Particularly potent video around the 1:00 mark...
If you need a really graphic illustration of what happens when storm water overwhelms a city's aging sewage system, watch this video of what happened two weeks ago in Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal (now a superfund hazardous waste site). Thankfully this now just happens in storms, rather than occurring every day--which happened, along with dumping of raw industrial waste, for a disturbingly long period of the canal's 150 year history.The bigger point in this is something recently brought up in post over at Low-Tech Magazine and highlighted by our very own Sami Grover.
By flushing our pee and poop down the toilet, we are essentially washing these valuable nutrients out to sea, a place where they will remain forever, except for the small amounts we can re-harvest through sea-bird guano or by eating fish. (Assuming we then reuse our waste as nature intended.)
Which is the practical part of the story--we could be recycling human waste into valuable and useful compost and considering that there's a very real threat of peak phosphates decreasing food supplies perhaps we ought to be doing something useful with our waste.
Think it's crazy, and well, gross? As the Low-Tech Mag piece points out for for some 4,000 years China, Korea and Japan didn't think so:
Human excrements and urine were considered extremely valuable trade products in China, Korea and Japan. Human dung was transported over specially designed canal networks by boats.
Thanks to the application of human "waste" products as fertilizers to agricultural fields, the East managed to feed a large population without polluting their drinking water. Meanwhile, cities in medieval Europe turned into open sewers.
Granted, changing attitudes towards human waste's usefulness is difficult, not to mention transforming modern water-based sewage systems into something which captures that excrement and composts is a huge logistical knot. But as an alternative concept, and one which would entirely avoid the brown stinking wave rushing down the Gowanus Canal in storms, it does seem quite compelling.
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More on Sewage:
Is Recycling Our Poop Key to Sustainable Farming?
Is Male Pee Better Than Female Pee? The Compost Conundrum
P is for Phosphorus (As Well As Human Urine)