Non-stick toilets, synthetic poo and saving the environment

141 billion litres of water are used to flush toilets every day.

Scientists develop slippery toilet coating that stops poo sticking,” shouted newspaper headlines last week, naturally prompting comments about the state of politics, the usual arguments about the ‘right’ way to hang toilet paper rolls, and puns of varying quality.

There was also more than one person asking WHY, given everything going on at the moment, scientists are spending their time on something which seems, well, not terribly urgent. After all, ceramic toilet bowls are already quite slippery. Toilet brushes exist. We have a myriad of toilet cleaning chemicals. Surely there are higher priorities? Attempting to deal with looming environmental disaster, say?

But here’s the thing, from an environmental point of view, flush toilets are quite significant. If you’re fortunate enough to live somewhere they’re ubiquitous it’s easy to take them for granted, but consider this: flushing even a water-efficient toilet uses at least five litres of water (much more for older models, a bit less if you use a ‘half-flush’ function). Often this is perfectly clean water which has been through water treatment, only to be immediately turned back into, effectively, sewage. Now imagine you have something a bit… ahem… sticky to flush. What do you do? You flush the toilet twice. Maybe more. You break out the toilet brush and the bottle of toilet cleaner, and then you probably flush at least one extra time to leave the bowl clean.

Using toilet cleaning chemicals often results in extra flushes.

Consider that the average person uses the toilet about five times and day and multiply up by the population and, even just in the UK, we’re looking at billions of litres of water daily. Globally, it’s estimated that 141 billion litres of fresh water are used daily for toilet flushing, and in some homes it could account for a quarter of indoor wastewater production. That’s a lot of fresh water we’re chucking, quite literally, down the toilet.

It rains a fair bit in the U.K. so, except for the occasional dry summer, Brits aren’t in the habit of worrying too much about water supply. The opposite, if anything. But we need to change our ways. In a speech in March this year, Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, warned that the U.K. could run into serious water supply problems in 25 years due to climate change, population growth and poor water management.

Even putting those warnings to one side, treating water uses energy and resources. Filters are used which have to be cleaned and replaced, chemical coagulants and chlorine (usually in the form of low levels of chlorine dioxide) have to be added. Sometimes ozone dosing is used. The pH of the water needs to be checked and adjusted. All of these chemicals have to be produced before they’re used to treat the some 17 billion litres of water that are delivered to UK homes and businesses every day. And, of course, the whole water treatment process has to be continuously and carefully monitored, which requires equipment and people. None of this comes for free.

So, yes, saving fresh water is important. Plugging leaks and using water-saving appliances is vital. And, given that everyone has to go to the toilet several times a day, making toilets more efficient is potentially a really significant saving. An super non-stick toilet surface could mean less flushing is needed and, probably, fewer cleaning products too — saving chemical contamination.

Fresh water is a valuable resource.

The new super-slippery surface was co-developed by Jing Wang in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. It’s called a liquid-entrenched smooth surface (LESS) and is applied in two stages. First, a polymer spray, which dries to form nanoscale hair-like strands. The second spray completely covers these ‘hairs’ with a thin layer of lubricant, forming an incredibly flat, and very slippery, surface. The researchers tested the surface with various liquids and synthetic faecal matter and the difference — as seen in the video on this page — is really quite astonishing.

Hold up a moment, synthetic faecal matter? I’ll bet no one embarking on an engineering degree ever imagines that, one day, they might be carefully considering the make-up of artificial poo. But actually, when you think about it, it’s quite important. Quite aside from safety aspects and the sheer horror of the very idea, you couldn’t use the real thing to test something like this. You need to make sure it has a carefully-controlled consistency, for starters. It’s the most basic principle, isn’t it? If you want to test something, you have to control your variables.

Artificial poo is surprisingly important.

Indeed, there’s even a scale. It’s called the Bristol stool scale, and it goes from “hard” to “entirely liquid”. Synthetic poo is a mixture of yeast, psyllium, peanut oil, miso (proof, if it were needed, that miso really does improve everything), polyethylene glycol, calcium phosphate, cellulose and water. The amount of water is adjusted to match different points on the Bristol scale. Aren’t science and engineering fun?

