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Dignified Retirement for Old Toilets : A bizarre connection between the drought problem and the recycling effort

June 23, 1991

Consider the flush toilet, a device of wonderful utility and convenience, a boon to public health and hygiene, relatively low in cost and extremely durable. So durable, indeed, that once a toilet's useful life is finished there's a problem getting rid of it.

For the fired and glazed American toilet is made to last, if not exactly forever then certainly for a very long time, and that now presents a growing environmental problem. California's continuing water crisis has impelled a statewide move to replace traditional toilets, which can use up to seven gallons of water per flush, with low-flush models that get the job done using only about 1.6 gallons. But when the old gives way to the new, what becomes of the old? Traditional methods of disposal--dumping them in the ocean or in landfills--may be tolerable when not too many commodes are being discarded. But there are 19 million older toilets in California homes, and water agencies would like to see each of them replaced with a low-flush unit. Toilets aren't biodegradable, and they take up a fair amount of space. The ocean and landfills can't accommodate large numbers of discards. What are the alternatives?

One is recycling, not to turn old toilets into new but to turn old toilets into something else entirely. If discarded plastic bottles can be shredded and reborn as park benches, why can't discarded toilets be pulverized and added to, say, the road base? They can, and they are.

There is now a road in Santa Barbara--Calle Real--that contains 10 tons of crushed toilets. Santa Monica and Marin County have begun a similar recycling effort. San Diego, Anaheim and dozens of other cities are interested in mixing crushed toilets with gravel and other material to use on roads and parking lots.

The vitreous china that commodes are made of turns out to be a high-quality material for road-building. It's durable, and mixed with crushed rock and asphalt it may in fact be stronger than the usual rock-and-gravel mixture. Tests are being done to see if pulverized toilets can be used to strengthen concrete. If so, a huge new market could be opened.

And just in time. Programs to replace California's high-flush toilets will continue; eventually, uses that won't harm the environment will have to be discovered for most of those 19 million units.

Necessity, as always, has spurred inventiveness. A new life for old toilets has been found.

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