“The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don’t.” -Joseph Jenkins
It’s no secret that Cape Town’s picturesque beaches are some of its crown jewels, their images plastered on the front of many a tourist pamphlet and magazine cover. Spread out over long arching coasts, tucked within coves, or squeezed between the vastness of converging oceans and exponentially rising mountains, they provide a stunning contrast to the blues and greens of the water on one side and opposing urban landscape and undulating terrain on the other. Their allure brings thousands of residents and tourists alike to them for enjoyment and adventure. Beyond them, the water stretches out towards the horizon, as if to the ends of the earth.
Perhaps it is because the ocean seems like a limitless entity that we choose to treat it as such. Ironically, some of Cape Town’s most coveted and fetching beaches--Camps Bay, Green Point, Hout Bay--look out onto what are essentially the city’s septic system. By design, massive pipes located at these arresting areas pump millions of litres of the city’s raw sewage out into the ocean.
If you spend time along Cape Town’s coastline, you can sense these systems, literally. It’s a fairly normal occurrence for me, depending on the winds, to take in the smell of sewage while passing along a certain point in the Green Point promenade. The smell’s general location marks the proximity of the otherwise innocuous or cleverly hidden shoreline infrastructure, the departure point for our sewage’s seabound voyage. Kayakers and professional photographers know its indicia by sight, apparently, having documented great brown plumes from both near and afar (after all, a picture is worth a thousand words).
Contrary to the illusion engineered by the architects and designers of our infrastructure, the byproducts of our consumption don’t disappear altogether when they leave our sight. Almost unthinkingly, we use the ocean as a massive repository for many things we’d rather not deal with, including the unmentionable contribution that every one of us makes basically daily: our excrement. Every day, the City of Cape Town helps us flush hundreds of millions of litres of water soiled with our literal crap (and many other more metaphorical types of crap) into the ocean. Much of it passes through water treatment facilities, which separate out solids that are deposited in massive detention lagoons. However, water treated at these facilities retains polluting concentrations of nitrates, phosphates, salts, and organic particulates, which cause environmental damage in the volume and form we dispatch them. Treated water may also include, at lower levels, whatever other non-biological materials we decide to pour down our drains or stormwater ditches, as well as the chemicals used at the treatment facilities themselves. A smaller fraction of our used water, still tens of millions of litres a day, flows untreated directly out into the open ocean. Sometimes, predictably, it promptly flows right back to the sandy shore. Although the City asserts that the impacts are undetectable, local scientists have found otherwise.
And that’s the system when its working properly. At times, particularly during flooding, Cape Town’s water treatment facilities overflow, releasing raw sewage into rivers and ultimately to the sea. In high density and under-serviced informal settlement areas, lack of adequate sanitation combined with vulnerability to flooding means that untreated sewage runs freely from these areas as well.
Urban water use isn’t even the worst contributor to water pollution. In areas of farming, which includes much of the Western Cape, the exodus of materials flowing into the ocean include artificially produced fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and the topsoil itself, which drains away due to farming techniques that untether it from the ground. These contributions, in the concentrations that we create, are a leading cause of water pollution and can dramatically alter the terrestrial and marine ecosystems through which they run.
But in many ways the closest and most intimate of these pollutants, to me and to you, is our own excrement. Our modern sanitation system is an incredible thing--and I mean incredible in its most horrendous, ridiculous, insane sense. Modern sanitation systems use massive amounts of clean water, a critical and limited resource, to flush away our byproducts in unmanageable concentrations to places unequipped to deal with them, through a complex and highly centralized system over which we have virtually no direct control. And we hardly even notice. “The flush toilet,” the ecocentrist Paul Kingsnorth writes, “is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. . . . You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food that created it in the first place” (92).
The system, once revealed and considered, appears highly problematic, at least to me. But, you might respond, our human waste, my waste, must go somewhere. Where should it go?
Embedded in that question (which I have admittedly attributed to you, my dear straw man/woman), is a central fallacy at the heart of our waste problem: the concept waste itself. In fact, there is no such thing. Or at least, there need not be, if one reframes how we perceive nasties such as urine and feces. As Joesph Jenkins notes, “waste is not found in nature — it’s strictly a human concept, a result of our own ignorance” (22). We characterize our byproducts as “material with no inherent value that is discarded and has no further use” (25). In fact, there is incredible value in our urine and feces, as Jenkins explores in depth in his book The Humanure Handbook.
