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A Different Way of Dealing with Our Bathroom Waste

  • Will Allen's Speech at March 4, 2010 San Francisco Sludge Dump
    By Will Allen
    Organic Consumers Association, March 4, 2010
    Straight to the Source

Many of us have spent years fighting the dumping of toxic sewage sludge on California farmland. In the 1990s, when Pima Gro began to dump sludge on cotton farms in the Central Valley, we at the Sustainable Cotton Project, tried to stop them or at least get them to register the land where toxic sludge was applied. Fortunately, regulations now require the registration of farmland applications of sewage sludge. Unfortunately, the records of the applications are still not available to the public. Since both the EPA and the big environmental NGOs came out in favor of sewage sludge being dumped on farms, we have seen little data and have been outmaneuvered and shouted down-even by some of our theoretical allies in the environmental movement.

Public Spending on Sewers and Treatment Plants

Almost everyone agrees that the U.S. system of sewers and treatment plants are in serious need of repair or replacements, in spite of recent huge investments in maintenance and updates. Non-federal state and local spending on waste systems and sewers was $841 billion from 1991 to 2005, or an average of $56 billion every year since 1991. By contrast, congress has only approved $77 billion on sewage facilities since 1972. Clearly, states and municipalities have carried the heaviest part of the sewage removal and treatment costs. In spite of all this investment we still have a very dangerous and antiquated sewage system that regularly fouls our waterways, basements, and our drinking water with raw sewage. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's sewage and wastewater facilities a D-.

Many of the sewer systems in major cities such as New York, Boston and San Francisco have sewer systems that were built by our great grandfathers. Many systems have reached the end of their useful life. During heavy rains and substantial snowmelts these systems chronically overflow raw sewage into rivers, the ocean, and into groundwater basins. The EPA estimated in 2004 that 850 billion gallons of sewage leaked into waterways per year from storm runoff and another 10 billion gallons of raw sewage enters the waterways from blocked or broken pipes.

The EPA determined in 2002 that more than $390 billion would be required to patch-up and/or replace these inefficient waste sewage facilities. Congress in 2008 decided that we needed at least $202 billion in federal funding to fix and improve the existing publicly owned waste disposal and treatment facilities.

Should we fix these relics, or rethink our waste management dogmas? If they are so decrepit, why keep putting patches on a broken system?

Up till now it has been considered fiscally responsible to fix the old system and pray that there will not be heavy rains, snow, or floods. We could keep plugging the holes in our sewers with band-aids like we have been doing for the last 150 years, but no matter what we seem to do they always foul roads, waterways, and drinking water with large amounts of raw human feces, and urine.

A Different Way of Looking at Human Waste Disposal

We need to stop seeing human waste as a disposal problem. We need to think of feces and urine as resources. They are both very valuable plant fertilizers and could greatly offset our dependence on synthetic nitrogen, mined phosphorous, phosphates, and sulfur. So, what if we kept our poop and piss on site and periodically sold it or recycled it to a local recycler?

Lets say there are 150,000,000 residences in the U.S. If we spent $2000 on each household installing a composting toilet, that would cost about $300 billion. This would eliminate the off site movement of raw sewage, which has never been accomplished without periodic spillage. The cost for the composting toilets is significantly less than the EPA estimate (by $90 billion) to fix the outmoded and inefficient sewage disposal and treatment facilities. With composting toilets, human fertilizer becomes a valuable resource for the community and for farmers, instead of the toxic waste disposal nightmare that we have now.

U.S. consumers are leery of fertilizers made from their own poop, but what they don't know is that more than 70 million acres per year in the U.S. are fertilized with toxic sludge from sewage treatment plants. Of course, most Americans don't know that they are eating food grown with this toxic sludge. Most of the public doesn't realize that the sludge is toxic waste and commonly has high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, copper, zinc, resistant bacteria and viruses, flame retardants, pesticides, medical waste, and a host of other noxious products. Apparently, even Mayor Newsom does not know this.

This toxicity comes from hospitals, factories, oil, and chemical industries and every other polluter who dumps their toxic load into the public sewers. The only solution to this rampant industrial and medical dumping is to collect our manures and urines at our homes and apartments. Without the publicly financed sewers and treatment plants each industrial or medical facility would be required to manage their own waste instead of contaminating human sewage with their toxins.  

There are several pilot projects using composting toilets in this country and in other countries, including well-developed projects in Oregon, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, and even Mongolia. Mayor Newsom of San Francisco ignored the precautionary principle, didn't do his homework on sludge, and blindly advocated for the use and public giveaway of a toxic waste. Do your homework Mr. mayor and then rethink the sludge issue. Stop the public sludge giveaways and the farmland applications. We need long-term solutions. We advocate for the mayor to follow the lead of several other green communities and develop a composting toilet project in San Francisco if he really wants to be the green mayor. If Mongolia can do it, can't San Francisco?

Will Allen is a farmer, community organizer, activist, and writer who farms in Vermont.  He is on the Policy Advisory Board of the Organic Consumers Association. His first book, The War on Bugs, was published by Chelsea Green in 2008. His website is www.thewaronbugsbook.com the farm website is www.cedarcirclefarm.org

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