How Sustainable Can Cities Be When They

Can't Even Deal With Their Own Shit?

A sewage treatment plant in Hamburg, Germany: The shit never looked so pretty (photo by Mark Michaelis)
A sewage treatment plant in Hamburg, Germany: The shit never looked so pretty
(photo by Mark Michaelis)

The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #3:

Just this past week the City of Toronto was informed by the Ministry of the Environment that it must now notify the public whenever water treatment plants are bypassed and raw sewage is sent into Lake Ontario. These occurrences are said to be due to heavy rains taking their toll on Toronto's "old sewer system," something that is said to occur about three times a month, year round.

According to Mark Mattson, director of the charity Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Toronto's streets and harbours were inundated with more than a billion litres of sewage in July 2013, when more than 90mm of rain fell on the city in just two hours. This, however, doesn't seem to be a freak occurrence, as New York State similarly enacted laws this summer requiring public notification within four hours of raw sewage being sent into its watersheds.

"I think there's a real demand for this information," said Mattson, a point that's hard to refute since the "boaters, paddlers and hikers on many of the rivers and trails" that Mattson mentions likely don't want to come across invasions of floaters on their Saturday afternoon strolls.

But where Mattson gets it wrong, I think, is in his assessment of the problem. As he puts it, "people don't really realize that in Toronto we've got these 70-year-old pipes based on a totally antiquated understanding of how the city works." And as the Toronto Star article further explains, "the current sewers were built with different demands in mind, and... the aging infrastructure is failing to keep pace." In other words, Mattson (and perhaps even the Toronto Star) don't really grasp how cities "work," nor realize what are at the heart of the demands of "current sewers."

Could industrial civilization soon be shitting bricks?
Could industrial civilization soon be shitting bricks?

First off, the gross expansion of cities, exemplified by London, England in the early 1800s following the enclosure of the commons, was invariably made possible by copious inputs to feed and supply the masses, inputs delivered via coal-powered rail transport. However, the massive amount of human effluent created by the massively accruing populations had to be dealt with somehow, and the only way to do that was by creating sewer systems – sewer systems that back in the day required millions of bricks for their construction. And to create those bricks required a corollary massive amount of heat to fire them. Short of completing the razing of England's forests, that would never have been possible were it not for the recently tapped into fossil fuel supply of coal. In other words, fossil fuels are required to create the physical conduits for sewage systems (the bricks, and now concrete and metal pipes), never mind all the energy necessary to bury (and maintain) those systems, as well as to operate the centralized treatment plants. (Prior to fossil-fuelled treatment plants, and in some cases continuing to this day, raw sewage was simply dumped into oceans and other large bodies of water.)

But here's the rub: supposing that the City of Toronto (or whichever other city) has the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to revamp its aging sewage infrastructure, there's not a chance it's going to have the resources to do so again in the 70 years or so when its infrastructure once again becomes aged. Why is this?

Windmills and solar panels won't be able to power this (photo by Washington State Dept of Transportation)
Windmills and solar panels won't be able to power this (photo by Washington State DoT)

The world is now on the cusp of peak oil, meaning that in 70 years or so it will very likely be impossible to do a do-over upon a large city's sewer system. We will be long past Hubbert's peak, and there simply won't be the required energy to power all the machinery to do all the heavy work, nor to maintain it all. As just one example, in 2008 a crack was discovered in one of Toronto's sewage tunnels, a problem which could have foreseeably seen the effluent of 750,000 Torontonians escape into the nearby Don River. Although three years of delays ensued, the repairs were finally completed, and below its $40 million budget. Nonetheless, since such occurrences are destined to occur in the future, it's worth wondering about how long such repairs will be energetically viable for.

