Our daily excrement

A short examination of excrement


Everyone does it, sometimes several times a day. From the moment you start chewing, it’s the inevitable consequence of eating, the digestive tract’s final act. No one can escape the law of causality. And even though this is the most ordinary business in the world, it seems our relationship to shit is troubled. We lock ourselves in ceramic tiled hideaways to then secretly release our excrement. We isolate ourselves out of shame and disgust as though we were terrified of our own shit. What an advantage therefore, that the universally popular water closet – with the help of purified drinking water and the press of a button – can suck our little heap of misery into a black hole. Out of sight, out of mind …

But where is this flushed down to? From here the shit goes on a journey through an elaborate network of pipes, sometimes spanning kilometres, into municipal sewage treatment plants. It then goes through a series of mechanical and biological processes, as it gets drained further and sifted out of the water, together with other sometimes-toxic solids, and finally compressed into sewage sludge. In 2012, 45% of Germany’s accumulated sludge was used as fertilizer in agriculture or as filler in landscaping. The rest failed to meet the sewage sludge regulation requirements regarding human safety and was burned. In the process of the so-called thermal treatment, the plant fertilizers found in the natural metabolic cycle in the sludge are lost and can “generally not be of use for nutrient recovery.” In terms of sustainability, it’s a plunge into the toilet.

Grundwasser_lowresBeobachter Natur

And that’s just the tip of shit-berg. A hog produces, in its short lifespan of approximately 21 weeks, an average of 1,500 liters of liquid manure. Jonathan Safran Foer dedicated an entire chapter of his bestselling book “Eating Animals” to manure. He reports on the situation in the US where livestock produce 130 times the excrement of the entire population. Liquid manure from animal factories is conducted into specially dug “lagoons,” measuring up to 12,000 square meters wide by ten meters deep. A cynical passage tells the story of a worker, who passes out from the fumes of the shit lagoon, falls into it, and alongside other family members attempting to save him, finally dies in the pig shit.

The shit pile on which we sit is simply too enormous. The fertilizing of animal and human dung, as the root word fertile suggests, does undoubtedly make sense. In fact, turning shit into gold merely requires applying it to a wheat field. As such, the most important elements for agriculture: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, are returned to the ground. However huge amounts lead to widespread over-fertilization. The plants are unable to completely absorb the nutrients, that are then washed away by rain and wind into the wastewater channels. Nitrogen, as a carcinogenic nitrate, contaminates groundwater; phosphorus leads to eutrophication in bodies of water. Entire ecosystems become depleted because only a few species can cope with the supply excess, and that’s without mentioning the effects of antibiotics and hormones that are found in almost all of Germany’s rivers.

In the past, every stable had enough field area to absorb the liquid manure and the cycle from food to feces was completed on a small scale. In rural areas of China, it is still traditional for the guest invited for a meal, to stay at the host’s for as long as it takes to relieve himself – a gesture of giving and receiving.

100winaktion                                      Friedensreich Hundertwasser at his compost toilet

Of course no one’s going to expect their friends to poop in their balcony trough at their next dinner party. That stinks and involves the risk of transmitting diseases. Having said that however, as early as 1979, the visionary and holistic mastermind Friedensreich Hundertwasser called for a fundamental change in our treatment of feces. In his great manifesto “Shit Culture – Holy Shit,” he identified compost toilets as “the sweeping change that our society, our civilization must go through if it wants to survive.” In the time of expiring manure lagoons and the large-scale loss of fertile topsoil as a result of eutrophication and contamination, this demand seems more relevant than ever.

Perhaps the vernacular exclamation “Holy shit!” is a sign of an approaching shift since it counteracts the strictly negative connotations of the word. Moreover, according to Wikipedia, disgust is an affect and not an instinct, “since it is not innate, but rather acquired through socialization,” an indication that our approach could be reprogrammed after all.

In short, don’t give a shit and close the metabolic cycle!


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