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April 25, 2012 / ckpurio

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?



Leave a Comment
  1. fullclever / Apr 25 2012 8:11 am

    Hi, Claire
    I can describe your post as brigthly explained. Engaging indeed! And you are right: Royte kept stuck on the main issue and dived into metaphor. Furthermore, she explained the complex water cycle from the “toilet to tap” as if it was quick and simple, really giving the view of the ‘big picture’.
    Her sarcasm and humour was also useful as a tool to make us feel how the process really is. She definitely delivered effectively the message.

    • lodoubt / Apr 26 2012 7:18 am

      I like that you yourself used a few Royte inspired metaphors in your comment.

  2. mmaideni / Apr 25 2012 6:41 pm

    In fact the illustrative style of the writer Elizabeth Doyte of the recycling of waste water for drinking glued me to the reading. The picture you have used of the toilet though it looks clean from the outside but what goes down it to the sewers before recycling really articulated my thinking. I was almost thinking as Doyte puts in her argument why so much money should be spent to recycle the drinking water why not just take it on the spot. But going through the story Doyte has managed to focus on the process and describes it in a way a reader would understand and vindicate those engaged in the long process of recycling the drinking water. This indeed reminds the reader, as you have rightly put it to know the importance of this water recycling project. This is important science writing as it tells the reader exactly the source of the drinking water using a simple illustration. It is therefore, up the reader if he or she is one the residents of these densely populated areas to make an informed choice whether to ‘drink or not to drink,’ after all water is life.

  3. amess02 / Apr 26 2012 1:20 am

    Hmm, the idea of ‘toilet to tap’ water can be a hard concept to swallow.. potable water has been an issue for many years recently, particularly direct potable water as it is difficult to completely remove pathogens and harmful bacteria, negatively affecting the consumer. The metaphor used in this article was definitely helpful in quickly describing the issue as well as giving one an idea of the bigger picture through simple language. Sarcasm as a tool is pretty helpful, especially when dealing with an ever increasing cynical audience that is our world today. It is essential we know where our water is coming from however it is also essential we educate the masses about the possible dangers, to me direct potable water should be left as non-drinking water until all the kinks are worked out.

  4. amber0699 / Apr 26 2012 7:36 am

    I really enjoyed reading your post. The use of quotations was a good idea as it targets exactly what about Doyte’s writing you want to pinpoint as an example. I do believe that reminding the reader of the significance of the subject is essential to telling the story (otherwise, what foundation does the story have?). Many scientists would almost phrase the question the other way around, is telling a story essential to illustrating the science of the subject? In which case, I would have to say that it depends on the subject and what information is to be relayed. In this case, I think it worked out very well! I studied this subject briefly in high school in a vo/ag class and it was extremely boring to read all the details of water purification. This put the information in a much more interesting way, and did not neglect to inform the reader of the dangers of the processes while keeping the piece light-hearted and easy to read and comprehend. I agree with amess02, the idea of drinking direct potable water as drinking water seems as if it would be very easy to contain contamination. But I think it is a great idea to use as irrigation water, for example.

  5. chimk / Apr 27 2012 7:41 am

    The expression of recycled water being “toilet to tap” was actually practical. Royte really managed to explain recycling of water in a practical way by using day to day activities that uses water i.e. the toilet which in mostly we don’t water from the toilet can be recycled to potable water. Highlighting the potential health issues associated with unproperly treated recyled water was also good.
    The review of the article has been well written and enganging as most of the important issues from Royte’s point of view have been covered. Good job.

  6. maria93 / Apr 27 2012 8:52 am

    This is a great review of the article!

    I think reminding the reader of the significance of the project helps, as her message was clearly delivered using this technique, as well as others.

    I liked that it was easy to read even though it was addressing an important topic.

    Great post 🙂

  7. keikok / May 3 2012 3:30 pm

    I liked the title and your use of the picture. When I saw your title and picture, I clearly could link my mind to the topic. How Royte introduced her message was great. I think reminding readers continuously helps their understanding of not only science but also any other topic. It is sometimes hard to see the message of the story or get lost and people tend to stop reading it. It is same as the mathematics. We know 1+1=2 because we have been learning for a while and repeat using it. We know about the water shortage because people keep telling us about the topic. So, thanks for reminding us again by bringing the story up to the blog!

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