[GRRN] Sewage History

RecycleWorlds (anderson@msn.fullfeed.com)
Fri, 2 Apr 1999 09:08:41 -0600


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Recently we came upon a history of the management of human
excreta -- urine and feces -- starting back in the mists of time
and working forward to the present day.[1] It turns out that this
unlikely topic can tell us something important about the way
humans make environmental decisions. For that reason, we're going
to recap the story here. The original author, Abby A.
Rockefeller, deserves credit for all the original work, though
not, of course, blame for any of our lapses or misinterpretations
in the retelling. Where we have supplemented Ms. Rockefeller's
history with additional facts, they appear inside square
* * *
Humans began to lead a settled life, growing crops to supplement
hunting and gathering, only about 10,000 years ago. For all time
before that, humans "deposited their excreta -- urine and feces
-- on the ground, here and there, in the manner of all other
land creatures." The soil and its communities (including plants,
small animals and microorganisms) captured almost all of the
nutrients in animal excrement and recycled them into new
components for soil. In this way, the nutrients were endlessly
recycled within the soil ecosystem and largely kept out of
surface water.
As a result, what we call "pure water" is low in nutrients,
particularly the major nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus.
Because these conditions have existed for a very long time, life
in lakes, rivers, and oceans is accustomed to the relative
absence of these nutrients. Over the past couple of billion
years, life has flourished in this low-nutrient environment,
growing complex and interdependent in the process -- an aquatic
condition we call "clean" and "healthy."
When a body of water is suddenly inundated with nutrients --
especially nitrogen and phosphorus -- things change drastically.
One or a few organisms flourish and begin to crowd out the
others. We can all recall seeing a body of water that is
pea-soup green from overgrowth of algae. Such a water body is
clearly sick, choked, its diversity vastly diminished.
Today, much of the surface water of the planet is in a state of
ill health because of misplaced nutrients. And a main
contributing culprit is misplaced human excreta.
Long ago, human civilizations split into two camps regarding the
management of excreta. Many Asian societies recognized the
nutrient value of "night soil" (as it became known). For several
thousand years, and up until very recently, Asian agriculture
flourished by recycling human wastes into crop land.
The opposing camp, particularly in Europe, had ambiguous feelings
about human waste -- was it valuable fertilizer or was it a nasty
and embarrassing problem to get rid of?
most euIn Europe, a pattern evolved: The first stage was urinating and
defecating on the ground near dwellings. As population density
increased, this became intolerable and the community pit
evolved. For privacy, this evolved into the pit privy or
"outhouse" -- a privacy structure atop a hole in the ground.
Despite what many people may think, the pit privy is not
environmentally sound -- it deprives the soil of the nutrients in
excrement, and by concentrating wastes it promotes pollution of
groundwater by those same nutrients.
Before the advent of piped water in the late 18th century,
European towns stored excreta in cesspools (lined pits with some
drainage of liquids) or in vault privies (tight tanks without any
drainage). The "night soil" was removed by "scavengers" and was
either taken to farms, or dumped into pits in the ground or into
rivers. In general, Europeans never developed a clear and
consistent perception of the nutrient value of excrement, as
Asians had done.
In ancient Rome, the wealthy elite had indoor toilets and
running water to remove excrement via sewers. Later, European
cities developed crude sewer systems -- usually open gutters but
sometimes covered trenches along the center or sides of streets
-- though they had no running water until the 18th or even 19th
centuries. The putrefying matter in these stagnant ditches did
not move until it rained -- thus the name "storm sewers" -- and
many cities prohibited the dumping of human wastes into such
With the advent of piped water, things changed dramatically. In
this country, the first waterworks was installed in Philadelphia
in 1802 and by 1860 136 cities were enjoying piped water
systems. By 1880, the number was up to 598. With piped water,
per-capita water use increased at least 10-fold, from 3-5
gallons per person per day to 30-50 gallons per person per day
or even more.
Water piped into homes had to be piped out again. This caused
cesspools to overflow, thus increasing the problems of odors and
of water-borne diseases. To solve these problems, cesspools were
connected to the city's crude sewer systems which ran along the
streets. The result was epidemics of cholera. In Paris in 1832,
20,000 people died of cholera. Around the world, the combination
of piped water and open sewers has consistently led to outbreaks
of cholera.
To solve this problem, engineers designed closed sewer systems,
pipes using water as the vehicle for carrying away excrement.
This solution engendered a debate among engineers: some wanted
to return sewage to agricultural land, others argued that "water
purifies itself" and wanted to pipe sewage straight into lakes,
rivers, and oceans. By 1910, the debate was over and sewage was
being dumped into water bodies on a grand scale.
In the cities, cholera epidemics abated. However, cities drawing
their drinking water downstream from sewage discharges began
having outbreaks of typhoid. This engendered another debate:
whether to treat sewage before dumping it into water bodies used
for drinking, or whether to filter drinking water. Public health
officials favored treating sewage before dumping it; sanitary
engineers favored dumping sewage raw and filtering water before
drinking. The engineers prevailed. As cities began to filter and
disinfect their drinking water, typhoid abated.
Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. and Europe industrialized
rapidly. Industry developed a huge demand for low-cost waste
disposal, and sewers were the cheapest place to dump because the
public was paying. As the pressure for greater waste disposal
capacity increased, industrialized nations allocated vast sums
of money to construct centralized sewer systems to serve the
combined needs of homes and factories.
As a result, the nutrients in excrement became mixed with
industrial wastes, many of them toxic. So by the 1950s,
essentially every body of water receiving piped wastes was badly
polluted with a combination of excessive nutrients and
toxicants. This led to a demand to treat wastes before dumping
them into water. Thus began the "treatment" phase of the "get
rid of it" approach to human waste.
As centralized sewer systems evolved, first came "primary
treatment." This consists of mechanically screening out the dead
cats and other "floatables." All other nutrients and toxic
chemicals remain in the waste water that is discharged to a
river or ocean.
Next came "secondary treatment" which speeds up the biological
decomposition of wastes by forcing oxygen into them, by
promoting bacterial growth, and by other means. This is an
energy-intensive process and therefore expensive. Unfortunately,
it, too, leaves many of the nutrients and toxic chemicals in the
discharge water.
[The Congressional Research Service recently estimated that the
federal government spent $69.5 billion on centralized sewage
treatment plants, 1973-1999.
Despite this huge expenditure, the Congressional Research
Service said in 1999, "States report that municipal discharges
are the second leading source of water quality impairment in all
of the nation's waters (rivers and streams, lakes, and estuaries
and coastal waters). Pollutants associated with municipal
discharges include nutrients..., bacteria and other pathogens, as
well as metals and toxic chemicals from industrial and
commercial activities and households."[2]]
To the extent that primary and secondary treatment are
successful, they move nutrients and toxicants (combined) into a
new form: sludge. Sludge is the de-watered, sticky black "cake"
created in large quantities by modern sewage treatment plants.
Sludge contains everything that can go down the drains in homes
and industries and which a treatment plant is able to get back
In the FEDERAL REGISTER November 9, 1990, U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency describes sludge this way:
"The chemical composition and biological constituents of the
sludge depend upon the composition of the wastewater entering
the treatment facilities and the subsequent treatment processes.
Typically, these constituents may include volatiles, organic
solids, nutrients, disease-causing pathogenic organisms (e.g.,
bacteria, viruses, etc.), heavy metals and inorganic ions, and
toxic organic chemicals from industrial wastes, household
chemicals, and pesticides."
Industry is currently using 70,000 different chemicals in
commercial quantities; any of these may appear in sludge. About
1000 new chemicals come into commercial use each year, so any of
these, too, may appear in sludge. A description of the toxicants
that may be found in sludge would fill several books. The U.S.
General Accounting Office has reported -- not surprisingly --
that municipal sludge contains radioactive wastes (from both
medical and military sources).[3]
With hundreds of sewage treatment plants producing toxic sludge
in mountainous quantities, the next question was, what in the
world to do with it?
For many years, coastal cities dumped sewage sludge into the
oceans, where it created large "dead zones" that could not
support marine life. Other communities dumped their sludge into
landfills, where it could pollute their groundwater. Still
others incinerated their sludge, thus creating serious air
pollution problems, then landfilled the remaining ash or simply
heaped the ash on the ground for the wind to disperse.
In 1988 Congress outlawed the ocean dumping of sewage sludge. At
this point, many communities faced a real waste crisis. There
was no safe (or even sensible) place to put the mountains of
toxic sludge that are generated every day by centralized sewage
treatment systems.
It was at this point in history that U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) -- feeling tremendous pressure to
"solve" the sludge disposal problem -- discovered that sewage
sludge is really "night soil" -- the nutrient-rich product that
has fertilized crops in Asia for several thousand years. EPA
decided that the expedient thing to do with sewage sludge was to
plow it into the land.
Shortly after 1992, when the ban on ocean dumping went into
effect, EPA renamed toxic sludge "beneficial biosolids," and
began aggressively campaigning to sell it to the American people
as fertilizer. (See REHW #561.)
[To be continued]
[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.
[2] U.S. General Accounting Office, NUCLEAR REGULATION; ACTION
PLANTS [GAO/RCED-94-133 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General
Accounting Office, May 1994).
BACKGROUND [98-323 ENR] (Washington, D.C.: Congressional
Research service, January 20, 1999). Available at: http://-
www.cnie.org/nle/h2o-29.html .
Descriptor terms: human waste; history; histories; wastewater
treatment; potws; abby a. rockefeller; resource institute;
sewage sludge;
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Peter Anderson
RecycleWorlds Consulting
4513 Vernon Blvd. Ste. 15
Madison, WI 53705-4964
Phone:(608) 231-1100/Fax: (608) 233-0011