This then begs the question: If the underlying infrastructure of industrialism's major metropolitan cities (as well as its smaller cities) is based on a system necessitating copious amounts of fossil fuels, how are they going to manage when that energy subsidy starts to shrink away? In other words, forget about all that feel-good local food stuff for a moment and ponder this: since the modern city and its packed-like-sardines populace (which produces obscene amounts of human effluent in historically unheard of concentrations) is dependent on fossil-fuelled porcelain goddesses to whoosh away its effluents (with potable water!), how do our megalopolis' (and even smaller cities) deal with all that effluent when the superstructure becomes less and less serviceable? Upon taking energy supplies into account, it should be readily apparent that myopic concerns over Saturday afternoon floaters is the wrong way to be looking at things. But while the situation in Toronto highlights a particular aspect of the systemic problem we face, oddly enough, Toronto also provides us with a hint towards the direction we should be taking here – but unfortunately only a hint.

Cob in the Park (photo by A Great Capture)
Cob in the Park (photo by A Great Capture)

Just down the street from where I used to live, at Dufferin Grove Park, a community project was put together called Cob in the Park. It consisted of a beautiful cob structure, as well as a compost toilet for use by children using the nearby playground and wading pool. So I one day took a stroll over to the park to check out the loo. But after endless and fruitless searching I later discovered that although the project had the full backing of the local city councillor, the composting toilet aspect of it was nixed thanks to a tiny minority of nearby residents who claimed that the loo would (supposedly) not be properly maintained and so pose a health hazard. As a result, an excellent opportunity for Torontonians to learn about the ecological cycles of their own effluent was lost.

But since we can now readily see that our industrial approach to dealing with our effluent cannot be indefinitely maintained, it should be obvious that the problem isn't about straw-man arguments over compost toilets which (supposedly) won't be maintained, but that the true problem is that the status quo industrial system can't be maintained. In other words, instead of deferring to buttons, levers and other engineered advancements ("progress"), we're literally going to have to learn how to deal with our own shit, and methods are going to have to be devised to return the nutrients within that shit to the land.

To help us make the transition, it might be helpful for us to make note of how we got here in the first place. The reasons behind all this are of course wide and varied, perhaps beginning with our tapping into fossil fuels of which made the large-scale approach to human effluent possible in the first place. Couple this with bureaucrats and engineers who often have a penchant for applying techno approaches to every problem (and even non-problems!), and you get the centralized system we currently have, a literal mess waiting to happen (and now happening!).

To single out bureaucrats and engineers is a bit unfair though, since there also exists a widespread Victorian priggishness amongst the general population: the stuff that goes in the top end is endlessly glossed over by self-important sophisticates and the like, while what comes out the other end is quickly whisked away with the flick of a lever, out of sight, out of mind.

To see all this in action, one only needs to look at the tool which has very much helped us get to where we are today, which is our language. As already mentioned, there exists a fair amount of awareness about the need to protect our watersheds, and amongst foodies and the like, a concern (be it superficial or not) about our foodsheds. However, the trifecta is not complete, and our language thus lacks the necessary structure to fully comprehend the issue. This need to ultimately deal with our own effluent in an ecologically sensitive manner therefore begs the suggestion:

The next time you find yourself at a dinner soirée or cocktail party and the conversation turns rather dry, don't be afraid to turn to your neighbour, and with the utmost glee, excitedly ask, "So. Would you like to hear about my shitshed!?"

This post has been translated into Italian by the online publication Effetto Risorse and can be read here. Italian translations of From Filmers to Farmers posts can be found here.

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Comments (17)

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glenn
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Aug 2015
First Poster
After reading the "Humanure Handbook" I began a simple humanure composting experiment here at home. The idea of not depositing our human wastes into drinking water was met with incredibly strong negative reactions from almost everyone I spoke to about this including my family. Having now bought a piece of land with no services we regularly use a 5 gallon bucket with wood shavings and it works perfectly.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Glenn: How about that psychological barrier to non-drinking water deposits, eh? And nice work with the buckets. I'd say half the compost toilets I've come across were bucket systems, which are totally adequate for the job.
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Ferdinand
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1
Aug 2015
You must be taking the *****. What a load of crap. Talking out of your ass. *****.
This was all in jest since I always enjoy talking (and reading) about poo. Here's a haiku (haipoo?):
***** in summer stinks
in winter
then freezes
:-D
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Ferdinand: Thanks for the laugh. And sorry about all the ******s as that was done by the default settings on this comment script I'm using (and I unfortunately can't even see what your original comment was, nor restore it). Good thing it didn't end up censoring the title and/or content of my post. ;)
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Tom Borland
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Aug 2015
I find it strange you make no mention of biodigestion for the treatment of sewerage sludge and all other organic waste. The Chinese have been biodigesting pooh and waste for thousands of years.

Another point. Pooh and pee can be separated with, for example, the Swedish made urine separating Bubblett system. What could be better for a localised organic N and P fertiliser source?

Also, in case you have problems with the biodigestion process, there is a product available that helps in the breakdown process of pooh. It is particularly useful as it contains bacterial strains that digest difficult and non biodegradable compounds such as detergents, paper, oil, grease, hydrocarbons, phenols, etc. It is made in America by Chemtech International, Inc. And is sold under the name of HISTOSOL OP-Bio10. Are you familiar with it?
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Tom: Funny you should mention biodigestion as I was just chatting about it with my friend the other day, and about the Chinese's use of it in particular. I can't say I know much about it (I did leave links to some books on the topic at the bottom of this post), although I am very interested in it, and if the situation permits, I would like to implement it on a farm in the future myself.

About separating the N and P, I don't know about that. I did read recently in the Humanure Handbook that you shouldn't separate them, but I'm going to have to read up more about that before I can offer an informed opinion.

And I can't say I've heard of that product you mention. Sounds interesting (from what I just read), but for better or worse, I tend to avoid proprietary-ish products. I remember a lady once showing me how to inoculate legumes for increased nitrogen production, and I couldn't help but wonder where she got the bag of inoculant from. Then I read in Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener that she was under the impression that all the inoculant in the US comes from the same place. How locally adaptive is that? So what she did was save the soil from around the best performing legumes, then inoculate the seeds the next year with said soil, building up a good strain of inoculant for her area. Or something like that. So in regards to that product you mention, I don't know. It seems to be mined (if I'm not mistaken), and I don't know how good it would be to those down in, say, New Zealand or Australia.
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Tia
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Aug 2015
Tia
Good comments but my experience as an elected official has been that the engineering companies, bond financiers, lawyers, etc., have conspired to exploit every community, especially the smaller, less sophisticated ones so they can engineer the most complex, oversized and expensive plants. It's a racket! Our community tried to fight them and lost.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Tia: I'm sorry to hear of your community's loss, but glad to hear of the effort. And yes, it most certainly can be a racket, particularly when the oversized, complex plants you mention are also glorified as money generators (contributing to growing our economic Ponzi scheme), while more ecologically-oriented methods are not, or at most are so on a much smaller scale.
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Joe Barsfield
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Aug 2015
Peak oil again as an excuse Allan? "on the cusp" no less? Peak oil was being used as an excuse back in the 70's, probably before you were even born, and you want to recycle it in the hopes that what, the silliness factor has worn off in the past 1/3 of a century? Veering a bit close to Harold Camping Rapture fantasies in my opinion, but the real question is why haven't you learned something about this topic so as to not be so easily fooled? Did you actually finished your secondary education in Canada, or did they just give up on teaching critical thinking skills to Canucks in general?
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Joe (no longer Johnny?): Bingo! If peak oil was used as an "excuse" for United States oil supplies that peaked in 1970, well, why not call that peak oil? Might as well call a spade a spade, eh?

I'm sorry to hear about your gullibility to the mainstream media's regurgitating of the latest corporate spin (the inability to understand or accept the concept of limits on a finite planet), but perhaps my piece coming up two posts from now will help alleviate that. The recent article that I'll be citing even mentions your straw-man of Harold Camping!

Last of all, I think you might be rather close to the truth with your statement that "they just gave up on teaching critical thinking skills to Canucks in general," although I wouldn't single out just Canada. Nonetheless, that's why I ultimately left university. Thanks for the astute observation and for bringing that up!
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Johnny Blocked For Some Reason
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Aug 2015
User name is blocked Allan. Funny how that happens isn't it, among fine folk who want to claim to be all critical thinking capable and all. Certainly I don't fall for MSM pitching BAU any more than you can shake loose from intellectual ideas equivalent to Harold Camping fantasies and using that rationalization to drive your new world scenarios. You do realize that reality doesn't care about your phantasmagorical musings, right? And just because you don't like the facts of the world doesn't change them.

