Away

In 1856, the Metropolitan Board of Works was established in London and it appointed Joseph Bazalgette as its chief engineer. As a result, Bazalgette embarked on his greatest work: designing and overseeing the construction of the sewer network in London, which effectively removed the threat of cholera and greatly improved the health of London residents and the general environment of the city. With immense foresight, Bazalgette estimated the size of sewers required and then doubled it, meaning that his original system is still coping with the population of the capital today. Nevertheless, his sewers still just diverted waste away and raw sewage was collected in tanks, the contents of which were discharged directly into the Thames a little way downstream at high tide. It wasn’t until 1900 (nine years after Bazalgette’s death) that sewage treatment works were constructed to deal with the outflow.

hering_lon-sewer-det02_1882

Map of the London sewerage system developed by Joseph Bazalgette 1858-1870 (Rudolf Hering, 1882 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am in awe of this amazing feat of engineering, but I’m also aware that it is the physical embodiment of Victorian values: the earth was created to serve man and human beings had a god-given right to use natural resources no matter the consequences to nature (which was also there for the benefit of mankind). And so, human waste was neatly and efficiently removed from sight (and smell), improving the lot of those in the city, but actually delivering the source of the problem to another location. Even during Bazalgette’s time, there were, apparently, those who objected to the fact that a valuable resource was simply being pumped into the Thames rather than collected and used for growing crops.

I wonder, therefore, what a different world we might inhabit had Joseph Bazalgette taken a different approach. What if he had valued this resource rather than simply seeing the (admittedly huge) problem? I’m not sure what sort of solution he might have come up with, but that change in perception in the nineteenth century might have seen modern homes not flushing fertility ‘away’, but having their own sources of compost production. Or maybe ‘away’ would have been to digesters or power plants or fertiliser factories.

There is no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere. Annie Leonard

Previous Post
Next Post
Leave a comment

13 Comments

  1. I once used one of those loos where you tip sawdust on your offerings. Alll very well till you have to empty it.
    The other big problem with the sewers is the everything else that gets tipped into them.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Ann Pole

     /  February 12, 2019

    Would love to have a composting loo here, the problem being where to put it.

    Like

    Reply
    • Several times I’ve looked at the modern indoor ones, wondering whether it’s a sensible option instead of one connected to the mains, but I’ve never been convinced. I’d love to hear from someone who’s actually got one in use.

      Like

      Reply
  3. Like you I hate the idea of valuable fertiliser going to waste. I have improvised an indoor compost loo from an old commode. It is fine and there is no obvious smell but the sawdust makes rather a lot of dust. The proper ones seperate liquid from solids but of course mine does not so it uses a lot of sawdust and has to be emptied daily meaning I fill a dustbin each month. Those have to be left at least 6 months before being spread on the garden so take up quite a lot of space. And I live alone – a couple or family would need more storage. I wish I had space for a proper one but it would mean taking the flushing loo out and I am not sure I want to do that.

    Like

    Reply
  4. We had a composting toilet in the 1970s. The technology wasn’t fully mature at that point, and the liquid waste overpowered the dry waste so it took longer than it should to break down. These days, they’ve improved. All around Australia, you see ‘long drop’ toilets by the highways, where there is no piped water and in any case no water to spare for flush toilets. They’re sited over large digestion tanks, and work well to convert the waste into dry matter; solar power on the roofs runs a fan which helps evaporate liquids. Rainwater is used in tiny quantities for handwashing afterwards. Recycled toilet paper inside, but no paper towels outside – you wave your hands around or dry them on your pants! It’s a good system. Not entirely odourless, but they don’t stink, they’re just a bit… agricultural-smelling.

    Like

    Reply
    • Interesting. Perhaps the UK is blessed with too much water for us to get innovative. I’ve visited various places with outdoor composting loos and smell hasn’t really been a great issue, but I still haven’t seen a modern, high-tech indoor version to be able to judge how good they are these days. Interesting, though, that you actually lived with one so long ago… you’d have thought they might be more common now if the technology worked well.

      Like

      Reply
      • The problem is distaste for the contents, I suspect. We all prefer to flush our wastes away tidily, on the basis of out of sight, out of mind. Actually keeping them in the house is a bit too yuck for most people, I suspect. There are good, effective versions, once you overcome that particular hurdle.

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
  5. Patricia Collins

     /  February 13, 2019

    II first went to live in a property reliant on a septic tank rather than main sewers when I was 18. It was a very good introduction to ecology as one always had to ‘think of the tank’ so no detergents, no chemicals down the toilet and no easy disposal of sanitary products. It was my way into eco-friendly cleaning products, gentler medicines for everyday ills and alternatives to shampoos conditioners and the rest. Although I’ve not always been on a tank, I’ve stuck to these principles ever since.

    Like

    Reply
    • Our previous house had a septic tank and, you are right, it really makes you aware of the chemicals that go in there. I can remember having interesting conversations about maintaining tank ecology with the guy who came to empty it… he recommended putting a handful of soil in occasionally to maintain microbial diversity.

      Like

      Reply
  6. Patricia Collins

     /  February 13, 2019

    No such place as ‘away’. This is a really useful concept and it came to mind as I read this BBC article about a town in Asia drowning in our plastic waste https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-46518747

    Like

    Reply

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: