Crap happens: A Grist special report on how we dispose of our poop
Tom Twigg / GristThree hundred million Americans head to the restroom multiple times a day. The amount of sludge produced staggers the mind — 7 million dry tons per year and counting. And it’s not even just crap — it contains residues from everything else we put down the drain, from the detergent in your dishwasher to the chemicals used at the industrial plant down the street.
Can the United States continue to flush all that waste down the drain? Can Western-style sanitary practices be replicated throughout the developing world without breaking the natural water and nutrient cycles? And what if the answer is that each one of us needs to start taking more responsibility for where our crap winds up? It ain’t easy being green as it is, but even the most diehard enviros may not be ready to live under the same roof with a composting toilet.
Journalist Catherine Price, a contributing editor at Popular Science and a 2008 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Reporting, gives a crap about crap. Over the course of three days, she’ll take Grist readers on a guided tour through the bowels of sewage. So grab some extra toilet paper and get ready for some straight poop on poop.
Stories in this series:
Biosolids are regulated under what’s known colloquially (to those who speak colloquially about sewage) as the 503 Sludge Rule, which came into effect in 1993. Technically titled “40 CFR 503 — Standards for the Use and Disposal of Sewage Sludge,” it’s complicated enough that EPA came out with a “Plain English” guide to help make sense of the rule’s requirements and details. It’s not light reading, so here are the basics: The most recent version of the 503 rule regulates seven heavy metals in sludge. It also divides biosolids into two categories for land application, Class A and Class B, …
Sludge, farmer’s friend or toxic slime?
Should what we put down our sewers ultimately wind up back on our plates?Marc Samsom via Flickr Urine, feces, menstrual blood, hair, fingernails, vomit, dead skin cells. Industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, soaps, shampoos, solvents, pesticides, household cleansers, hospital waste. Sewage sludge, the viscous brown gunk left over when wastewater is treated, is more than just poop: it’s an odiferous smoothie of everything we pour down the drain. There are pathogens; there are heavy metals. PCBs, dioxins, DDT, asbestos, polio, parasitic worms, radioactive material — all have been found in sludge. Despite pretreatment programs that prevent some of the most noxious stuff …
Businesses struggle to profit from sewage sludge
Part 2 of Grist’s special series on poop. “We’re trying to get the pieces bigger — ideally the size of pencil erasers,” said John “Rus” Miller, handing me a plastic packet of a brown, dry, crumbly material with the texture of couscous and the odor of manure. That’s because it was manure — in the form of dried sewage sludge. To me, it looked and smelled like shit. But when Miller looked at the pellets, he saw coal. I was visiting a company named Enertech‘s plant in Rialto, California, because I was searching for alternatives for what we currently do …
For some eco-pioneers, solving the sludge problem means getting their hands dirty
Part 3 of Grist’s special series on poop. Laura Allen, a 33-year-old teacher from Oakland, California, has a famous toilet. To be honest, it’s actually a box, covered in decorative ceramic tiles, sitting on the cement floor of her bathroom like a throne. No pipes lead to or from it; instead, a bucket full of shavings from a local wood shop rests on the box next to the seat with a note instructing users to add a scoopful after making their “deposit.” Essentially an indoor outhouse, it’s a composting toilet, a sewerless system that Allen uses to collect her household’s …