Book Review: The Big Necessity

A couple of months ago, I was watching the city of Austin’s Dare to Go Zero tv program, which features families competing with each other to create the least amount of waste judged by weighing the bags in their trash bin. Two of the families had diaper-age children, and to to reduce their waste one family switched to reusable diapers. The other switched to flushables. It was shocking to me to see flushable diapers being used as a “green” alternative to the regular disposables. Either way, they’re waste. Isn’t it the same thing?

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Hoping to find out what happens to everything we flush down the toilet I checked out Rose George’s book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters. She takes us on a tour of the sewers, into water treatment plants, to smart toilet facilities, and to areas where people rely on other methods than flush toilets for handling their wastes. George begins on this happy note:

Ninety percent of the world’s sewage ends up untreated in oceans, rivers, and lakes, and a fair share comes from the sanitary cities supplied with sewers and treatment plants. Sanitation in the Western world is built from pipes and on presumption. Despite the technology, the engineers and the ingenuity of modern sanitary systems, despite the shine of progress and flush toilets, even the richest, best-equipped humans still don’t know what to do with sewage except move it somewhere else and hope no one notices when it’s poured untreated into drinking water sources. And they don’t.

The first stop George takes us on is an inside look at the sewers. Other than the massive blockages caused by grease sent down the drains and random stuff discarded into the sewers (for example a grenade), she doesn’t make it seem all that bad.

This is not a bad odor. It’s musty, cloying, and damp, but it doesn’t stink. It’s diluted after all. Without water, the average human produces 77 pounds of excrement and 132 gallons of urine a year. Add toilet flushes, and the total jumps to 4,000 gallons. Thanks to the WC, the flow is 98 percent water.

Of course, today the human waste is just one part of the equation when it comes to the disgustingness of what goes down our drains.

By the end of the century sludge contained far more than pure human excrement, and hardly any of it good. Anything that gets into the sewers can end up in sludge. U.S. industry is estimated to use 100,000 chemicals, with 1,000 new chemicals being added each year…. Sludge may contain pathogens from all sorts of sources.

And all of this, she explains, eventually comes back to us. The Great Stink of 1858 where the Thames was literally full of crap. Any flooding where the sewers cannot handle the added capacity of rain water draining into them and end up overflowing. Areas where people use the street as a toilet so it gets around with ease. (Most areas you hear about where there’s no clean water, guess why.) Even when the waste has been treated, the result often ends up going right back to our own drinking water source.

After reading about this I had to look it up and sure enough, treated sewage in Austin is returned to the Colorado River, where our drinking water comes from. The sludge goes another route, over to Hornsby Bend, for further treatment and composting together with our yard waste pickup to become Dillo Dirt. This is the good Class A stuff, not the barely processed Class B sludge that winds up on some farms in areas which suspiciously have higher frequencies of many diseases, as discussed in the book. And it’s a good thing too. As a firm believer in not letting things go to waste, I have some Dillo Dirt in a couple of my garden beds right now.

Ever wonder what happens after you flush the toilet? Preparing for a trip somewhere with other toilet customs? Considering a composting toilet for your home? If you have any interest in how to take care of your business, The Big Necessity is a must-read. And if you haven’t checked out your copy from the library, it just might make great material for reading on the john.

Afternote: The book never mentioned flushable diapers as it’s from 2008–almost a decade ago–when flushable diapers had just barely been introduced. After doing a bit more research, though, I was happily surprised to realize that it’s only the liners that are flushed. (Not sure how I thought whole diapers could be flushed, guess the name threw me.) By no means do they break down as easily as toilet paper, but toilets seem to handle them if they’re swished around in the bowl a bit before flushing. And the human waste ends up in the right place. So they may not be perfect, probably aren’t the best things to put in your pipes, and may not be appropriate for areas that experience drought, but they’re definitely not as bad as my first impression.

Book Review: Junkyard Planet

I love reading books about waste, so it should come as no surprise that I recently picked up a copy of Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade at the library.

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In my head, when I saw the word “junkyard” I was thinking “landfill” but it’s not about that at all. This is about junkyards in the old fashioned sense of the word–junk to someone but valuable resources to someone else–and would be more appropriately named Scrapyard Planet.

The book begins with a bold statement:

[I]f what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

The author Minter was raised with a junkyard as the family business and for many years afterwards reported on the scrap business in China, so he may be a bit biased. But he knows his stuff and elaborates on how even something like a broken strand of Christmas lights, which no one here would think of as more than trash, really does have value. In Shinjiao, a.k.a. the Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capital of the World, the copper is extracted from the strands for reuse and even the plastic can be salvaged when it is worth enough. So much depends on the current market.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what happens to your recycling, read this book. It explains why it’s usually cheaper (and possibly greener) to ship recycling to China rather than doing so locally, and also why many Chinese villages are eager for this kind of business despite the inherent health and environmental problems. Plus, there are several happy highlights where what could be recycled is actually salvaged and reused instead, saving the costs of remanufacturing something into the same exact thing.

One of the most shocking parts for me, though, was how cell phones don’t get reused if they’re more than a few years old, even if they’re in good condition. In many cases the chips and other parts can still be salvaged, but no one wants a dated phone these days. It must have been just my wishful thinking that assumed only Americans were like that.

Minter himself realizes that reuse is superior to recycling and not just because you can make more money off of it (although that helps). In the closing section he even goes so far as to promote reducing, the first of the 3 R’s:

Above all, though, I encourage people to think about what it means to recycle, and make smart choices as a consumer before you buy that thing you’ll eventually toss out. Recycling is a morally complicated act.

After reading this, I’m glad I skipped this Christmas lights this year. It would be nice to do something to decorate, but it’ll have to be with materials that are easily reusable or recyclable. Things that I can fix myself if they break. Using your creativity grows your creativity. Although if I come across a soda can laying on the ground, that’s definitely going straight in the bin. Recycled beats new any day.