Is it ethical to build a new bathroom?

Our columnist offers advice on the green alternative to wasteful washing, brushing and flushing.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

Dear Ethan,

I am currently building an extension to my house that will include a new bathroom. Obviously, I want to equip the bathroom with the latest energy- and water-saving features. What would you advise?

Dalton Royal,

Dear Dalton,

I must beseech you to stop work immediately! Why on Mother Earth would you want to extend your house? Hasn’t your size-12 carbon footprint crushed enough of our precious planet?

As for a bathroom, I would ask: is it strictly necessary? I know there are many people out there who believe that an ethical approach would be to simply reduce the size of the facilities. For example, I applaud the spirit behind the Gallions Housing Association’s decision to limit the size of baths in their London properties. The reasoning is impeccable: smaller baths need less water – and less energy to heat the water. A return to the tradition of bathing in a bucket could be an even bigger step forward.

Then there are those who would strive to reduce our dependence on water and energy through changing behaviour. EnergyAustralia has achieved international fame for asking people not to sing in the shower during the current ‘drought’ (that is, Gaia’s stern rebuke to the water-guzzlers Down Under). Singing, or any other non-washing related activity, will only prolong the agony as you gobble up moisture and heat.

Even the other activities in the bathroom need to be called into question. Why do so many people persist in leaving taps on when they brush their teeth? According to the people at A Year of Living Generously, that can mean wasting five litres of water per minute! They have asked people to pledge to stop doing it. (Perhaps they could also pledge to stop brushing at all. Why anyone thinks that smearing dangerous chemicals like fluoride across your teeth and then grinding them in with a brush, often electrically-powered, is good for you is beyond me.)

But the best way to not leave a tap on is not to have one at all! Where did we get the idea that we should just be able to have water ‘on tap’?

Similarly, I know that London mayor Ken Livingstone’s heart was in the right place when he asked Londoners – indeed, the world – to restrict the times they flush the toilet. He recited that old adage: ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.’ Many others would have us use ultra-low flush toilets. But why flush at all? Millions of people around the world live contentedly without the complications of a flush toilet.

I return to my earlier point: do you need a bathroom? In the Greenhart household, I have long argued that we should make more room for nature to breathe by getting rid of our bathroom altogether. That would be an extra 70 square feet of land liberated from human captivity! Alas, Sheba and the kids are reluctant to give up their white-robed, tiled-floor existence. So for now it is just me who washes in the garden using water collected in our rainwater butt. It gets cold and lonely out there, but it makes me feel warm inside knowing that I am Washing Without Wasting. Even when there is a frost, the sting of icy water on a naked body exposed to freezing temperatures is much better for sharpening the senses first thing than a cup of some caffeinated drink produced by destroying a rainforest. And believe me – there’s little incentive to sing a song when it’s minus five outside!

Having said that, do we really need to wash every day? Nature’s smells are nothing to be ashamed of. Modern society has deprived us of the joys of truly human odours. As Napoleon famously wrote to Josephine: ‘Home in three days – don’t wash.’ If you simply must cover up your natural parfum, skip those ablutions and try making your own deodorant. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, my own recipe based on lavender and beeswax is a real winner that often becomes the topic of conversation.

As for the toilet, we can go further than Ken suggests. Let’s recycle that adage to: ‘If it’s brown, bury it in the ground; if it’s yellow, recycle it like a good fellow.…’ For example, a simple hut made from reclaimed timbers can house a very adequate composting toilet. To be honest, I find the whole process of rotting one’s wastes to produce food to be extremely fascinating. I’m an avid reader of Composting Toilet World. When we hear the ‘call of nature’, she is saying ‘return your wastes to me!’ The Greenhart motto is: ‘Open your bowel, close the loop.’ (Sorry, I guess you’d call that composting toilet humour!) Think how well your rhubarb will grow. The neighbours will be green with envy.

Forget your building project, Dalton. There is nothing to be gained from locking yourself away in an energy-intensive cell to scrape your body’s natural oils away, or waste your precious bodily emissions by flushing them away to be chemically polluted at a sewage plant. One less room for you, more room for Mother Earth.

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}. Read his earlier columns here.

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Topics Politics


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