The Dune movie flushed away a chance to talk about wastewater

Nearly an hour into the new Dune film, our favorite colonizing scamps, the Atreides boys, are introduced to a Fremen technology staple that allows them to survive Arrakis’ harsh desert environment. In the original 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, the stillsuit is full-body attire that recycles potable water from literally every drop of moisture produced by the wearer, including sweat, tears, feces, urine, and even breath (it would also theoretically work as a period-recycling apparatus).

In 2021, it appears that Denis Villeneuve is not a fan of drinking recycled pee. “A stillsuit is a high-efficiency filtration system,” explains Dr. Liet Kynes (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster), the Imperial Ecologist tasked to work with House Atreides. “It cools the body and recycles the water lost to sweat. Your body’s movements provide the power. Inside the mask you’ll find a tube to allow you to drink the recycled water.” In a later scene, after Paul and Jessica have a cathartic family cry in their Fremen tent — an efficient structure that works similarly to the stillsuit — Paul urges his mother to drink. “It’s recycled water from the tent,” he says, “sweat and tears.”

A few criticisms of Villeneuve’s movie have been that it was too flat, too beige, too sanitized, and didn’t seize the opportunity to get sufficiently weird with the source material. I’m usually a simple moviegoer with simple needs. My umbrage with the new Dune is far more basic: removing a real-life sustainable solution from a pioneering work of climate fiction is peepeepoopoo erasure, especially when our disintegrating planet has so little left to give us. It’s time to destigmatize recycled piss water.

I first tried drinking recycled sewage water in 2005, two years after the Singapore government introduced NEWater to the population; the idea of recycling municipal wastewater has been around since the 1970s when it was clear that the country didn’t have enough clean water sources of its own. Most Singaporeans grow up acutely conscious of the fact that half the country’s potable water supply comes from an agreement with Malaysia that expires in 2061.

“The PUB (Public Utilities Board), for many decades, sat down in meetings that are organized in community centers,” says Cecilia Tortajada, an adjunct senior research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Water Policy who has advised numerous international environmental organizations and is currently based at the University of Glasgow. “And they would take notes of anything that referred to water and then bring it back to the planning table and to the policy table … and this is how they found out that scarcity was a concern of people.”

I couldn’t tell you whether NEWater tastes noticeably different from “normal” water, even with the preexisting knowledge of its origins, because 16 years later, I don’t care. I do remember, though, the jokes and outright disgust expressed at the time NEWater rolled out, but more importantly, how quickly everyone accepted it and moved on. When you grow up surrounded by constant ambient rhetoric about water scarcity, even in a hyper-efficient capitalistic wet dream like Singapore, recycled drinking water is just fine. What I do know is that I can turn on the tap, stick my head under it like a cartoon, and drink whatever comes out of it.

“I find it very progressive, very enlightening, the idea of using all the resources you have,” says Tortajada. “If you have fresh water, if you have the rainfall and you have somewhere to store it, that is the best option and the cheapest option,” she says. “But there are places where there is water scarcity, so what is the next option? You use the resources available.”

Tortajada points out that when it comes to technological innovations, the United States is, more often than not, first. But in the world of recycled drinking water, it’s Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, which built the first large-scale recycled drinking water system in 1968. Even today, Windhoek is still the only place in the world where recycled drinking water can be piped directly into people’s homes. In Orange County, California and Singapore, there’s still a “middleman” step where a percentage of recycled wastewater gets blended in with reservoirs and aquifers.

“These innovations, many times, come out of bright ideas or out of necessity,” Tortajada explains. As such, recycled drinking water is usually only accepted by the people who actually need it. If you hadn’t already guessed by now, the thought of drinking recycled wastewater — a varietal blend of strangers’ pee and poop — is too disgusting for many people to accept.

Ching Leong, an associate professor at the Institute of Water Policy who specializes in “irrational environmental behavior,” unpacked the finer points of this particular sentiment in a 2016 paper that compared the resounding success of Windhoek with a failed water reclamation project in LA’s East Valley. “The ‘yuck’ factor has been found to be the only statistically significant factor in empirical studies variously defined as ‘psychological repugnance,’ ‘disgust,’ or ‘profound discomfort,’” she wrote. “Implementation of [recycled drinking water] is still rare, despite its existence for more than 40 years, and despite policy makers and international agencies lauding it as a sustainable option for water supply.”