Anyway. Back to the non-stick technology. This new surface can be applied to all sorts of materials including ceramic and metal, and it repels liquids and ‘viscoelastic solids‘ (stuff that’s stretchy but also resists flow: apart from poo, PVA slime is another example) much more effectively than other types of non-stick surfaces. In fact, the researchers say it’s up to 90% more effective than even the best repellent materials, and they estimate that the amount of water needed to clean a surface treated in this way is 10% that needed for ordinary surfaces. They were also able to show that bacteria don’t stick to LESS-coated materials, meaning that even if untreated water is used to flush a toilet, it remains hygienic without the need for extra chemicals.

The potential to cut 141 billion litres of water by a factor of ten is not to be (I’m sorry) sniffed at. Plus, in some areas, ready supplies of water and the facilities to clean toilets just aren’t available. Using LESS could, potentially, reduce the spread of infection.

By Chemystery22 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31161897 A graft copolymer has side chains branching off the main chain — these side chains are the “hairs” described by the researchers.

So what IS this surface treatment made of? This information wasn’t widely reported, but it seems quite important, not least because applications of LESS are estimated to last for about 500 flushes, which suggests that re-application will be needed fairly regularly and, perhaps more worryingly, whatever-it-is is passing into the wastewater supply.

Not surprisingly, there’s a certain amount of vagueness when it comes to its exact make-up, but I did find some details. Firstly, it’s what’s known as a graft polymer, that is, a polymer chain with long side chains attached — these are the “hairs” described by the researchers.

Secondly, the polymer strands are based on polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS. This may sound terrifying, but it’s really not. PDMS (also known as dimethicone) is a silicone — a compound made up of silicon, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. These compounds turn up all over the place. They’re used contact lenses, shampoos, and even as food additives. Oh, and condom lubricants. So… pretty harmless. In fact, they’re reported as having no harmful effects or organisms or the environment. The one downside is that PDMS isn’t biodegradable, but it is something that’s absorbed at water treatment facilities already, so nothing new would need to be put in place to deal with it.

The problem of better toilets might be more urgent than you thought.

Finally, the lubricant which is sprayed over the polymer chains in the second stage of the treatment to make the surface “nanoscopically smooth” (that is, flat on a 1 billionth of a metre scale) is plain old silicone oil, which is, again, something with a low environmental impact and generally considered to be very safe.

As always with environmental considerations it’s about choosing the least bad option, and using these coatings would certainly seem to be a far better option than wasting billions of gallons of precious fresh water.

In short, silly headlines aside, it turns out that making toilets better might be quite an important problem. Maybe it’s time to rage against the latrine.


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Refilling bottles: why it may not be as simple as you thought

Two years or so ago most of us had given relatively little thought to single-use plastics. We bought things, we used things, we put the packaging in the bin. Possibly the recycling bin. Hopefully the right recycling bin. And we thought no more about it.

Then Blue Planet II aired on BBC One, specifically episode 7, and suddenly everyone was obsessed with where all this plastic was ending up. Rightly so, since it was clearly ending up in the wrong places, and causing all sorts of havoc in the process.

People started buying reusable cups, eschewing plastic straws and demanding the option of loose fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. Wooden disposable cutlery, oven-cook food containers, and bamboo straws became increasingly common.

And people started to ask more questions about refilling containers. Why do I need a new bottle each time I buy more shampoo or washing up liquid or ketchup, they asked. Why can’t we just refill the bottle? For that matter, couldn’t I take a container to the shop and just… fill it up?

Infinity Foods allow customers to refill containers.

Shops started to offer exactly that. One such place was Infinity Foods, based in Brighton in the UK. Actually, they’d always taken a strong line when it came to recycling and reducing waste, and had been offering refills of some products for years.

Where this gets interesting from a chemistry point of view is a Facebook post they made at the beginning of this month. It said, from the 1st of November, “your empty bottle can only be refilled with the same contents as was originally intended. This includes different brands and fragrances.”

Naturally this spawned lots of comments, many suggesting the change was “daft” and saying things like “I bet it is major corporations not wanting us to reuse the bottle.

Infinity Foods argued that they were tightening up their policy in order to comply with legislation, specifically the Classification, Labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures (CLP) Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008 and others.

This post, and the comments, got me thinking. I’m old enough, just, to remember the days when random glass bottles were routinely filled with random substances. You wandered into the garage (it was always the garage) and there’d be something pink, or blue, or green, or yellow in a bottle. And it might have a hand-written label, and it might not, and even if it did, the label wasn’t guaranteed to actually be representative of the contents. The “open it and sniff” method of identification was common. The really brave might take their chances with tasting. Home-brew wine might well be next to the lawnmower fuel, and if they got mixed up, well, it probably wouldn’t be fatal.

Probably.

Bottles may be single-use, but they’ve also been designed to be as safe as possible.

You know, I’m not sure we ought to be keen to go back to that, even if it does save plastic. Sealed bottles with hard-to-remove child safety caps, nozzles that only dispense small amounts (making it difficult if not impossible to drink the contents, by accident or otherwise) and accurate ingredients lists are, well, they’re safe.

And we’ve all grown used to them. Which means that now, if I pick up a bottle, I expect the label to tell me what’s in it. I trust the label. If I went to someone else’s house and found a bottle of, say, something that looked like washing up liquid by the sink, I’d assume it was what the label said it was. I wouldn’t even think to check.

You might think, well, so what? You fill a bottle, you know what’s in it. It’s up to you. But what about all the other people that might come into contact with that bottle, having no idea of its origins? What if a visitor has an allergy to a particular ingredient? They look at the label, check it doesn’t contain that ingredient, and use it. Only, someone has refilled that bottle with something else, and maybe that something else does contain the thing they’re allergic to.

Even simpler, someone goes to a shop that sells refills, fills a hair conditioner bottle with fabric softener and doesn’t think to label it. They know what it is, right? They leave it in the kitchen, someone else picks up that bottle, and takes it into the shower. They get it in their eyes and… maybe it causes real harm.

Toilet cleaner must never be mixed with toilet bleach.

Then there are the very real hazards associated with mixing chemicals. One that always worries me is the confusion between toilet cleaner and toilet bleach. Many people have no idea what the difference is. The bottles even look quite similar. But they are not the same substance. Toilet cleaner is usually a strong acid, often hydrochloric acid, while toilet bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, NaClO. Mixing the two is a very bad idea, because the chemical reaction that occurs produces chlorine gas, which is particularly hazardous in a small, enclosed space such as a bathroom.

Okay, fine, toilet bleach and cleaner, noted, check. Is anyone selling those as refills anyway? Probably not. (Seriously, though, if you finish one bottle, make sure you don’t mix them in the toilet bowl as you open the next.)

But it may not be as straightforward as that. Have you ever used a citrus-scented cleaning product? They can be quite acidic. Combine them with bleach and, yep, same problem. What if someone refilled a container that contained traces of a bleach cleaner with one that was acidic, not realising? Not only would it be harmful to them, it could also be harmful for other people around them, including employees, especially if they suffer from a respiratory condition such as asthma.

There are risks associated with the type of container, too. Some plastics aren’t suitable to hold certain substances. Infinity Foods themselves pointed out that some people were trying to find drinking water bottles and plastic milk bottles with cleaning products. These types of bottles are usually made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). This type of plastic is a good barrier for water, but not oily substances and solvents. Cleaning products could weaken the plastic, resulting in a leak which would be messy at best, dangerous at worst. That’s before we even think about the (un)suitability of the cap.

The type of plastic used to make water bottles isn’t suitable to hold oily substances.

Plus, think of the poor salesperson. How are they supposed to judge, in a shop, whether a particular bottle is safe for a particular product? I wouldn’t feel at all confident about that decision myself. It’s not even always easy to identify which plastic a bottle is made of, and that’s before you even start to consider the potential risks of mixing substances.

In fact, the more you think about it, the more Infinity Foods’ policy makes sense. If you say that you can only refill a bottle with the exact same substance it originally contained, and you insist that the labels have to match, well, that’s easy to check. It’s easy to be sure it’s safe. Yes, it might mean buying a bottle you wouldn’t have otherwise bought, but if you’re going to reuse it, at least it’s just the one bottle.

These concerns all arise from wanting to make sure the world is a safer and healthy place. We do need to cut down on single-use plastics, but taking risks with people’s health to do so surely misses the point.


Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2019. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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