To Drink or Not to Drink…
That is the question posed by Elizabeth Royte in her article ‘A Tall, Cool Drink of…Sewage?’ from the New York Times Magazine. It relates her trip to California to check out the sewage water recycling plant and the science behind the story.
I applaud the way Royte uses her story to translate the somewhat difficult ideologies and concepts in wastewater recycling into an easily read, perfectly understandable piece of reading.
She takes the reader from the ‘mundane’ task of mopping her kitchen in New York, to staring at the toilet in her hotel room in Santa Ana, California; contemplating the different pathways the water in each state travels from the loo to their respective wastewater treatment plants.
“A day after mopping, I gazed balefully at my hotel toilet in Santa Ana…and contemplated an entirely new [water] cycle.”
Royte’s goal in this article is clear – introduce readers to the idea of wastewater recycling, outline the potential dangers of consuming recycled sewage water, define the scientific processes in place to remove those potential dangers, therefore demystifying and simplifying the issues surrounding recycled toilet water. She achieves this through a clever combination of facts, humour and traditional storytelling techniques, such as personalisation, bringing her daily life into the story, making the reader feel more connected with her and thus connecting the reader to the story.
What I like most about Royte’s writing is her ability to not only draw the readers in through her story but to engage them with her dry humour.
“If you like the idea [of recycled drinking water], you call it indirect potable reuse. If the idea revolts you, you call it toilet to tap.”
“It was hot, my throat was parched, and I asked for a refill.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of science writing, which is something that Royte does incredibly well, is to continuously remind the reader of the universal significance of the project. She points out one of the key differences between a first world country and a developing country is a ready accessibility to fresh water for drinking and hygiene purposes. In reminding the reader of the very real situation of depleted clean water sources in areas of high population growth, she is highlighting the prevalence and importance of wastewater recycling as necessary step if we are intending to continue our current standards of living. It gives a strong basis on which to build the story and translate the scientific message.
What do you think? Is reminding the reader of the significance of the project essential in telling the story? Does it help or hinder the overall message?