And yes, leaving university because they didn't teach you to think, and then falling for the first and most obviously transparent excuse for a rationalization proves that whatever they might have taught you, you sure didn't run off and then learn it on your own.
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Johnny
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Mar 2015
Johnny
Test, by Allan, using the username "Johnny."
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Johnny
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Mar 2015
Test #2, by Allan, using the username "johnny" (lowercase).
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Johnny: Well, you were not blocked by me, nor can I see that you were automatically blocked by the system. So, I tested it myself to see if I could post with the username "Johnny," both lowercase and uppercase, and lo and behold, it worked! So as far as I understand it, if you block yourself from leaving a message, then yes Johnny, you will be blocked – by your own doings.

Unfortunately, I don't know how much more there is to say here. Sure, there are "facts of the world." To me, one of those is that we live on a finite planet that has limits. That implies limits to many things, including oil. I see what we call "peak oil" as happening, overall, very soon. Do you, Johnny, understand that there are limits, that peak oil will one day happen? If so, please name the year, or decade, or century, or millennium, that you presume it will occur. If you can't do that, then I don't know what else to presume but that you think oil is abiotic or comes from the ether or something.
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Johnny
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Mar 2015
The exact error message is "you've posted alot recently, try again later". Message still occurs a week later, so whatever the posting frequency permitted, it must think one post a week is enough. Except when it does it to the first post of course, stopping any commentary.

The block is unlikely to be on the name Allan, but the IP. Maybe the software decided to just block my IP for the fun of it? As soon as I switched IPs, it began to allow commentary through.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Johnny: Alright, supposing that that was the problem, I've reset the whole thing so that all IPs are now unbanned, and I'll have to start over again with that. Secondly, I've set it up so that all first-time commenters will have their first message not appear until it has been validated. After it's been validated, and so long as you use the same email address as the first time, all of your further comments should automatically go through.
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Tom Borland
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Aug 2015
Hi Allan

In response to your response to my comment

You might find this reference useful in your investigations into biodigestion.

Methane Digesters For Fuel Gas and Fertilizer
With Complete Instructions For Two Working Models
by L. John Fry

http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2010/ph240/cook2/docs/methane_digesters.pdf

For more information on urine seperating toilets I think you will find a lot of info from the manufacturer.

THE DUBBLETT- SYSTEM is manufactured in Sweden by BB Innovation & Co. AB.

DUBBLETTEN`S unique patented design is based on two, well separated bowls, the one behind, for faeces, has a bulge which prevents an overflow of the flushing water infected with bacteria and viruses to the front, well separated, urine bowl.

THE DUBBLETT- SYSTEM IS INTENDED FOR ALL TYPES OF BUILDINGS
And since the start of serial manufactures, it has been installed in schools, museums, offices, and blocks of flats, small houses and in the leisure areas. As well as Sweden, Dubbletten has been installed in Australia, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Finland and Denmark.

Bobby Bogdan Mrozowski
MD at BB Innovation & Co. AB.

"Risks with recycling of human waste".

"The occurrence of micro-organisms is primarily concentrated in the faeces while urine as a rule does not contain illness-promoting organisms. The urine sorting system aims to sort the faeces from urine, but when the design of the urine sorting toilet is not optimal, there is risk that faecal microorganisms will mix with the urine". Anna Olsson and Thor Axel Stenström, Institute of Infectious Diseases. Sweden

Thus in so far as the use of Histosol is concerned, the reason I suggest it’s use is that the difficult and non biodegradable compounds such as detergents, paper, oil, grease, hydrocarbons, phenols, etc. are potentially soil contaminants and as far as I understand are the main problems holding back the wider implementation of biodigestion as a source of energy and especially “fertiliser” supply.

Cheers,

Tom

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