I have thought a lot about waste since we started The Field project. Of course we built a compost toilet within the first year and using one, defecating and urinating into a place which isn’t then flushed away is an odd feeling: waste that stays, instead of waste that flows.

Outfall_2_sm(image from US website http://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/tracing_wastewater.html)

Waste that, over time, becomes something else, something useable:
shit that becomes compost.

This makes me think of all the phosphates we literally wash down the toilet and the utter waste of  both shit and fresh water that is the foundation of our modern sanitation systems.

* * * * *

A few years ago, a friend and colleague told me about the history of sanitation in London and it’s a surprising story for many reasons. Firstly, the use of water this way is a very recent innovation. It was only in the mid-C19th that a flush system was invented. Up until then, there was the ‘night soil man’ who took away a household’s faeces, or the shit just flowed into the river. In the case of London, shit flowed into the Thames and the general flow of the Thames meant that shit from the rich, upstream in the West, flowed to the areas where the poor lived downstream in the East. This arrangement was deemed perfectly ok until The Great Stink of 1858 when shit accumulated around the Houses of Parliament and the smell became so offensive that a bill was quickly passed to create a sanitation system for London. What Sir Joseph William Bazalgette decided to do was use the various fresh water rivers of London to wash through the newly built sewers.

Very ingenious
—   and very enduring
—-   only recently has there been a need to update the sewerage system of London
but it set a worldwide precedent.

This became the predominant modern method for the disposal of shit and it’s clear to me that what might work for London, a place of relatively high and consistent rainfall throughout the year with a number of fast-moving rivers, may not work where fresh water is more rare and more intermittent or monsoonal. Looking at our compost toilet,
[I’ll remember to photograph it one day and upload it]
I’m not even sure it was the best solution for London, however truly revolting the job of night soil man must have been.


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