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Everyone Poops
Alex Steffen, 17 Jan 04

Poo. Nightsoil. Waste. Feces. Despite the fact that everyone poops, our bodily waste is not a subject we're much given to wanting to discuss.

But if we're trying to create a sustainable world, it's a subject we can't avoid. As Peter Warshall used to say, the environmental movement won't really be relevant until it's ready to talk shit. Some academics think that agreements over how to handle waste are some of civilization's most fundamental. A society in which human waste is mishandled is a society which threatens its citizens' health, environmental well-being, and dignity.

Unfortunately, that's precisely the situation in most of the world. Enormous numbers of people have no safe, sustainable, dignified way to potty. Enormous numbers of others are using outdated, unsustainable sewage systems which are costly, wasteful and if not run absolutely correctly, highly dangerous - and in much of the developing world, sewage systems, where they exist at all, are overburdened and falling apart.

Indeed, the recently-elected president of the International Water Association, Michael Rouse, believes that sewage systems are a technology whose time has passed:

"Mr Rouse is not against the United Nations drive to halve the number of people without fresh water and sanitation by 2015 - a target agreed at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg last August - but on his calculations this target means providing these services to 140,000 new people every day, a huge task which he considers impossible by traditional means.

"Mr Rouse believes that instead of grandiose schemes that take years to plan and implement, there should be a concentration on community-led programmes. While fresh water could be piped in for drinking, cooking and washing, new style, locally made toilets, which separate solid waste from the liquids, could take care of sanitation. Reed beds or similar natural methods could clean the water before it is allowed to flow into the ground.

"If we started sanitation again from scratch in Britain, we would not do it the way we do now," he said. "Instead of flushing and piping all the waste away, we would collect the solids once a week like household rubbish, take it to a central depot and compost it. "

There's good work being done out there promoting well-designed traditional latrines, composting toilets and the like, and new innovations. There's still more work needed, though, to create easily-distributable systems which are simple, low-cost, more efficient and safer - particularly in crowded megacities, where installing a whole alternative system of waste management is no small task, but where the inherited sewer systems are often breaking down completely.

Poop: the bold, if somewhat unmentionable, frontier of sustainability.
(Thanks, Carol!)

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One of my eco-hero-mentors when I was just out of college lived in a house in Olympia, WA that had an indoor electric composting toilet. It was really cool -- but so large that you actually had to step up onto the seat. They called it "The Throne" because that's what it most resembled.

I don't know why I'm telling you this, probably because every time someone says "composting toilet" all I can think of is "The Throne." And I'm not saying that it wasn't worthy of being worshipped. After all, it could turn poop into fertilizer.

Posted by: Jon Stahl on 18 Jan 04



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