It doesn’t help that much dystopian sci-fi and pop culture humor leans hard into this disgust. Kevin Costner in Waterworld faces the ultimate mockery of being surrounded by ocean, yet must scavenge for clean water and use his own spit to water his sole plant. Survivalist Bear Grylls is best known for drinking his own urine as an act of survival (something that then-President Obama declined to do on Grylls’ show), though the Army Field Manual doesn’t recommend it. Since 2009, NASA astronauts have used a Urine Processor Assembly that can reclaim 75 percent of water from their urine; today the tech has improved to the point where astronauts can safely drink it, but space travel is still far from being a comfortable experience for the average person.

It’s especially interesting to think about our collective cultural reaction to drinking pee-water within the context of Leong’s research on emotions. Recycled water is objectively one of the cleanest things on the planet and is held to extremely rigorous standards. Yet, we only really see fictional instances of it in dire situations where survival is paramount. Leong’s case study of the East Valley water recycling failure points to a fundamental failure in communication, as in this line of work, good information campaigns are critical to helping people understand and accept recycled drinking water. Tortajada holds up the PUB’s NEWater rollout as a success story where transparency was key — there was a carefully planned campaign and the government opened a visitor’s center where people can take a tour and try bottles of NEWater for themselves. Most importantly, it was always clear what NEWater is: recycled wastewater.

“[Recycled drinking water] is the best alternative we have,” Tortajada says. “Not the only — is the best alternative we have. Because acceptance also comes in terms of pricing. So you cannot produce a source of water that would be so expensive that people would have to choose between paying [for their children’s school] or having water.”

Even if you aren’t falling over backward to drink recycled sewage, you should probably know that it’s just really goddamn clean. “It is through recycling that you get the cleanest water,” Tortajada says, explaining that the PUB does double the number of quality checks than the standard parameters. According to her, water today is more polluted than ever, and that most people prefer bottled water despite the fact that the quality of bottled water often tests poorly compared to tap water in developed cities (and in some cases, bottled water is simply repackaged tap water sold without oversight).

As to whether pop culture plays a significant role in the general public’s acceptance of recycled water, Tortajada says yes. “It depends on how communication is managed,” she says, pointing to failed projects in Queensland, Australia and San Diego where people weren’t given enough information, the public balked, and the projects were canceled. Within these sentiments are threads of classism, exceptionalism, and a deeply ingrained idea of what near-future dystopia looks like. For instance, in Leong’s East Valley case study, the strong “yuck” factor was associated with a sense of social justice — the perception that wealthier west LA would be getting “good” water, while poorer people were left with toilet water. Wildly fictional narratives in Fury Road and Tank Girl aren’t quite as silly when real-life cartoon villain CEOs claim that water should be privatized and corporations take advantage of corrupt governments to control clean water supplies.

Public acceptance is a problem for governments, policymakers, and science communicators, but it should also be addressed in the softer, subtle language of film, literature, and television. On the cultural front, perhaps it’s time we also shifted away from thinking of recycled toilet water in a dystopian context into one about positive long-term sustainability. The Fremen relationship with water is marked by respect, practicality, and a hint of subdued reverence for its properties, even when it’s been recycled from poop collected in your stillsuit’s thigh pads.

Like Paul Atreides, his cursed descendants, and even the Bene Gesserit, long-term planning seems to be the name of the game when you want people to accept an unpalatable reality. The real narrative of Dune is an eons-long cycle of reshaping a planet and toying with inevitability, with a lot of proselytizing and preaching in between. We don’t have the luxury of that kind of time, nor do we have magic spice powers to make anything happen. But in the parlance of Leto Atreides — lord of air and sea power and would-be harnesser of desert power — perhaps the trick to conquering water scarcity is actually toilet power, and we need to stop being weird about it.

This interview was published by THE VERGE, November 5, 2021.