What clogged drains can teach us about sustainability

When we moved into our house almost 10 years ago the bathing facilities were limited to a tiny closet-sized room with blue shag carpeting that contained a bathtub with a shower-head that came out of the side of the bath. 

Taking a morning shower was a complicated soggy adventure.

And so the first major renovation we made to the house was to punch out the wall between this closet-bath and the actual closet beside it and create an expansive new washroom complete with snazzy (and expansive) shower room.

The new shower is wonderful, but it has one flaw: every couple of months the shower drain gets clogged up, resulting in a week or two of quick-before-the-shower-overflows showers until we get around to clearing the drain.

Our traditional practice in this regard has been to employ Draino or Liquid Plumr: chemical drain cleaners that, while they create a toxic death cloud in the washroom for a while, and require pouring corrosive chemicals down the drain and into the watershed, do an awfully good job of clearing the drain and allowing for a return to languid showers.

Last month the drain clogged up on schedule and I headed over to True Value hardware in the mall to buy some drain cleaner. Given my new-found interest in ecology, I decided to actually read the labels on the drain cleaners, and in doing so got shocked into looking for an alternative: I just couldn’t conscience the idea of pouring that stuff down the drain. “What about the poor oysters?!” I said to myself.

Nature Clean Drain CleanerSo I returned home with bottle of Nature Clean Drain Cleaner, a product that said on the label it used “enzymes and highly active bacteria” instead of harsh chemicals to clear my drains.

The Nature Clean product worked. Eventually. While the chemical drain cleaners burn through the clogs in an hour or two, it took about 24 hours, two sessions, and some supplemental drain plunging to get the drain clear.  But in the end it was clear, and I was happy to have taken the additional effort.

But then I got to wondering: what exactly areenzymes and highly active bacteria.”  And is it any less dangerous to pour them down the drain than it is to pour potassium hydroxide down the drain?

So I did some research.  I consulted with my science writer and biophysicist friend Oliver who taught me about what an enzyme is, and how you whip them up.  I consulted with the folks at Nature Clean who wrote back:

Our Nature Clean Drain Cleaner is based on naturally occurring microrganism — bacteria spore concentrate in high numbers. When applied or poured in your drains these bacteria will come in contact with starches, carbohydrates, cellulose, fats, grease and oils and become activated (feeding) thereby producing enzymes — which will gradually break down organic blockage. So it does take longer and it is a very good drain/septic maintainer and completely safe.

And finally I sent a note to the City of Charlottetown’s water and sewer department from which I received a thorough and very helpful reply about the relative merits of various drain cleaners.  What was most helpful, though, was their final suggestion:

The bigger question for me is why would you find it necessary to use such a product? Perhaps there is a problem in your plumbing system which is causing the flow to be obstructed. Is the plumbing that services the fixture visible? I wonder if there is a flat section or a section with reverse grade?

I’m embarrassed to say that it had never occurred to me to consider the issue from this perspective: I’d channeled all my efforts – and the time and energy of helpful others – into finding a better way to do the same old thing.  I never gave any consideration to whether the problem itself, and my approach to it, needed examination.

I thought of this last night when I sat in on the opening of the final session of the City of Charlottetown’s Integrated Community Sustainability Plan process.

Making an “ICSP” is a weird process: rather than something that flowed naturally from a local desire for a more sustainable approach to city governance, it’s part of a carrot-stick procedure required by the federal government for communities to be able to access money from the federal Gas Tax Fund.  Think of it as mandatory driver trainer for someone who’s gotten into a car accident.  Except the “accident” is “not acting in a sustainable manner.”

As is often the case with such exercises, an industry of ICSP consultants has emerged to help communities develop their plans, and last night’s exercise was conducted by consultants from the multi-national firm Stantec that the City of Charlottetown has contracted to lead the ICSP development process.

Last night’s session had all the elements from the modern consultancy toolkit: there were charts of the “pillars of sustainability,” references to “stakeholders,” videos of  a “green CEO” (from Stonyfield Yoghurt), sticky-notes all over the wall, and adhesive dots standing ready for what one participant referred to as “dot-mocracy.”  There was even a time set aside at the beginning for “quiet reflection.”

In other words, it had all the hallmarks of a charade, and none of the hallmarks of something that real people interested in real things might actually ever care about.  That the meeting was attended largely by politicians, public servants and advocacy groups only served to emphasize this.

Sustainability Sticky Notes

The fundamental issue, though: the ICSP exercise was focused on finding a better way to clear the drain clog, rather than stepping back and considering why the drain was getting clogged in the first place.

If I’ve learned anything from steeping myself in the 1970s for the past two weeks it’s that sustainability is all about process, not product.

We know exactly what we need to do, technologically, to adjust our systems; the real challenge is the behaviour modification we need to go through to motivate ourselves to implement.  Installing solar panels and biomass-powered furnaces is easy; getting a community to the point where it thinks that’s an important thing to think about is really, really hard.

If Charlottetown is truly concerned about building a sustainable community, the plan should not involve closeting a narrow bunch of “stakeholders” in meeting rooms with “experts” to ferret out whether federal cash should be used to buy more buses, build artist kiosks, or improve storm-sewer quality: that’s simply trying to figure out how to run new programs on the same old operating system.

A truly sustainable community is one that considers how we plan as much as it considers what we’re planning to do.

And, apparently, that’s not an ingredient in the ICSP process: when I asked why all the sticky notes on the wall were about the what and not the how I was told that the “implementation plan” would include recommendations on that front: the consultants would write that up at the end of the process, and that it would be up to the City to figure out the rest.

So here’s what’s going to happen next: the consultants will write up their report and present it to the City and then pack up and go on to their next Gas Tax job.  The City will make a big show of how it’s gone all sustainable; there will be a press conference, and an article in the newspaper with the Mayor holding the new plan.  The Gas Tax money will flow and the money will be spent on things that the City was already planning to spend the money on before this whole process got started.

And while some eco-friendly infrastructure tweaks may results, the community will be no more “sustainable” than when the exercise started.

I don’t know what the path to a sustainable community looks like. 

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve consultants and sticky notes and stakeholders, though.

I suspect it involves a lot of hard work: city councillors fanning out to have real conversations with constituents, hundreds of small meetings in neighbourhoods to talk about actual problems and solutions, work in the schools to involve all ages in developing plans and ideas. It will takes strong, informed, passionate leaders to get out in front of the process and point the way.  It will take a long time and won’t involve a lot of money – qualities that take it outside the comfort zone of our traditional approach to planning – and a willingness to experiment with new ways of making plans, making decisions, and getting things done.

Sustainability isn’t a snap-on feature that you can add to a community, it’s an approach to living in community

Until we stop seeing a bunch of drains that need unclogging in every more inventive ways we’re never going to get there.

We need to step back and open our minds to the possibility that the solution might lie in rearranging the plumbing: re-framing the problems, not banging harder on the solutions.

Cross-posted to climatechange.thinkaboutit.eu.


Hans's picture
Hans on November 13, 2009 - 16:36

Great Post!

Dan James's picture
Dan James on November 13, 2009 - 17:04

If your drain is anything like mine it’s probably hair that is clogging it up. Take off the drain cover, reach in (might have to use something hooked to get all the way in, and pull out the disgusting gooey disgusting clog of hair. Your drain will work after that. If it doesn’t work after that you might have a more serious plumbing issue.

As for the city it’s much like a house. Sometimes the only way to “make it right” is start tearing it apart until you get to the root problem. The fear in starting that process is that as you go you might find that there is nothing worth saving.

Andrea's picture
Andrea on November 13, 2009 - 17:34

I wish the world more often celebrated and heeded people like the one who responded to your inquiry at the City’s water and sewer department.

And don’t you just cringe when people start talking about “stakeholders” — I’ve grown to despise that word. When it comes to talking about community sustainability, are we not all affected and integral to the functioning of the system? Sticky notes indeed.

oliver's picture
oliver on November 13, 2009 - 19:57

Post-its don’t kill profundity, people do.

Maybe the process you want is iterative, as your route to plumbing enlightenment was, arguably. Feed back the “how” first draft to the “what” committee, run the new “what” through the “how” planners again, and maybe you could get something very different.

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on November 13, 2009 - 21:20

Caution: Shifting Paradigm!

Leonard G's picture
Leonard G on November 14, 2009 - 02:00

An even cheaper solution that we have used on our shower drain is to use the toilet plunger on the drain. Worked perfectly in our case the two times I have had to use it.

Brad's picture
Brad on November 14, 2009 - 19:08

I have waged war with a slow/clogged drain. Here is the knowledge I have:

If you have a bad clog, Draino and such tend to only clear a small path or hole in the clog. Enough that your drain works okay for a little while but will easily get clogged again.

The best solution I’ve found is vinegar, baking soda and a combination of plunging and pouring boiling water down the drain (to loosen it). Basically throw some baking soda in, cover the overflow, pour in some vinegar and then quickly cover the drain. The pressure created in the reaction will force the entire clog down the drain.

It can take a few tries but when it finally works your drain will likely run faster and also you’re not dumping nasty chemicals into your pipes and beyond. It’s also cheaper.

Also a hair trap like this will pretty much eliminate clogs: http://www.bedbathandbeyond.co…

Paul's picture
Paul on November 16, 2009 - 01:37

draino also ruins your plumbing. the above plumbing suggestions all work. surprised you did not do a search on the interwebs before emailing the city or anyone else. talk about wasting tax payers money!! I’m kidding of course. wonderful post as always Peter.

Josh Biggley's picture
Josh Biggley on November 17, 2009 - 19:38

When considering this repair or re-plumb scenario for the city, the question becomes who are the stakeholders. As Andrea has already pointed we are all stakeholders and therefore responsible for choosing whether to act on this proposal or let it fall into the dusty archives of the city. That is really the key isn’t it? Stakeholders are not defined by some outside entity or even the elected officials, the stakeholders are those who make a choice to get involved in this or the myriad of other projects on the go to make the city more sustainable.

As for the status of this project, if we truly like what we see at the end of the day and we want to become stakeholders in the project it simply requires us to hold the city accountable. They commissioned Stantec (I would like to have seen someone more progressive and ecologically minded and less opportunistic) to develop this ICSP, they have stated that they will abide by plan and, in my personal experience, they had plenty of insider opinion during the creation of this framework.

Whether we agree with the process or not, it behooves everyone to hold every future decision to, as I stated in my SpacingAtlantic.ca article, the litmus test of the ICSP. Accountability is the best way to ensure we are truly stakeholders.

Billy's picture
Billy on January 7, 2010 - 19:02

An even better solution is a product called Turbo Snake. I just bought one while back in the US for $10. I tried it out today and it removed a ton of hair from my tub easily. I had to call a plumber last year to do the same thing. I’m not sure if/where you can buy it on PEI. You may have to buy it online.

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