Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The bottom line on remains of the day
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So I’m at this dinner party, Saturday, and the conversation turns to shite. Which can happen. Dinners can be duds. But not this one, a large, gemutlich gathering of high-functioning types – doctors, lawyers, physicists, artists, public servants, the odd ratbag writer.
Yet, repeatedly, the conversation takes this faecal turn. Other topics bob up, as it were, but as I float from group to group much of the evening is spent talking, well, shite. So consistent is this pattern, you’d almost take it for a themed party.
Which perhaps, in an in-one-end-out-the-other sort of way, any dinner is. But this more than most, since the house is one of those autonomous inner-city jobs, where all waste – most notably all, in the euphemism, “human waste” – stays on site.
Within metres of where the oysters and bouillabaisse are being served, the champagne popped and the desserts flambéed, a pretty little reed-bed that looks innocent of any purpose except to fill the night with the honking of uptown frogs, is industriously re-digesting our digestive remains.
It dawns on me this bijou wetland, no bigger than your Darlo dining room or Castle Hill dining table, is what the guests share. One way or another we’re all linked to how this narrow row-house has excommunicated itself from the support systems (water, power, sewage) that make cities both necessary and possible.
The wetland produces water and solids; for 14 years its water has done laundry, toilet and garden while the solids nourish veggies. People remark on the absence of smell and sound. Science attests the health of the soil.
So why, we guests wonder, is this house – the distributed grid made manifest – such a rarity? “When I grew up in rural China,” muses one guest, an elegant female health administrator, “farmers always spread sewage on the fields. Why can’t we do it here?”
After all, it’s plain Australian soils need all the help they can get, many of us (catering to real or imagined deficiencies) religiously ingest imported or synthetic vitamins and minerals, human waste is a rich nutrient source, and recycling is nature’s first principle. Yet most of us turn up our noses at using even dog-poo as fertiliser, much less the human variant.
Sanitation professionals – says Rose George in The Big Necessity; the Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters – divide cultures into the faeco-philiac and the faeco-phobic. India, excepting cow-dung, is the latter. China is the former. China has fertilised with human excrement for 4000 years.
This regard for excrement as treasure no doubt explains the dearth of scatological swear words in Chinese languages. Now it is taking another turn, as movements like the Shaanxi Mothers Environmental Protection Volunteer Organisation in Yan’an gradually replace traditional backyard long-drop and bucket latrines with anaerobic digesters.
The digesters produce biogas – mostly methane, with some CO2 and a whiff of hydrogen sulphide – used for cooking, lighting and electricity generation. In a province suffering desertification from felling trees for fuel, the eco-benefits are patent. As well, the solid residue offers a far safer fertiliser than raw sewage. Villagers find themselves producing better crops, healthier children (fewer latrine-borne diseases), more money (lower energy and health costs) and, in some cases for the first time, leisure.
Lille, in France, runs a bus fleet on excreta-generated biogas. Even in sanitation-obsessed America, over a third of new houses come with on-site sewage disposal systems. With active support from the Environmental Protection Agency, some 60 million US households are now off-grid, sewage-wise, and a similar increase, on a much smaller scale, is taking place in eco-conscious New Zealand.
Here we remain staunchly faeco-phobic. Although some 2 million people use on-site wastewater disposal (such as septic tanks), these are still generally seen as a B-grade option, to be replaced by “proper” sewers.
Yet attitudes are changing. The Australian and New Zealand Biosolids Partnership reports some 270,000 tonnes of bio-solids – about 60 per cent of our total – are strewn across Australian fields annually, with a further 5 per cent used for compost. It concurs, further, with US findings, that when regulations are followed, “there is no scientific evidence of any toxic effect to soil organisms, plants … or to humans (via acute effects or bio-accumulation) … [or] of illness caused by biosolids”.
Some people believe, probably wrongly on the evidence, sewage mining – extracting minerals, metals, even precious metals – will resource the future. But using it instead of Dynamic Lifter (to which it is roughly nutritionally equivalent) saves petrochemicals, zooplankton and money.
And it goes past biology. As Kundera famously noted, our steadfast ignorance “of the invisible Venice of shit underlying our bathrooms, bedrooms, dance halls, and parliaments” steeps us in kitsch. Worse, I’d say, it denies us both our regard for our bodies as high-design recycling devices and our reverence for nature’s essential gift, which is, shit happens.