Making the Unclean Clean

Seeing God’s redemption in a toilet bowl.
Making the Unclean Clean
Image: Devonyu / Getty Images

With a flick of the wrist, your mess disappears. This isn’t a clever infomercial on late night television, but what often happens to feces in the United States when you flush your toilet.

I vividly remember visiting Nejapa, El Salvador, a community unconnected to a wastewater treatment plant, in 2008. Kids ran barefoot and jumped in the water—liquid household waste emptied into the street and mixed with garbage—splashing their friends. Exposure to waterborne pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and worms can increase the likelihood of becoming ill.

Yet as a wastewater engineer, what I’ve learned is: God is in the business of redeeming things. Yes, even what we think is “unclean.” Rather than viewing wastewater as a waste to be discarded, a new paradigm for sanitation is recovering beneficial NEW resources from wastewater: nutrients, energy, and water.

As Christians, we know that our sin can have profoundly damaging effects—sometimes ones we don’t see or think about. So it goes with wastewater. In a working sewer system in the US, the effluent from our toilets, showers, sinks, and laundry, called wastewater, commonly leaves our homes through pipes and travels to a wastewater treatment plant. After a few treatment steps, the clean water is discharged to a river or ocean and the contaminants are often hauled to a landfill. In rural areas, septic tanks are often used to treat wastewater.

Unfortunately, 80 percent of wastewater in the world is not treated nor reused and 2.4 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. In some countries, the untreated wastewater released upstream may be someone’s source of drinking water downstream.

Furthermore, wastewater contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which can cause algae blooms—when algae decompose, they consume the oxygen in the water that fish need to survive, creating dead zones. In the US, the untreated wastewater from storm runoff in Midwestern farm country created a dead zone where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

From the US to the Global South, wastewater treatment solutions are badly needed. It might be easy to assume that when it comes to global wastewater treatment, the best thing to do would be to duplicate the wastewater treatment processes used in the US, but the sanitation solutions developed for a city in the US may not always be applicable for other contexts—a rural community, an urban slum, or a dry climate.

In fact, the solutions of the future may actually be more redemptive than traditional US infrastructure. Recovering resources from wastewater is such a big shift that it even warrants a new name: Many US wastewater treatment plants are now being renamed as water resource recovery facilities.

In the NEW paradigm, nutrients can be recovered. What was once considered only a contaminant that causes algae blooms can become beneficial. Nutrients can be recovered from wastewater and used as slow-release fertilizers for agriculture.

Wastewater can also provide the energy to treat itself and even add energy to the grid. Nine times the amount of energy needed to treat wastewater is already embedded in wastewater. Yet we use external sources of energy, such as power plants, to treat wastewater. These wastewater facilities can be net-energy-positive. One established technology is anaerobic digestion, which creates methane. My own dissertation research at the University of South Florida examines the potential of microbial fuel cells, a technology that uses bacteria to convert organic carbon in the wastewater into electricity.

Usable water can also be recovered from wastewater. Today, in Southern California, we see golf courses being watered in the desert during a time of great water scarcity. Saddled with a history of corruption and greed in water usage, as told in the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, Los Angeles grew in the early 1900s by obtaining water from distant regions. The Los Angeles Aqueduct runs 223 miles from near Owens Lake, leaving the once 108-square-mile lake mostly dry and now the largest source of dust pollution in the US.

Yet there’s potential for redemption: Because irrigation water doesn’t need to be treated to drinking water quality, communities are increasingly using treated wastewater (called reclaimed water) to irrigate golf courses rather than pipe water hundreds of miles or extract water from diminishing groundwater supplies.

I’ve realized that today’s water and sanitation challenges aren’t just a technical matter of duplicating infrastructure like we have in the US but the result of humanity’s proclivity to arrogance, ignorance, and greed. Thankfully, God is in the business of redemption. He is the one who can reconcile all things to himself (Col 1:20) and redeem his groaning creation (Rom 8:19–25).

And God invites us to participate in his redemption of creation. The late Peter Bosscher, a faithful Christian, University of Wisconsin–Madison civil engineering professor, and my mentor, frequently talked about “furthering the kingdom”—that, as Christians, we each have work to do in our spheres of influence to spread God’s kingdom.

It’s easy to disconnect ourselves from a problem that is worse in other parts of the world where kids play in wastewater in the streets. It’s easy not to think twice about water: It arrives at the faucet and leaves down the toilet. Or we think that if we pay for it, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, where it goes, or how much is used.

But as we become aware of the far-reaching implications of our dismissive use of resources, we come face to face with the fact that there’s a cost. And it’s often at the expense of our local or global neighbors or the environment. As our education on water issues grows, we find bigger issues beyond the control of one person—population growth and climate change further complicate providing everyone access to sanitation.

But God starts with our own hearts: Out of love for our neighbors and care for God’s creation, we could use less water at home by turning off taps, showering for less time, eating less meat, or throwing out less food. We can advocate for national and international approaches to providing better access to sanitation for the poor.

Even if we have little time or energy to advocate for another issue like sanitation, we can allow each cup of water we drink and each flush of the toilet be a reminder that God is a provider, and he calls us to stewarding and redeeming his creation, even the messy parts we consider waste. For God can make all things NEW.

Kevin Orner is a PhD Candidate in environmental engineering at the University of South Florida. He’ll be in Costa Rica in 2018 to work with pig and cow farmers to remove the contaminants from wastewater and recover beneficial resources like methane for stoves and nitrogen and phosphorus for fertilizer.

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Making the Unclean Clean