Resist the Urge to Flush if You're Serious About Water Conservation

CC BY 2.0. pchweat

If it's yellow, the best thing you can do is let it mellow.

There’s nothing like being in a drought-ridden country to make me pay attention to water usage. Brazil is currently experiencing its worst drought in 80 years, with natural reservoirs at a shocking low and millions of people going without water for days on end. Although I am currently in Rio de Janeiro, where the problem is not yet as serious as it is in São Paulo, there are signs posted throughout the neighbourhood begging people to conserve water because, as one taxi driver told me sadly, “The drought will come to Rio – and soon.”

One of my everyday tactics for conserving water, other than having short showers and washing dishes with as little water as possible, is not flushing the toilet unless absolutely necessary. If it’s yellow, I let it mellow, and fact that there’s no toilet paper in the basin (you can’t flush it down here) makes it easier to go even longer. Eventually the combination of 100-degree weather, no air conditioning in the apartment, and five people using the same bathroom makes it so nasty that a flush really is needed, and then I don’t feel quite so guilty.

I think this is an unpopular approach to water conservation because I rarely encounter it elsewhere. People don’t like leaving or encountering urine in a toilet, no matter how absurd it is from a conservation standpoint to waste gallons of perfectly good water in order to make it disappear. It’s illogical, but many people still insist on having clear toilet basins at a great cost to the environment.

Rick Paulus, who wrote an article called “If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow” for Pacific Standard, explains how many acts of water conservation are seen to be too “scatological” for many people and, therefore, don’t receive the attention or public discussion that they should. He mentions the following “taboo” ways of saving water that aren’t “on message”:

“Urinating in the shower, turning off the water to your toilet and flushing it with used water instead, not washing your jeans or underwear just because you wore them for a few hours. Showering with a friend.”

Many people buy into one-time adjustments to water consumption, such as high-efficiency shower heads and replacing lawns with native plants that don’t require irrigation, but getting people to stop flushing is a long-term behavioural change that is much harder to accomplish.

Until lack of water affects everyone and we stop taking it for granted – something that my stay in Brazil is certainly teaching me – Paulus suggests using shame to show others that it’s acceptable and even laudable to let it mellow. Leave the toilet basin as it is the next time guests visit your home. If anyone gives you trouble, he suggests responding with surprise: “Oh, you still do that?”

It is by example and discussion, even that born out of disgust, that will spread the message, shift the perception of grossness, and potentially convert flushing addicts to the idea that it’s better to have an abundance of water than an abundance of clear, empty toilets on our planet.