Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Wastewater is Not a Grey Area

By Matt Cantor
Thursday July 09, 2009 - 10:14:00 AM

I think it’s fair to argue that our biggest problems in saving this planet are conceptual and often simply emotional (though these two intertwine to fuzzy indistinguishability). There are few areas in which this is more true than with our sewers.  

We’re all a little nuts when it comes to what goes down the drain. We’re also a little blithe or tuned out. It’s so easy to use our wastewater system as a garbage can that we don’t generally stop to consider the global impact. Also, what goes down the drain under optimal conditions is not a topic for polite discussion. I like to joke with clients that when the sewer video camera service gives them that tape of their sewer lateral that they can pop it in at the next cocktail party once everyone has had a drink or two. Of course this is fabulously facetious since the contents of the sewer are widely agreed to be unsuitable for discussion.  

The darkness we cast over these areas makes for justified waste and keeps us from the sorts of technological advances (including incredibly simple and cheap ones) that might make huge changes in the longevity of our ecosphere.  

Case in point: Some years back, I had an awful dispute with a neighbor; the worst I ever had. I didn’t realize it when I bought but it turned out that my waste line ran right across his property and, being an aging clay line, it leaked. Now, when a water line leaks, it’s annoying and expensive. When a sewer line leaks, it’s a bit more Freudian. Not to put too fine a point on it, it felt as though I were a tiny child that had made a boo boo and daddy was mad at me. We all tried to play our roles as civilized adults (well, some of us tried) but the subliminal roles were hard to avoid and the day was ruled by sordid feelings and it took some advanced technology and the help of a very good lawyer to sanitize the situation. 

The point of my little tale of woe is that we’re not quite logical when it comes to our sewer systems and it just might be that we, as a society are using far more water and treating far more sewage than we really need to for adequate hygiene and at a very high cost. Water is one of the really big issues regarding life on Planet Earth today. Many people don’t have clean drinking water and, even where it seems abundant, the process of delivery is having an increasingly large impact on all of us. It’s reflected in your bill to some degree but, to be sure, the cost of the coal and oil needed to move water about are heavily subsidized. The carbon footprint of water delivery is a really big one and we simply cannot afford to continue to move, purify and treat water any more than we really need to.  

For example, it really doesn’t matter whether the water you use to flush your toilet is clean enough to drink, so why bother using the same water you need to have coming out of your tap? In fact, there are a whole series of tiered levels of cleanliness that we require and, exempting what you’re flushing down the toilet, you can probably make good use of all levels in some safe way. Now, notice your response as I notice mine. We love not having to think about this and there’s some subterranean discomfort that most of us feel around this issue. It’s awfully nice to simply turn on the tap and not have to wonder what’s there, but the cost of flushing drinking water down the toilet might just be melting all those nice glaciers. 

As you can probably tell, I’m leading up to a solution and the name of that solution is sullage or greywater. Greywater is wastewater we send down the drain that is not significantly unhygienic and that can be reused in some way around your property.  

Greywater systems are legal and code-approved in some areas (e.g. here in Berkeley) if properly designed and implemented and can pay for themselves in a matter of a few years. The simplest system is one in which you literally take your washing machine hose and extend it to a garden bed outside, though this will not meet with the state or plumbing code requirements. The same applies to putting a bucket under your bathroom and disconnecting the drain. Additionally, many people who have to wait for a while to get hot water at the shower will fill a bucket that can be taken to the garden. There’s no police force that will keep you from doing these sorts of things but for a more comprehensive system it is best to work from some guidelines or get help from one of the experts we have in abundance in our fair city. Some of these experts you can tap are the Greywater Guerrillas (www.greywaterguerrillas.com), Oasis Design (oasisdesign.net) or waterwisesystems.com. Waterwise Systems sells “surge” tanks and the associated equipment to built professional grade greywater systems suitable for gardening as well as recycling into your toilet. 

That last part (running your toilet off of recycled wastewater) is one that I think is really worth looking into. We use roughly 30 percent of our precious and expensive water sending human waste down the sewer and this, clearly, does not need to be fresh. A surge tank and pump system that refills your toilet tank by application of a small pump, some tubing and a simple float mechanism may pay for itself in a year, not to mention staving off hurricanes and wars over fuel. 

Greywater systems can use the water from lavatory sinks, showers, laundries pretty safely but can also use water from kitchen sinks and dishwashers with some extra effort (though these last two are the advanced course and not recommended for the casual Greywater Guerrilla). Aside from the delivery mechanism, some of the issues that one must consider in going grey include the use of laundry and dish soaps.  

Most greywater will end up in your garden (though this is not recommended for root vegetables that you’ll be harvesting) and should be kept low in phosphorus and salt; so the choice of your detergents should be more circumspect than usual. Seventh Generation’s vegetable-based laundry detergent, ECOS concentrated liquid laundry detergent and Ecover biodegradable laundry powder are three examples of detergents that are fairly benign in your garden if a little most more expensive than the Costco bucket you’re used to. 

Greywater is suitable for fruit trees as they do more to filter and biologically control what comes to the fruit. Nonetheless, it’s always important to use greywater within a day or so. Keeping greywater around fosters microbial growth and week-old greywater may be dangerous to you and your plants. 

Aside from the enormous value gained by using less water, sullage systems decrease the load on our increasingly overburdened sewer and waste treatment systems and reload groundwater at the source. The nutrients in greywater feed the soil and keep a healthy zoo of microbes abounding. Since greywater tends to be alkaline, you may find that some plants like it better and you may find yourself making some different choices in your plants over time, but this is a manageable problem. 

I’ll mention one last small idea that I think is really fun. I first saw these in Japan years ago but they’re making inroads in the United States. They’re toilet-lid sinks. This is so simple, it’s a wonder they haven’t been around forever. The water that normally fills the toilet tank is diverted to a little spout over the toilet tank lid and the lid is shaped like a sink. When you flush the toilet, the spout runs for about a minute, during which you can wash your hands. The water ends up in the toilet where it gets used the next time. Cool, eh? Real Goods is one place that sells these for around a hundred bucks. 

If greywater is something that peaks your interest, get help and contact the Ecology Center in Berkeley or one of the other groups listed above. This is a way to be of real service to the planet. It’s not a minor or token gesture. It’s also a way for us (you and your friends) to begin to make that very important conceptual turn away from entitlement to active participation in a democratic process; one in we each recognize the inherent nature of natural resources as shared commodities and use or pollution as a shared responsibility. In this sense, greywater harvesting and use becomes a meditation on equality, responsibility and harmony.