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Toilet talk: Why we should all consider upgrading our porcelain

Toilet talk: Why we should all consider upgrading our porcelain

Posting in Energy

According to the EPA, the average person uses 100 gallons of water a day, mostly in the bathroom. An executive from TOTO talks about saving water with flushes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average person uses about 100 gallons of water every day, and the largest culprit is the bathroom. The toilet alone can use 27 percent of household water, and a leaky toilet can waste 200 gallons of water daily. Knowing that, and with all the talk about water conservation, doesn’t it seem like we should all be more focused on upgrading our porcelain?

I recently had a conversation with Bill Strang, vice president of operations for TOTO, an Atlanta-based bathroom products manufacturer with a strong focus on sustainability. We talked about high-efficiency toilets, WaterSense toilets and how old toilets end up recycled in road construction.

So. Toilets. Do you know how many high-efficiency toilets we have in the U.S., or what percentage of all our toilets are water efficient?

It’s not a high percentage. It’s about 15 to 20 percent. That’s primarily because of people not having the wherewithal to change out the toilets that were put in place before 1992. In 1992 there was a change in the flush law for new toilets, which reduced the flush volume to 1.6 gallons. Before, it was 3.5, 5 or 7 gallons a flush. So as you can imagine there’s such a huge infrastructure in the marketplace of embedded products. You have some homes today that have four or five bathrooms in the home, and some homeowners may not change every toilet.

So there are still toilets out there that use 7 gallons for every flush?

There are still toilets that flush 3.5, 5 or 7 gallons. The 1992 law means that homes built after 1992 have the 1.6 gallon toilet by law. So homes built in the ‘40s might have had a high-flow toilet and there was no regulation.

After the Department of Energy’s EPAct law [the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which mandated 1.6 gallons per flush for all new domestically manufactured toilets] came into effect, at first, manufacturers didn’t believe the law would go through, so there wasn’t a strong effort to reduce water flow and reduce efficiency. But in 1992 TOTO was one of the first manufacturers to have a 1.6 gallon product on the market. The main reason we’ve had our success in the marketplace is that our best advocate is the plumber. The plumber finds when he puts our toilet into Mrs. Johnson’s house, he doesn’t have to go back.

Who is leading the way in efficient toilets—residential or commercial customers?

Yes. Both. The push is really not residential versus commercial as much as it is regional–based initiatives, like in Tucson, New Mexico, California. The EPA was really pushed by California to be more aggressive in its water conservation effort. I have to give a lot of props to EPA. A few years ago, EPA did a fantastic job—and I don’t know that we hear that a lot about EPA—with engaging the stakeholders—manufacturers, installers--about analyzing what could be achieved. That began in 2006. The EPA realized if they didn’t set a national standard, we’d end up with a patchwork of solutions, which would make it very difficult for manufacturers to have one solution.

What are the latest regulations?

The EPA’s WaterSense is a voluntary standard launched in 2006. It’s 1.28 gallons per flush (a 20 percent reduction from the 1.6 gallons per flush). In California they have said it’s now mandatory, as part of the California Green Building Code. Our 1.28 gallon toilet flushes very effectively and removes all the things that one would want removed.

What happens to all the old toilets?

Depends on where it’s coming out of. When we converted Hartsfield Airport here in Atlanta--they have about 800 toilets and about 1,000 urinals. We collected them and crushed the porcelain and used them for road construction. In our factory here, if our product has an imperfection, we crush that toilet and give it to companies to make into aggregate --the gravel that goes in below the concrete, below the asphalt. So now they have a recycled content in their raw material, and then we don’t put that product into landfill as we did about three or four years ago.

When people talk about high-efficiency toilets, does that mean a dual flush toilet, or is that just one type of high-efficiency?

There are two different kinds of high-efficiency toilets. One is dual flush, which allows you to flush 1.6 gallons for your solid visit to the bathroom and 0.8 or 0.9 for your liquid visits to the bathroom. For me, that’s a great product. I personally tend to not recommend this for a commercial, institutional or office setting. At home, everyone knows what button to push. My concern abut exposing a causal visitor to that is that the person may not make the best choice and the toilet customer may not get all the savings they could achieve. The user might always chose the heavy flush.

So I’d encourage the 1.28 toilet with siphon jet flush. In a wash-down toilet you take everything in the bowl. We take all the water and put it on top of that pond and push it through. In a siphon jet toilet there’s a jet hole that creates a vacuum underneath a pond and sucks it out.

What are you doing at your factory in Atlanta to promote sustainability?

Here at our toilet factory, we produce about 22,000 toilets a month. We figured we wanted to be most effective in making a product that serves the propose of water reduction, but let’s also make a product that’s sustainable. To me, if we’re going to be in the business of conservation, let’s live the life of conservation.

  • All our cardboard is recycled, and we sell most of it;
  • Our wooden skids are recycled, rebuilt and reduced;
  • Our glass and aluminum are recycled;
  • Our three main byproducts—water, clay slurry and fired porcelain—are all reused.

How are they reused?

We use 4 million gallons of recycled water per month and we reuse 1 million gallons of grey water back into our operation. We get our clay from Tennessee, and with the clay-mud slurry, we pull out the water, make it into a heavy sludge and truck it to a ceramic floor tile company back in Tennessee. The fired porcelain, if there is an imperfection and we can’t repair it, we crush it and send it to Lafarge, an aggregate manufacture (they mine gravel) and they use it for road construction.

How much has all this saved you?

As a result, we’ve reduced our waste streams by about 90 percent. The only thing we throw away today is food scraps, because we haven’t gotten into composting--yet.

I’ve invited all our employees—about 350 employees-- to bring their recyclables into our factory, and I recycle it for them. Many of them are first generation Americans. We speak about six languages in our factory. But what they are able to do is this small piece that makes this world be a better place.

Sometimes we tend to over-think these issues when really we just need to do just very simple, common sense things. I run two kilns at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit—red hot porcelain coming out of it. In October, I started taking waste heat from the kiln, and I run it to other parts of my factory and turned natural heat off in other parts of that factory. It required an investment, but now I’m going to save money.

At the end of the day, our overall goal is what are we doing to save water and have an ethic of sustainability embedded in what we do. It’s greenwashing to sell an efficient product but not live the life.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure