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Making America’s Toilets Great Again

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During a recent press event, President Trump declared that he is urging his Environmental Protection Agency to weaken federal water conservation standards because of troubles that unnamed friends of his have been having with their toilets.   

 “People are flushing toilets 10 or 15 times, as opposed to once,” Trump said.  “They end up using more water.  So EPA has been looking into that very strongly, at my suggestion.”

Wait: 15 flushes?!  What is going on in the White House?

 “The president has been known to use hyperbole from time to time,” said Stan Meiburg, a former deputy administrator at EPA who is now Director of Graduate Programs in Sustainability at Wake Forest University.


There is a grain of truth to what Trump is talking about – at least there was, back in the 1990s, when he formulated many of this political fixations.

Meiburg explained that, back in 1992, Republican President George H.W.  Bush signed a law called the Energy Policy Act, which imposed standards for the conservation of both energy and water.

One of the law’s provisions required future toilets to use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush, compared to the 3.5 gallons or more they used to use.

“In those days, and especially with president George H.W. Bush, there was a conservation ethic that really was starting to take hold in many parts of the country, across party lines,” Meiburg said.

The toilet rules took effect in 1994 for new homes. And, by and large, the regulations have been effective in both saving water and saving money for consumers, Meiburg said.

“The change in high efficiency toilets can save between 15,000 and 20,000 gallons per year for a family of four, and based on average water costs,” Meiburg said.  “That’s between $350 and $500 per year. So this turns out to be real money for an average consumer.”

Although annoying in the beginning to some consumers – and a challenge to some municipal sewer systems, which were built for large flushes from toilets – the water conservation rules are increasingly important as climate change and sprawling real-estate developments and farms dry up water supplies in many areas of the U.S.

However, it took about a decade for toilet manufacturers to get up to speed with more efficient toilets that could flush as well with less water, often using air pressure and more efficient designs. And so, there are a number of consumers who are stuck with outdated toilets from the 1990’s and who grumble about having to flush two or three times (not 15, that’s ridiculous).  Some are irked about now having to keep a plunger next to their bowl.

One of those who supports Trump’s push to Make Toilets Great Again is Jeffrey Tucker, Vice President at the American Institute for Economic Research, which advocates for consumer freedom.

“The truth is, and I’ve studied this and tried many different kinds of toilets – all kinds of different technologies – and nothing works as well as the typical toilet did 25 years ago,” Tucker said.  “I’m not a fan of Donald Trump. I’m just not…. But this was a genius move, and he’s 100 percent correct about it.”

It is extremely unlikely, even if he wins re-election, that President Trump would be able to convince both houses of Congress to rewrite the 1992 law and change the water conservation mandate.

But – like his railing against energy-efficient lightbulbs and paper straws – Trump sees political profit in marketing himself as the anti-environmental president – the champion of selfishness, consumption, and resentment of regulations and liberals, more generally.

Depending on the content of America’s character, this may prove helpful or harmful to his re-election in November.  

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.