Can we come up with a better way?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways I can reduce my ecological footprint and I have some ideas.

I’ve been reading ‘Water, A Turbulent History’ by Stephen Halliday, a book I randomly found in the library. I was looking for books on how to improve my house’s energy efficiency in the engineering section and I found a history book. I was intrigued by the title so I signed it out. How he describes water pollution by sewage got me thinking.

In 1357, King Edward III decreed ‘no man shall take any manner of rubbish, earth, gravel or dung out of his stables or elsewhere to throw and put the same into rivers Thames or Fleet’. Due to this attitude, up until the early 1800’s, the Thames and its tributaries remained reasonably clear of pollution.

In London during these times, human waste was removed by dedicated workers called ‘nightsoilmen’. These men carted away the waste at night and sold it to farmers as manure. Apparently, they earned a decent pay for their work. Then things changed for the nightsoilmen. Competition was introduced when bird guano was imported from South America, starting about 1840. The guano was easier to work with for the farmers and had less of a smell. About this time, having a water closet in your home became a status symbol.

Water closets were invented in the 16th century by Sir John Harington, who made two. One of which was given to Queen Elizabeth I. She didn’t like it because the loudness of the flushing announced to everyone when she used it. Without a royal stamp of approval, the water closet became a neglected idea until early in the nineteenth century.

When a water closet is flushed there is only a little ‘waste’ for 10-20 times the volume of water. The nightsoilmen found this wet waste hard to collect and transport and the farmers no longer wanted it. Cesspools now overflowed into the waterway, polluting them. Cholera epidemics followed and ultimately sewer systems were built.

So now what was once composted (and likely still is in many parts of the world) is now diluted with water and washed away through dedicated pipes buried beneath the ground by gas guzzling equipment. Sewage ultimately ends up at a dedicated treatment plant of some sort that no one wants to be a neighbour to. At any point a leak could pollute our water ways and in many places this has happened. There must be a solution for urban dwellers that doesn’t require fancy infrastructure or lots of a critical resource such as water. I realize human waste can carry disease, but is watering it down and flushing it away the best way to deal with it?

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