The key to unlocking this value? Composting. Composting, when properly conducted, converts all forms of biological matter into nutrient rich soil that sustains healthy plant life, and thus, our lives. In the process it destroys harmful bacteria, viruses, and other possible pathogens more effectively and economically than any other commercially feasible and practically accessible system. This is done largely, although not completely, through prolonged exposure to heat generated internally through aerobic bacterial activity. Like a large mass of people steaming up the inside of a car or room, the activity of microbes in compost heaps will warm up the internal temperature to surprising levels. “Hot” composting, i.e. compost heaps generally of a sufficiently large mass (e.g. square meter or larger), under the right conditions will easily generate sufficient heat to kill off pathogens. Constant temperatures at or above the 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit), will kill practically all pathogens within a month, and 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) will do so in a day (see Jenkins, 167, 174). Hot compost bins can often far exceed these temperatures. Smaller composting piles at lower temperatures can also effectively break down organic material and remove pathogens, although the time scale will likely be much longer. In any event, in order to cycle through the full gamut of biochemical processes and obtain the complete transformational benefits, it is important to maintain a compost pile for one to two years before use for planting, particularly if composting potentially pathogenic materials.
While composting in conventionally “modern” contexts is often narrowly aimed at kitchen scraps and yard cuttings, it is entirely effective for converting all types of organic matter (again, when properly done). Human feces and urine can be unhealthy and dangerous to us and the environment if not handled correctly. But if treated correctly as a potential resource, it can be, as Jenkins says “a valuable organic resource material rich in soil nutrients” that “originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil” (28). Of course, it is especially important to compost excrement correctly, due to the particularly harmful potential of pathogens that reside in our feces (fresh urine is generally sterile). This means maintaining the right mass, composition, air circulation, temperature, and dampness. But the potential for completely eliminating this and other organic waste-streams from our lives, while saving water and producing something of high value, all at relatively low cost, seems incredibly promising.
So, why aren’t we moving towards this? For one, there are the social conventions about cleanliness and propriety that prevent us from even publicly discussing our own crap, let alone actively handling it in an environmentally responsible way. This limitation, which is tied up in our conceptualization of waste, is both self-induced as well as socially-reinforced. Fortunately, the water crisis inched many in Cape Town towards a more serious consideration of how to reframe waste as resource. How to handle waste has become an acceptable (if still not comfortable) public topic of conversation, and writers, businesses, and public figures have done their part to normalize it (my favorite example is Cape Town writer and poet Helen Moffet). Local groups like the Guerilla House have also stepped up, providing classes on humanuring and composting (which I have yet to attend but am looking forward to in the future). However, the taboo factor is still massive, as are issues of racism and social equity embedded in the city’s waste management system that, as always, complicate the issue further.
The other factor, of course, is the practical constraints of operating in a highly centralized system designed around a water-intensive waste removal model. The infrastructure systems that supply us with resources and remove our byproducts are hardwired around the mindset of waste and plentiful water supply. Nearly all formal homes and buildings have been designed to accommodate the toilet and trash bin, not the compost heap. Meanwhile, the densities of many townships limit the amount of land available. Building and health codes combine to reinforce the physical infrastructure, as do municipal budgets, policing, health services, etc. Our food systems, from our diets to our packaging, similarly militate against composting.
This is the frustrating part—feeling trapped, wanting to make a change, willing to make a commitment, but unable to see how to act within a largely incompatible system. The entire city is locked into the system, needing to devote huge resources to a system that demands them, and making impractical serious investment in supporting an alternative compost-based system.
This is, really, the modern predicament, and it’s difficult to see a way out. A prerequisite, however, is the shift in our minds from thinking waste to thinking resource. There’s no other way, because the system itself is built on a mindset that makes fundamentally flawed assumptions about the value of our resources and the capacity to sustain our lifestyle. Until we allow ourselves to reconceptualize our waste, we will lack the incentive and perspective to retool our systems. Cape Town’s enormous resource and service challenges, spawning both from environmental limitations and massive societal inequality, provide the opportunity, and potentially the incentive, to support this mind shift. On the other hand, it also complicates these processes.
Where does all this leave me? At the moment, peeing in the compost bin, guiltily trashbagging my cat’s litter, and pondering whether my eight square meter balcony could handle humanuring (which I doubt, although I still daydream). I’ve got no good answers, except to continually reflect on my place in this mess, and to search for opportunities where I can assert control over my own metabolic cycle. And potentially second-guessing whether to test the water the next time I’m at the beach...
[Disclaimer: Please do your own research on composting, including humanure composting, before trying it yourself.]