Friday, March 19, 2010

A Crappy Proposal

I have not researched the data that supports Will Allen's speech, but it's definitely an out-of-the-box or maybe an out-of-the-pot idea. (Sigh, let the jokes begin.)

Incidentally, this seems like an appropriate moment to announce, as a sidebar, that Gabriel now says, "Poo" to identify the solid matter in his diaper.

Will Allen of the Organic Consumers Association gave this speech at the San Francisco sludge dump on March 4. Another tale of infrastructure disintegrating without new investment, and a heavy price tag for improvements.

Some highlights:

Almost everyone agrees that the U.S. system of sewers and treatment plants are in serious need of repair or replacements, in spite of recent huge investments in maintenance and updates. Non-federal state and local spending on waste systems and sewers was $841 billion from 1991 to 2005, or an average of $56 billion every year since 1991. By contrast, congress has only approved $77 billion on sewage facilities since 1972. Clearly, states and municipalities have carried the heaviest part of the sewage removal and treatment costs. In spite of all this investment we still have a very dangerous and antiquated sewage system that regularly fouls our waterways, basements, and our drinking water with raw sewage. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's sewage and wastewater facilities a D-.

Allen quotes EPA estimates that 850 billion gallons of sewage leaked per year in 2004 into waterways from storm runoff (really?) and an additional 10 billion from bad pipes. That's something I want to check out -- seems like an awful lot. The problem exists, but I wanna confirm these numbers, because -- wow.

Further, he quotes EPA saying (in 2002) that $390 billion would be needed to upgrade the piping and waste treatment facilities. Congress in 2008 calculated a smaller price tag to upgrade the facilities -- but I don't know if that included new piping.

Instead of investing massive cash in updating the current system, Allen proposes a different approach to human waste altogether. Put on your hip-boots and let's wade right in:

Lets say there are 150,000,000 residences in the U.S. If we spent $2000 on each household installing a composting toilet, that would cost about $300 billion. This would eliminate the off site movement of raw sewage, which has never been accomplished without periodic spillage. The cost for the composting toilets is significantly less than the EPA estimate (by $90 billion) to fix the outmoded and inefficient sewage disposal and treatment facilities. With composting toilets, human fertilizer becomes a valuable resource for the community and for farmers, instead of the toxic waste disposal nightmare that we have now.

U.S. consumers are leery of fertilizers made from their own poop, but what they don't know is that more than 70 million acres per year in the U.S. are fertilized with toxic sludge from sewage treatment plants. Of course, most Americans don't know that they are eating food grown with this toxic sludge. Most of the public doesn't realize that the sludge is toxic waste and commonly has high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, copper, zinc, resistant bacteria and viruses, flame retardants, pesticides, medical waste, and a host of other noxious products. Apparently, even [San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom] does not know this.

This toxicity comes from hospitals, factories, oil, and chemical industries and every other polluter who dumps their toxic load into the public sewers. The only solution to this rampant industrial and medical dumping is to collect our manures and urines at our homes and apartments. Without the publicly financed sewers and treatment plants each industrial or medical facility would be required to manage their own waste instead of contaminating human sewage with their toxins.

Allen points to pilot projects in Oregon and a few other countries (Mexico, Germany, Sweden, and Mongolia. Mongolia?? Okay, Mongolia). Now I want to see if I can find anything on those projects and get, you know, the straight poop. (Oh dear.)

Man, this is serious recycling.

Here's how a composting toilet works, by the way. Kinda neat, actually.

Seriously, even if Allen is quoting the EPA accurately and the EPA's numbers are correct, this will be a tough sell. For all our praise of innovation in the business sector, in public policy innovation is feared and invariably dies in committee or is hopelessly compromised. You would have to spend additional money in a nationwide effort to educate the public, who would be very wary of changing how we deal with waste.

1 comment:

quid said...

I get it. But I agree, I don't see it happening.