December 2004: Waste Not, Want Not

One of our most precious resources flushed down the drain
December 1, 2004

Nearly a century ago, when Dr. F. H. King visited China, Japan and Korea, he found that the “fertilizer” used by their farmers to produce bountiful crops was human excrement. In his 1911 book about Asian agriculture, Farmers of Forty Centuries, he related how contractors in Shanghai were paid to enter residences and public places each morning to remove the “night soil,” which was then transported to rural areas to nurture farmers’ fields. Thus enriched, the agricultural lands in the three Asian countries had remained fertile for 4,000 years.

Dr. King described human waste as “the lifeblood of Oriental agriculture.”

Earlier still, in 1862, the great French novelist Victor Hugo deplored that country’s failure to utilize human excrement as manure. His lament can be found in one of the chapters of his masterpiece Les Miserables titled The Entrails of the Monster or The Intestines of a Leviathan, depending on the English translation. It’s worth quoting at length:

“Paris pours 25 million francs a year into the sea. That is no metaphor. She does so by day and by night, thoughtlessly and to no purpose. She does so through her entrails, that is to say, her sewers.

“Science today knows that the most efficacious of all manures is human excrement. The Chinese, be it said to our shame, knew it before us. No Chinese peasant goes to town without bringing back, at either end of his bamboo pole, two buckets filled with unmentionable matter; and it is thanks to this human manure that the Chinese earth is as fruitful today as in the days of Abraham. The Chinese can harvest amounts to 120 times the amount of seed. No guano can be compared in fertility with the droppings of a town. To use the town to manure the country is to ensure prosperity.

“But what do we do with our golden dung? We throw it away. The human manure which is thus lost to the world because it is dumped into the sea instead of on the land would suffice to feed all mankind.

“Do we know what this human muck and sludge really is? It is the flowering meadow, green grass, marjoram and thyme and sage, the lowing of contented cattle, the scented hay and the golden wheat, the bread on your table and the warm blood in your veins—health and joy and life.

“It has been calculated that France through her rivers pours 5 billion francs every year into the Atlantic. Such is our astuteness that we prefer to rid ourselves of this vast sum through our sewers. The result is that the land is being impoverished and the water contaminated. . . The present process does great harm in seeking to do good. The intention is good, the results lamentable.”

Hugo’s critique is all the more salient today and his argument irrefutable. With the proper use of our sewage we could replace harmful agricultural chemicals with the most nutrient-rich organic fertilizer in the world. At the same time, we could clean up the rivers and oceans that our waste has so badly polluted. We could take a giant leap toward the goal of economic and environmental sustainability.

Even if not motivated by environmental and health concerns, our political leaders should seriously consider the huge financial benefits of recycling human waste productively. What government can justify, to use Hugo’s words, “throwing gold into the river”? Yet that is precisely what we are doing.

Dr. King, on his long-ago visit to the Far East, found that the annual production of human excrement in Japan—and this was nearly 100 years ago—amounted to nearly 24 million tons, which enabled the application of 1.75 tons per acre to the country’s cultivated land. In his travels across Japan he saw many thousands of tons of “dried nitrified compost laid down in piles waiting to be fed to the soil.” He asked his interpreter if any of the inhabitants’ excrement was dumped into rivers or the sea, and received a shocked reply: “No, that would be waste. We would never throw it away. It is worth too much money.”

The notion that the reclamation of biomass (both human and animal) could be the solution of many of the world’s problems was explored by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird in their 1998 book Secrets of the Soil. They concluded that it was possible to meet all the world’s energy needs from such biomass, which can be used for the production of energy as well as food.

They estimated that the amount of human excrement produced in the United States is 12,000 pounds per second, or 518,400 tons per day—with another 25,000 pounds per second being produced by livestock. The authors described how this abundant but now largely neglected resource could be put to use to reclaim the many millions of acres of land now gone to waste. Recovered with vegetation, these tracts of land could absorb vast quantities of greenhouse gases.

Transforming sewage from a costly waste to a productive resource could not only help reverse the current rapid degradation of the planet’s habitat, but could address the many other problems of hunger, poverty, inequality, and fossil-fuel dependence that now afflict us.

Tompkins and Bird point out that ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is far superior to gasoline as an engine fuel, delivering as much power with much less pollution. Alfalfa and corn, if grown in sufficient amounts (in fields fertilized by human excrement) could produce many more millions of litres of ethanol. In addition to being a more efficient fuel than gasoline, it has the advantage of also being a renewable source of energy while oil reserves are steadily declining.

Imagine the cleaner air and water that a conversion to farm alcohol would give us. Imagine a world in which most nations and their farmers could be self-sufficient by distilling their own fuel. Imagine the benefits of eliminating oil spills in the oceans. Imagine small producers making fuel affordable for transportation, heating homes, generating electricity.

The vast potential of biomass resources has not been entirely overlooked. In Sweden, for example, the inner-city buses in the capital, Stockholm, run on ethanol, not diesel fuel, and the city’s garbage trucks are also being converted to “bio-gas” manufactured from sewage and organic wastes from restaurants. Stockholm has built a big bio-gas plant, adjacent to its sewage treatment plants, which produces bio-gas from the sewage equivalent to 180,000 gallons of gasoline—and two more bio-gas plants are in the planning stage.

The European Union as a whole is also becoming conscious of the benefits of tapping this potential source of energy and food. The EU is actively encouraging other communities to emulate Stockholm in the productive use of human biomass.

In Canada, too, several cities and towns in Western Canada, including Calgary, Alberta, and Kelowna and Vernon in B.C., acting on their own, have undertaken creative sewage recyling. Calgary, in particular, can take pride in its recycling of about 355,000 cubic metres of sewage daily, returning purified water to the Bow River and fertilizer to farms within a 60km radius of the city. The process initially involves removing waste water from the sewage through a centrifugal mechanism, purifying it through ultra-violet radiation, and returning it to the river. The remaining sludge is heated to 33°C to kill any pathological bacteria, then passed through a process that removes many of the heavy metals. What remains is a bio-solid liquid fertilizer. This is pumped into lagoons, and from there moved to “nurse” tankers. Large fertilizing machines (called Terragators) fill up from the tankers and go to farmers’ fields where they apply the sludge by injecting it 2 to 6 inches into the soil. This makes the fertilizer readily available to the roots of plants, and also reduces the smell as well as run-off. Each field gets such an injection every three years, for a total of about 7 tons per hectare.

The fields treated with the human-waste fertilizer are so much more productive and their crops so abundant that farmers are virtually lined up waiting for the product, which is supplied to them free of charge.

An added benefit of this sewage reclamation in Calgary is that the bio-gas emanating from the sludge is captured and fed to four large generators which generate 80% of all the electricity needed by the processing plants.

This is a remarkable success story, and one that puts to shame other Canadian cities such as Victoria and Halifax which still dump their raw sewage into the ocean.

The examples provided by Sweden and other European countries, as well as by Calgary, Vernon and Kelowna in Canada, should provide both motivation and inspiration for other communities—and, more urgently, for our federal and provincial governments, which continue to ignore the colossal environmental and economic waste of human biomass. Such political negligence—the damaging disposal of what could be one of our most valuable resources—is inexcusable.

(Robert Harrington—[email protected]—lives in B.C. He is the author of The Soul Solution and To Heal the Earth.)