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Pipe Dreams

The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet

From an award-winning science journalist, a “deeply researched, entertaining, and impassioned exploration of sanitation” (Nature) and the future of the toilet—for fans of popular science bestsellers by Mary Roach.

Most of us do not give much thought to the centerpiece of our bathrooms, but the toilet is an unexpected paradox. On the one hand, it is a modern miracle: a ubiquitous fixture in a vast sanitation system that has helped add decades to the human life span by reducing disease. On the other hand, the toilet is also a tragic failure: less than half of the world’s population can access a toilet that safely manages body waste, including many right here in the United States. And it is inefficient, squandering clean water as well as the nutrients, energy, and information contained in the stuff we flush away. While we see radical technological change in almost every other aspect of our lives, we remain stuck in a sanitation status quo—in part because the topic of toilets is taboo.

Fortunately, there’s hope—and Pipe Dreams daringly profiles the growing army of sewage-savvy scientists, engineers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and activists worldwide who are overcoming their aversions and focusing their formidable skills on making toilets accessible and healthier for all.

This potential revolution in sanitation has many benefits, including reducing inequalities, mitigating climate change and water scarcity, improving agriculture, and optimizing health. Author Chelsea Wald takes us on a wild world tour from a compost toilet project in Haiti, to a plant in the Netherlands that salvages used toilet paper from sewage, and shows us a toilet seat that can watch users’ poop for signs of illness, among many other fascinating developments.

“Toilet humor is one thing, but toilet fact, as digested by skilled science writer Wald, is quite another…[Pipe Dreams is] a highly informative, well-reasoned call to rethink the throne” (Kirkus Reviews).

Photo by Cathleen Owens

Chelsea Wald has repeatedly plunged into the topic of toilets since 2013, when editors first approached her to write about the latent potential in our stagnating infrastructure. Since then she has traveled to Italy, South Africa, Indonesia, and Haiti, as well as throughout the Netherlands and the United States, in search of the past and future of toilet systems. With a degree in astronomy from Columbia University and a master’s in journalism from Indiana University, Chelsea has more than fifteen years of experience in writing about science and the environment. She has won several awards and reporting grants, including from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the European Geosciences Union, and the European Journalism Centre. She cofounded and continues to help coordinate the DC Science Writers Association Newsbrief Awards for short science writing. She lives with her family in the Netherlands, in a region renowned for its water-related innovations. 

“Readers couldn’t ask for a more qualified guide to take them on a world tour of next-gen sewage schemes. . . . [Wald’s] narration is frank and funny, and her sewage savvy allows her to weave in fascinating scientific and historic details. . . . Pipe Dreams leaves readers knowing everything they ever wanted to know (and probably more) about toilets, perhaps inspiring them to start giving way more of a crap about crap.” Science News

“[A] deeply researched, entertaining, and impassioned exploration of sanitation ancient and innovative.” Nature

“Well-written and researched, with much in-person investigation by the author . . . Pipe Dreams is engaging, informative, and an unexpected must-read for readers interested in sustainability, and should have a place in nearly every library.” Booklist

“Wald brings humor and curiosity to this history of the toilet and the ongoing environmental concerns surrounding it. . . .  A surprisingly lively read about the science and history of waste that will engage fans of Mary Roach and popular science.” Library Journal

“A thoughtful and funny survey of ‘today’s toilet revolutionaries’ . . . The green-minded will find this insightful and entertaining study to be a fresh angle on a perhaps underappreciated environmental concern.” Publishers Weekly

“Toilet humor is one thing, but toilet fact, as digested by skilled science writer Wald, is quite another. . . . A highly informative, well-reasoned call to rethink the throne.” Kirkus Reviews

“Engagingly written, meticulously researched and referenced . . . a rewarding and enlightening read.” Civil Engineering magazine

"A very interesting . . . travelogue, wherein Wald talks to innovators in sanitation science and witnesses contemporary and historical attempts to bring best practices to human health. Her view is that, in our wide and varied world, one solution does not fit all, but we all deserve a sanitary environment." —BookPage

“There’s information here that will occasionally make you squirm, but it’ll also make you think twice before blithely using the sewer as a trash bin. So, thank your local sanitation worker. . . . Consider a new toilet and read Pipe Dreams. Doing so will leave you flush with knowledge.” Terri Schlichenmeyer

"You might be tempted to pooh-pooh the importance of the humble toilet. Don’t! Pipe Dreams shows just how vital toilets are to the future of public health—and does so with charm. Chelsea Wald spans the world, finding laughs and pathos in the surprisingly intricate science of sanitation." —Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon

"Everybody poops. Pipe Dreams is an utterly delightful and deeply informative investigation into what happens next. Wald takes us around the world to meet waste archaeologists, accidental toilet entrepreneurs, and subterranean sanitation workers, all in pursuit of the dream of transforming human waste into a resource. Along the way, she delves into what this most elemental substance reveals—about disease and human health, technology and infrastructure, and equity and access." Meera Subramanian, author of A River Runs Again

"I could not stop reading Chelsea Wald’s captivating book. Pipe Dreams is full of fascinating facts about toilets and sewage systems. But Pipe Dreams is also about so much more. It’s about how we live in the world. Wald doesn’t just discuss the technology of sanitation systems, she also captures the human and cultural aspects that drive how we deal with our shit." —Christie Aschwanden, author of Good to Go