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. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #645 .
. ---April 8, 1999--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. EXCREMENT HAPPENS -- PART 2 .
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EXCREMENT HAPPENS -- PART 2
Continuing from last week, we are retelling the history of the
management of human excrement as originally narrated by Abby A.
Rockefeller. Where we have added new facts to Ms.
Rockefeller's original history, they appear inside square
* * *
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
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.] 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. 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) 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 farmland.
However, EPA has overlooked two important differences between
modern sewage sludge and traditional "night soil" (unadulterated
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. (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
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.
[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. 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
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 living.
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?]
 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
 Claudia Copeland, WASTEWATER TREATMENT: OVERVIEW AND
BACKGROUND [98-323 ENR] (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research
Service, January 20, 1999). Available at: http://-
 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).
 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:
email@example.com; 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.
 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 http://www.edcmag.com/archives/7-98-14.htm.
Descriptor terms: sewage; human waste; sludge; agriculture;
hazardous waste; compost; sewage treatment systems;
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