by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC
Nearly a century ago, President Teddy Roosevelt asked this important question: whether “civilized people ought to know how to dispose of the sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water.” Unfortunately, we have yet to ask – let alone answer – this question since then. Sewage treatment guzzles energy, uses a shitload (pun intended) of drinking water. The problem is compounded by old sewer systems not equipped to handle waste from a population which, in some cities, has doubled since the system was built, sending excess sewage-polluted water into the nearest river daily, all according to this op-ed by Rose George, author of, “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.â€
When these concentrated nutrients are dumped in waterways and oceans, they seriously disrupt fragile ecosystems. Sewage discharge causes “dead zones” in oceans and waterways, depleting food supply, harming wildlife and making people sick. And “sick people” send our health-care costs soaring, complicating another component of social well-being.
Flush toilets were, of course, greatly welcomed and considered a sign of a successful, “civilized” society. Like the garbage trucks that consistently appear at your curb to take away what we so casually and consistently “throw away”, the flush toilet feeds the illusion that anything going down the toilet “disappears”, whether it is human waste, prescription drugs or trash (my neighbor once flushed a live mouse to “get rid” of it!?!)
Yet, sewage contains nutrients which can be used as a valuable fertilizer. Urine, in particular, contains many fertile nutrients, such as phosphate and nitrogen, and hardly any of the pathogens of excrement. Systems of urine separation (called urine-diversion) can greatly decrease energy use of sewage systems as well as replace a finite reserve of virgin phosphates used in agriculture which are otherwise collected from a finite supply in the ground. Urine diversion also makes for richer sludge and produces more methane, which can be turned into gas or electricity, “turning a :guzzler of energy into a net producer”, says Jac Wilsenach, a researcher and civil engineer, quoted in the NY Times recent Op-ed, “Yellow is the New Green”
In the meantime, most of us are stuck with a flushing system. What can we do while we wait for change? I’ve already posted on this topic a couple times – Flush less, Pee on the Earth, consider the savings of a low-flush toilet or consider a composting version.
Q and A with Rose George, here.