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The Big Necessity -- Water and Waste Reuse and Effective Reclamation

Sanitation, water and waste infrastructure bridge personal and global sustainability challenges

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The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

by Rose George

"The most unforgettable book to pass through the publishing pipeline in years.”—Mary Roach, author of Stiff


"This engaging, highly readable book puts sanitation in its proper place—as a central challenge in human development. Rose George has tackled this critical topic with insight, wit, and a storyteller’s flair."—Louis Boorstin, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
"Rose George has trolled the gutters of the world for the predictable low-matter and come up with something weirdly spiritual. Worship the porcelain god, revere its ubiquity and protest its absence: George reveals that the act of private and sanitary defecation is the key to health, the wealth of nations, and even civilization itself."—Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain

Produced behind closed doors, disposed of discreetly, and hidden by euphemism, bodily waste is something common to all and as natural as breathing, yet we prefer not to talk about it. But we should—even those of us who take care of our business in pristine, sanitary conditions. For it’s not only in developing countries that human waste is a major public health threat: population growth is taxing even the most advanced sewage systems, and the disease spread by waste kills more people worldwide every year than any other single cause of death. Even in America, 1.95 million people have no access to an indoor toilet. Yet the subject remains unmentionable.

The Big Necessity takes aim at the taboo, revealing everything that matters about how people do—and don’t—deal with their own waste. Moving from the deep underground sewers of Paris, London, and New York—an infrastructure disaster waiting to happen—to an Indian slum where ten toilets are shared by 60,000 people, Rose George stops along the way to explore the potential saviors: China’s five million biogas digesters, which produce energy from waste; the heroes of third world sanitation movements; the inventor of the humble Car Loo; and the U.S. Army’s personal lasers used by soldiers to zap their feces in the field.

With razor-sharp wit and crusading urgency, mixing levity with gravity, Rose George has turned the subject we like to avoid into a cause with the most serious of consequences.

Water is a fixed commodity. Period.

At any time in history, the planet contains about 332 million cubic miles of it. Most is salty.

Only 2 percent is freshwater and two-thirds of that is unavailable for human use, locked in snow, ice, and permafrost. That leaves less than .5% for daily human, animal and plant use.

We are using the same water that the dinosaurs drank, and this same water has to make ice creams in Pasadena and the morning frost in Paris. It is limited, and it is being wasted.

Water Use Timeline

In 2000, twice as much water was used throughout the world as in 1960.

By 2050, half of the planet's projected 8.9 billion people will live in countries that are chronically short of water.

But usage is only part of the problem. We are wasting our water mostly by putting waste into it.

Waste Water Impact

One cubic meter of wastewater can pollute ten cubic meters of water. Discharging wastewater into oceans turns freshwater into the less useful salty stuff, and desalination is expensive.

Water cleansing techniques include:

  • ultrafiltration
  • reverse osmosis
  • UV disinfection

Toilets already are connected to taps with a couple stops in-between. Countless human settlements take their drinking water from the same sources into which other countless human settlements discharge their raw or treated sewage.

Not having wastewater—and not wasting water—would be better still.

Eco-San Toilets for Local Sanitation Processing

Devotees of ecological sanitation—"eco-san"—think that composting or urine-diverting toilets are the solution. Though it only makes up 5 percent of the flow, urine contains 80 percent of the nitrogen and 45 percent of the phosphorus that has to be removed at treatment works. Separating it at source would cut down treatment processes and costs. A urine-separation toilet also cuts water use by 80 percent.

  • eco-san: urine-separation toilet

Done properly, eco-san turns waste into safe, sowable goodness. Done properly, there's little argument against it. It is sustainable. It closes the nutrient loop, which sewers and wastewater treatment plants have torn open by throwing everything into rivers and the sea, damaging water and depriving land of fertilizer.

If done wrong, eco-san can leave pathogens in the composted or dehydrated excreta. Even if done well, it may not get rid of worm eggs.

Advanced human waste technologies:

  • composting latrines
  • waste stabilization ponds

Waste treatment using water as the fluid power system requires massive infrastructures of pipes and sewage-treatment plants. A large sewage-treatment plant uses a quarter of the energy of a coal-fired power station.

People are looking for ways to invest in wastewater treatment, and as the price of resources and mining natural resources such as nitrogen and phosphorous increase, the profit margins can increase. Once costs go up, people change their behaviors...and their technology choices.

Germany and Sweden are the two leading eco-san nations.

But there are collateral challenges to solve. The community challenge is not just about diverting waste from water-based pipes.

Hospital pharmaceuticals in wastewater will be the next headache. In a recent investigation, the city of Philadelphia utility found 90 percent of the drugs it tested for, including evidence of medicines used for heart disease, mental illness, epilepsy, and asthma.

"We've invested so much in conventional sewerage. There are many economic interests tangled up in it. It depends on what politicians dare to do. Maybe it will take another fifty years to reach a sustainable system. But things can happen. Fifteen years ago I was considered a romantic scientist. Now I'm chairman of the national Water Association," says George.

Sanitation begins at home.

2.6 billion people without a toilet isn't funny.

The average human being spends three years of life going to the toilet. That's another cultural impact.

Elimination of human waste is a human behavior that is as revealing as any other about human nature, but only if it can be released from the social straitjacket of nicety. Rules governing defecation, hygiene, and pollution exist in every culture at every period in history.

Toilet training is the first attempt to turn a child into an acceptable member of society. Appropriateness and propriety begin with a potty.

Quotable Culture

Indian sanitarian Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, "defecation is very lowly." Yet when discussing it, he continued, "one ends up discussing the whole spectrum of human behavior, national economy, politics, role of media, cultural preference and so forth."

And that's a partial list. That list is missing biology, psychology, chemistry, language.

It is missing everything that touches upon understanding what the development academic William Cummings called "the lonely bewilderment of bodily functions."

Mohandas K. Gandhi, though he spent his life working towards ridding India of its colonial rulers, nonetheless declared that sanitation was more important than independence.

The great architect Le Corbusier considered it to be "one of the most beautiful objects industry has ever invented"

Rudyard Kipling found sewers more compelling than literature.

Anton Chekhov was moved to write about the dreadful sanitation in the far-Eastern Russian isle of Sakhalin.

Sigmund Freud thought the study of excretion essential and its neglect a stupidity.

"If the cultural standing of excrement doesn't convince them, I say that the material itself is as rich as oil and probably more useful. It contains nitrogen and phosphates, which can make plants grow but also suck the life from water because its nutrients absorb available oxygen. It can be both food and poison. It can contaminate and cultivate. Millions of people cook with gas made by fermenting it." Rose George


Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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