Thursday, September 7, 2017

Good Book On The Disposal of Human Waste

Given the role that tiny houses are playing in leap frogging the old flush toilet/sewer system this book is filled with details worthy of a tiny house dweller since inevitably we will have many a conversation about how our composting toilet works. Plus it's a great read. I love accompanying a journalist in search of answers. Here I have noted my favorite takeaways from The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World Of Human Waste And Why It Matters.

Rose George, a British writer after my own heart, extensively explores the unmentionable topic of the disposal of human excrement. This sends her on a worldwide journey investigating toilets and sewage treatment or lack thereof. Her journey begins in the London sewers with the flushers—crews of professionals who maintain these underground pipes. The enemy of the flushers is restaurant fat. Massive amounts that stinks more than poo and is hard to remove. She does a similar tour in New York. Here it is confirmed that New York sewers (and likely the cities of many a reader) are designed to discharge raw sewage into the nearest waterway when overwhelmed by rain. This happens about once a week in New York.

At the opposite end of the system sits the throne toilet unchanged for decades until the Japanese took it to new heights of function by making this unmentionable household feature marketable for multiple upgrades–a marketing feat in this story. Japanese toilets famously can adapt to their owners habits and monitor their health while cleansing them with warm jets of water and heated air to dry them. I’m seeing them in the restrooms of high end shopping malls in Bangkok now.

But most fascinating of all is the human story. No serious book about toilets would be complete without addressing those who have none. For this we must visit the rural villages of India and Bangladesh and learn that just imposing toilets from on high does nothing to dissuade people from open defecation. Authorities armed with facts on the dangers of feces will not force sanitation to become a priority for poor people. It takes a skillful engagement of the villagers to realize for themselves that they want toilets. The slow way is to bribe with offers of running water and wash rooms if an investment is made in a latrine. The most effective way is to engage their disgust. Theirn lies a story in itself.

Next up is China for its investment in biogas digesters, a decentralized in-home system that makes methane for cooking and nutrients to put back into the soil. China has a long history of using night soil on fields and thus insuring the fertility of their fields for centuries. Lots of possibilities for innovation here.

She also includes a slight diversion to tell the story of a pair of inventors on two continents creating a hand pump for collecting privy contents by motorbike. A possible business opportunity in Tanzania.

And on our side of the planet we must also learn about hazardous sludge being used on fields. And no it is not the processed shit itself that is the biggest problem; it is the load of industrial chemicals added to the wastewater from every imaginable industry from chemical production to morgues that make up 25% of our sewage stream. Talk about the wrongful use of the commons. So many different chemicals that it is impossible to prove that such sludge is causing dramatic health problems for nearby residents. Dumping sludge at sea and in landfills also done and not desirable. By now it becomes clear to the reader that so much is wrong with using clean water as a vehicle for waste which then must be cleaned again. And that many, especially those who source their water from rivers, are drinking that water over and over again.

Back in China we are offered a possible future in a rural village where a urine separating composting system is being tested. Invented by the Norwegians, the Eco-san has a urine separator so the urine is processed separately making the solids easier to compost on site for use in the fields. In the city such compost could be put out for collection along with all our other recyclables. Such would be my ideal vision.

What makes this book such an interesting read is all the colorful characters she meets that have taken up the politically unpopular cause of sanitation plus the complex psychological issues of attempting to change human behavior. How culture and social protocol impacts behavior i.e. how the caste system of India created a population of people, the untouchables, who accept being covered with fecal matter as their lot in life. And to add another layer of complexity on the government and world aid level, how sanitation is discussed and addressed as the poor cousin to the much more sexy issue of clean water. How the connection between clean water and the contamination of water by people lacking sanitation is so rarely addressed as one and the same thing.

I am grateful to Rose George for cramming so much interesting detail and stories into this journey and resisting the urge to pass judgement or rant. She has also apprised me of the levels of denial humans are capable of if they don’t want to admit that something unpleasant is going on. And what I already knew to be the cultural dominance of the flush toilet as the pinnacle of human sanitation she makes clear is so not sustainable that the developing world needs to leapfrog this dinosaur whose infrastructure is now crumbling. There is a glimmer of economic hope in the passing mention of the rising price of nitrogen and phosphorus the two main elements of urine. So I’m thinking surely there would be a business opportunity to collect human urine from the source. A stimulating book of a reality humans have created and not fully addressed.