02.23.12Martha Golea

Spacewater Recycling: Getting Around the Yuck Factor

Wastewater Purification ProcessCity of San Diego's Water Purification Demonstration Project via TIME Ecocentric Blog

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? A rock star? A firefighter? A flight attendant?

How about an astronaut? That’s a popular ambition.

As a NASA-loving youngster you probably anticipated the thrill of blasting off into space, the giddiness of bouncing around in your gravity-free space station, the practicality of brushing your teeth with your own sweat.

Wait, what? Gross.

Oh, so bathing with fuel cell moisture and drinking condensed rat breath weren’t part of the plan? (I probably just lost half of our readers.)

If that made you a little squeamish, be glad your outer space ambitions didn’t pan out. Lacking a convenient local water source, those crafty ol’ NASA scientists have  been recycling every drop of moisture aboard the International Space Station for years. Their water recycling system literally reclaims wastewater from fuel cells, oral hygiene, hand washing, air humidity, as well as the breath, sweat and urine from crew members and research animals.

Run all that gook through a fancy purification machine and voila! It’s ready to be used all over again. Sound pretty gross but this recycled spacewater is cleaner than what most people on Earth drink.

So I just have to ask, if it’s good enough for our astronauts why isn’t wastewater recycling good enough for the rest of us?

Mention toilet-to-tap, wastewater recycling, or anything to do with reusing sewage and you just might start a panic. Poop! Chemicals! Pharmaceuticals! Won’t our boys turn into girls, our dogs turn into fish, our fish turn into dinosaurs?!

Well no. (Although I’m secretly hoping for the fish-to-dinosaurs option.) But our previously useless sewage will turn into clean water that’s perfectly potable and safe for drinking.

Unlike our astronaut heroes whose waste is simply run through a machine before coming back out of the tap, we benefit from being Earth-bound; our water is purified by science then purified by nature then purified by science again before we ever have to drink it. After being treated by traditional methods, waste is sent to an advanced purification facility where it’s treated to drinking standards, then on to your local reservoir where it mingles with other water sources for some good old fashioned natural purification, then eventually back to a final treatment plant where it’s treated to drinking standards again.

Now doesn’t that sound sparkly clean? Astronauts should be jealous.

What do you think, do you love the idea of a renewable water source or hate the idea of drinking second-hand water? (By the way, all water is second-hand.) Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @MarGoH2O

Additional resources and facts about toilet to tap:

  • Water In The Works blog
  • SmartPlanet blog
  • National Geographic blog

Martha Golea


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Martha Golea

A seasoned communicator and passionate water conservationist, Martha Golea tracks projects in progress and reports on usage of new and exploratory irrigation technology and water management strategies. Martha also regularly contributes content on water management and conservation to Lawn & Landscape Magazine.


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  1. Thursday, 8:40 Richard Restuccia

    Martha, I guess we now know why the taste of Tang is so strong.

    This is a very interesting post. You make great points about all water being second hand, or third, or fourth or one hundredth hand more likely. I would like to find out who started the term toilet to tap. I am sure there are better ways to describe the process. How about if everyone starts referring to it as “recycled” water as a simple change or “aged” water for the more marketing minded. I’m sure the readers are going to have better ideas and I would love to hear them.

  2. Thursday, 8:56 Martha Golea

    I like Alan’s term, potty to potable. “Aged” is good too, or how about “experienced”? Personally, I think marketing people use the term toilet to tap to encourage the outrage.

    Who else has ideas for better terms? Do share.

  3. Thursday, 9:58 Dennis Kaiser

    Let’s share a few facts about water, which puts into perspective the whole water recycling conversation.

    First, the amount of water on earth today is same that was available yesterday, and is the same that will be available in the future.

    For 3 billion years, Earth has been using, cleaning and then reusing its water again and again.

    When we brush our teeth, theoretically, that water could be from very same source dinosaurs drank from millions of years ago.

    A cool fact is that water never wears out or breaks. It just gets dirty and needs to be cleaned or recycled — whether on a spaceship or right here on Planet Earth. Thus, protecting, preserving and wisely using this natural resource is simply smart, regardless of the yuck factor.

  4. Thursday, 12:02 Martha Golea

    Dennis, thanks for sharing those facts. Recycling doesn’t seem so yucky in light of the fact that our water has ALWAYS been recycled!

  5. Thursday, 2:59 Nathan Richter

    I am in favor of a renewable water resource; if it’s good enough for astronauts, it’s good enough for me. Now if I could just find a renewable currency resource…

  6. Thursday, 3:11 Caroline

    Great post, Martha. Witty as always.

  7. Thursday, 3:27 Alan Harris

    Depending on the audience I use the term “Certified Pre Used Water” for the BMW crowd or “Potty to Potable” for the NASCAR folks.

  8. […] water, or “Showers to Flowers” is different than “Toilet to Tap”. Both are “Certified Pre Owned Water ™”, but gray water excludes water from the toilet […]

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