water on our planet. That number is incomprehensibly large and looks like this... 326,000,000,000,000,000,000. However, less than three percent of that is fresh water and more than two thirds of that fresh water is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. So, roughly one percent of the earth's water is available for drinking water. This comes to roughly 3,260,000,000,000,000,000. I don't know how to say that but it is a lot.

Now, it is important to know that most of the potentially drinkable water that we use is not used for actual drinking. Imagine all the plant watering, car washing, pressure washing, shower taking, courtesy flushing, lawn watering, swimming pool filling, super soaking, water park visiting, Las Vegas water fountaning...... Then imagine this. The average American will use a little less than 10,000 gallons of fresh water in a given year. To put that number into perspective, the average backyard swimming pool has 20 to 30k gallons. So, allot yourself half of a pool per year (non-clorinated) and that is all you can use. The last time I checked, there were about 285 million americans, give or take a few illegal immigrants. This comes to about 2,850,000,000,000 gallons of water used for personal use by Americans each and every year (excluding swimming pools). That's a lot!

As far as the industrial usage of water in the US is concerned.. I found this on the EPA's website: "In the United States, 450 billion gallons of water are withdrawn per day from ground and surface waters for a variety of uses. Of that 450 billion gallons, only 100 billion gallons are actually consumed. The remaining 350 billion gallons are withdrawn for nonconsumptive industrial and agricultural uses. " They state that industry is the largest withdrawer of water but not the largest consumer as much of the water used is returned to its source by evaporation or other natural means. So, the annual consumption of water by industry in the us is about 100,000,000,000 x 365 = 36,500,000,000,000 gallons of water. Holy cow.

Where does all that water come from you may ask? Well, about 95% of the US' supply of fresh water is underground in the Ogallala aquifer. It stretches from Texas to North Dakota and provides roughly 1/3rd of the irrigation water used in the US. Estimates say that the Ogallala is being depleted by about 3 to 5 feet per year and will be completely depleted in about 60 to 250 years. Now, this is bad but remember that the US is not unique and that many of the world's countries have similar issues. I'd say that's really bad given that most of the popluation growth in the world is not in the US.

Remember this, there is a lot of farming, oil well tapping, showering, pointless fountaining, swimming pooling, golf course watering, baby having, etc. that goes on in the rest of the world. Now after carefully totaling up the annual usage of water in the US we find that Americans use a piddly 39,350,000,000,000 gallons of water per year. I can't really fathom that amount but it amounts to about 4 % of one of the Great Lakes. So, if you took lake Michigan and decided it would provide all the water for the states, all things being held constant, we'd drain that sucker in about 25 to 30 years. If you've ever been to Chicago, you'd know this would be quite an accomplishment.

We run into further issues though as the UN estimates that every day about 2 million tons of pollutants are dumped into rivers, lakes, and streams. This ranges from the polluting household cleaners that we use to make our world a better place to oil runoff and industrial pollution. I'd love to expound on this topic but we'll save that for another day.

Beyond this, the worlds population is expected to increase to about 9.3 billion over the next 40 to 50 years. Well, imagine if 9.3 billion people did a courtesy flush of 1 gallon every single day for the rest of their lives. Now do you see my problem with the courtesy flush? That would be an amazing sound though.

Actions and alternatives:

Install low flush toilets
Use efficient shower and tap heads
Replace traditional agitator washing machine with horizontal axis machine
Take shorter showers
Turn water off when brushing and shaving
Hand wash dishes
Wash full loads of dishes and laundryater Systems
Envirolet Composting Toilets

Rain Water Collection Systems

Additional Info: