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#645 - Excrement Happens -- Part 2, 07-Apr-1999

Continuing from last week, we are retelling the history of the
management of human excrement as originally narrated by Abby A.
Rockefeller.[1] Where we have added new facts to Ms. Rockefeller's
original history, they appear inside square brackets.

* * *

To recap where we are: Cities began to provide running water into homes
in the early 19th century. Water piped into homes had to be piped out
again, often into open sewer ditches running in the streets. Outbreaks
of cholera followed. A debate ensued: should sewage be transported back
to farms, where the nutrients had originated, or should it be disposed
of by dumping it into bodies of water? Although many cities for a time
transported sewage to farms, by 1920 most sewage was being piped
directly into bodies of water. This was a crucial choice.

Once the network of sewer pipes began to grow, industry saw these
public pipes as a cheap place to dump industrial wastes. As a result,
corporations began to dump all manner of toxicants into the nutrient-
rich sewage stream. This was another crucial choice. Once they were
mixed together, nutrients and industrial poisons could not be separated
at any reasonable price. Therefore the whole mess became a toxic waste
disposal problem and excrement lost its value as a fertilizer. Dumping
it into water bodies accelerated.

By the 1950s, most of the nation's waterways were badly contaminated
with a combination of nutrients and toxicants. This gave rise to a
demand for treatment of waste prior to disposal. Pipes that used to
carry toxic sewage into streams and oceans now began to carry it into
centralized "wastewater treatment plants" or "publicly owned treatment
works" (POTWs).

Wastewater treatment plants remove the solids and some of the
chemicals, creating a black, mud-like "sludge" in the process. It's a
trade-off: improved wastewater treatment means cleaner discharge water
but it also means more sludge and worse sludge (more toxic). Now a new,
and truly intractable, problem appears: what to do with mountains of
toxic sludge?

Communities with access to the ocean began dumping sludge there. New
York dumped its sewage sludge 12 miles offshore; when that place
developed obvious contamination problems, the dumping was moved to a
spot 106 miles offshore, where, to no one's surprise, contamination
soon developed.

The use of water to carry sewage, and the use of centralized wastewater
treatment plants, had great political appeal for several reasons. Most
political authorities tend to favor centralized solutions because they
basically don't trust people to handle their own problems. Secondly, as
we have noted, industry needed a cheap place to dispose of its wastes.
[In 1997, according to the Congressional Research Service, industry
"dumped 240 million pounds of wastes with hazardous components" into
municipal sewers.[2]] Third, and perhaps most important, laying sewer
pipes and building centralized sewage treatment plants is extremely
costly and engineering firms receive 20% of the initial cost. [Between
1970 and 1993, the federal government appropriated $69.5 billion for
sewage construction projects. The Congressional Research Service
recently estimated that between now and the year 2016 (17 years), the
federal government will spend another $126 billion on sewage projects.
[2] These are serious amounts of money.] Only the Federal Highway
Administration [and the military] spend more public money on
construction. [If even a small fraction of this sewer money is kicked
back at election time by consultants, lawyers, investment bankers and
engineering firms, it can go a long way toward keeping the present crop
of politicians in office.]

In the 1970s, many environmentalists and public health officials
favored centralized sewage treatment because it seemed to offer an
improvement over dumping raw wastes into waterways. The Clean Water Act
of 1977 was essentially a sewering act. Everyone was then locked into
centralized wastewater treatment systems.

In 1988, Congress discovered that sludge dumping in the oceans was
harming marine life, and the practice was banned as of 1992. This
created a massive problem for American cities: [11.6 billion pounds of
sludge (that's the dry weight, not counting the water it contains[3])
has to go somewhere, year after year.]

At that moment, EPA decided that the U.S. now needs to mimic 100
generations of successful farmers in Asia, returning human excrement to

However, EPA has overlooked two important differences between modern
sewage sludge and traditional "night soil" (unadulterated human waste):

1) Most of the nitrogen in human waste is in the urine and is water-
soluble, so it is not captured in the sludge. Therefore, if sludge is
going to substitute for commercial fertilizer, you have to use a lot of
it to get enough nitrogen. And (2) when you add a lot of sludge to
soil, you are also adding a lot of toxic metals and a rich (though very
poorly understood) mixture of organic chemicals and, very likely,
radioactive wastes as well.

EPA has addressed the toxic metals by telling farmers to add lime to
their soil along with the sewage sludge, to prevent the soil from
becoming acidic. If soil turns acidic, then toxic metals begin to move
around, either leaching down into groundwater or moving upward into the
crops (which, by definition, are part of some food chain). If soils are
alkaline (the opposite of acidic), the metals move more slowly.

[What EPA has overlooked is the fact that ordinary rain is slightly
acidic, not counting the excess acidity provided by "acid rain." Normal
rain drops falling through the atmosphere dissolve small amount of
carbon dioxide, forming carbonic acid. Normal rain has a pH of 5.6
whereas 7 is neutral. Therefore, if soils are not kept alkaline by the
regular addition of lime, sooner or later normal rain will begin to
leach excess metals out of many soils. The only way to prevent this is
to keep the excess metals out of soils in the first place.]

In sum, plowing sewage sludge into soils is essentially guaranteed to
harm many of those soils as time passes. [See REHW #561.] [As we know
from the ancients who poisoned their soils with irrigation salts, a
nation that poisons its farmland is a nation that doesn't have a long-
term future.]

A series of bad decisions made during this century has brought us to an
impasse: sewage sludge is unmanageable because you can't know from day
to day what is going to be in it, and so you cannot monitor its
contents.[4] (Even if you could manage the scientific problems inherent
in monitoring an unknown mixture of unknown substances, as a practical
matter there isn't any government agency with enough staff to monitor
the nation's sludge.)

Therefore -- as heroic a task as this may seem -- it is time to re-
think centralized water-carriage sewage treatment systems. The present
systems were not designed to produce useable products and therefore the
DESIGN of present systems is the root of the problem.

Three policy goals are needed: (1) Sewer avoidance (stay off or get off
water-carriage, centralized sewer systems). (2) Promote low-cost, on-
site resource recycling technologies, such as composting toilets, that
avoid polluting water and preclude wasting resources. (3) Price water
right so that the market works to keep it clean, not contaminate it
with excreta.[4]

[For individual households, real solutions are already available: zero
discharge household waste systems. An excellent new book by David del
Porto and Carol Steinfeld, THE COMPOSTING TOILET SYSTEM, will dispel
any fears you may have that composting toilets are a step backward.[5]
With microflush toilets and vacuum-flush toilets now readily available,
you can have the bathroom of your dreams, yet compost your household
wastes into an odor-free product that is entirely satisfactory as
agricultural fertilizer. These days, there are companies that will
manage the system for you, including removing the compost. Your
household waste system can be installed, maintained, and managed by
professionals, just like your electrical and heating systems.

But what about apartment buildings and office buildings in cities?
Although we know of no one who has applied it, the technology certainly
exists for manufacturing building-scale waste systems based on
anaerobic digesters, which would produce methane gas and fertilizer. As
Abby A. Rockefeller said recently in an interview, "Surely, human
ingenuity can do this." Such systems would be cheaper than current
sewage systems because they wouldn't require miles of underground pipes
to connect to a centralized sewage treatment plant, and they would
conserve hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year.

[Every time we flush the toilet, 3.3 gallons of drinking water are
degraded. At 5.2 flushes per day (average), each of us presently
degrades 6260 gallons of drinking water each year to flush away our
1300 pounds of excrement -- 1.6 trillion gallons of water per year in
the U.S.]

Naturally, we would need to keep toxicants out of these composting
systems, but that has always been true (even though we have ignored
this fact) and we might as well face up to it now. Toxic household
products will have to be phased out as part of any plan for sustainable

Toxic industrial wastes should be managed by the industries that make
them, not dumped into the environment that sustains all life. Unusable
wastes are a sure sign of inefficiency.

Lastly, what to do with today's mountains of toxic sludge? Obviously
they must be handled as hazardous wastes because that's what they are.
[Probably above-ground storage in concrete buildings is the only
satisfactory solution at the present time. (See REHW #260.)]

[You say we can't do any of this because we've been doing it another
way for 100 years? Ask yourself, what kind of people would dump their
excreta into their drinking water in the first place? And what kind of
people, faced with workable, cheaper, more environmentally sound
alternatives would continue to insist that dumping their excreta into
their drinking water is the only way to live?]

-Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Abby A. Rockefeller, "Civilization and Sludge: Notes on the History
of the Management of Human Excreta," CURRENT WORLD LEADERS Vol. 39, No.
6 (December 1996), pgs. 99-113. Ms. Rockefeller is president of the
ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems, 179 Boylston St., Boston,
MA 02130; telephone (617) 524-7258.

[98-323 ENR] (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, January
20, 1999). Available at: http://- www.cnie.org/nle/h2o-29.html .

[3] Gary D. Krauss and Albert L. Page, "Wastewater, Sludge and Food
Crops," BIOCYCLE (February 1997), pgs. 74-82. Krauss was staff director
for the National Research Council study, USE OF RECLAIMED WATER AND
SLUDGE IN FOOD CROP PRODUCTION (Washington, D.C.: National Academy
Press, 1996).

[4] Robert Goodland and Abby Rockefeller, "What is Environmental
Sustainability in Sanitation?" IETC'S INSIGHT [newsletter of the United
Nations Environment Programme, International Environmental Technology
Centre] Summer, 1996), pgs. 5-8. The International Environmental
Technology Centre can be reached at: UNEP-IETC, 2-1110 Ryokuchikoen,
Tsurumi-ku, Osaka 538, Japan. Telephone: (81-6) 915-4580; fax: (81-6)
915-0304; E-mail: cstrohma@unep.or.jp; URL: http://www.unep.or.jp/. See
also Abby A. Rockefeller, "Sewage Treatment Plants vs. the
Environment," an unpublished paper dated September, 1997. And: Abby A.
Rockefeller, "Sludge is Sludge; The Illusion of Safety," an unpublished
paper dated June 26, 1996. Ms. Rockefeller is president of the ReSource
Institute for Low Entropy Systems, 179 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02130;
telephone (617) 524-7258.

[5] David Del Porto and Carol Steinfeld, THE COMPOSTING TOILET SYSTEM
BOOK (Concord, Mass.: Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention,
1999). ISBN 0-9666783-0-3. See http://www.ecological-
engineering.com/ctbook.html; $29.95 plus $3.30 shipping ($12 overseas
shipping) from: Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention, 50
Beharrell St., P.O. Box 1330, Concord, Mass. USA 01742. Phone (978)
369-9440. Fax: (978) 368-2484. E-mail: ecop2@hotmail.com. See also:
Carol Steinfeld, "Composting Toilets Come to the Rescue in
Massachusetts," BIOCYCLE (April 1996), pgs. unknown. See http://-
www.ecological-engineering.com/rescue.html And see: Carol Steinfeld,
"Composting Toilets Emerge as Viable Alternatives," Environmental
Design & Construction (July/August 1998), pgs. unknown. See

Descriptor terms: sewage; human waste; sludge; agriculture; hazardous
waste; compost; sewage treatment systems;