Before we talk about the solution, though, we need to introduce a concept that will prepare you for the revelation: Sometimes in order to make a new idea acceptable we also need to upcycle the language.
Take, for example, an impressive effort that San Diego, California, began in 2007 to study “recycling” sewage water to address the city’s very real water shortages. In the absence of an official name for the operation, journalists started calling the reclamation effort Toilet to Tap.
Now, it’s hard not to see the yuck factor in that phrase. And, unsurprisingly, San Diego citizens balked at the idea of consuming their own wastewater. It didn’t matter that the recycled water, after being sent through the purification process, was in fact cleaner than the water San Diego residents were currently drinking. No one wanted to think about toilet water in his or her drinking glass. Sydney went through a similar experience during the droughts there.
Singapore, on the other hand, had its water-recycling pitch well-tuned right from the start. When conducting feasibility studies on technology for reclaiming water, they called the project NEWater. With that nice, refreshing term, citizens were inspired to take pride in the idea that they were being endlessly resourceful; NEWater now accounts for 30 percent of the country’s water needs. Upcycling allowed Singapore to stop importing water (from Malaysia, which they had been doing for years, despite constant political friction), bringing greater safety and security.
Keep that issue of language in mind while we reveal something that we think would go a long way toward assisting how humans interact with nature.
In the Western world, for more than a century, people have been misled into thinking that our “waste,” what we flush down the toilet, is somehow toxic, that it cannot be worked back into the natural system, that it cannot be used as compost for growing plants. This is not true. Your waste is manure as helpful as any other manure on the planet; it just has to be handled correctly. Your urine, over a 24-hour period, contains half the phosphate you will need to consume in a day for healthy bones and teeth and tissue.
For millennia, people understood how helpful our own “emissions” could be. When Bill was a young child in Tokyo, he would hear the farmers coming through the streets when everyone else was in bed, using their “honey wagons” drawn by buffalo to collect the night soil (human waste gathered from cesspools and privies, for use as manure). At that time, people could buy such “waste.”
Japanese required intense cropping, and where else could they get their phosphate? It doesn’t just rain phosphate.
The Japanese were sensitive to the handling of pathogens, and they knew how to compost the night soil before they used it on plants. But the way humans treat “waste” now is to call it sewage and chlorinate it, then dechlorinate it with sulfur. Some systems use ultraviolet disinfection. All these processes require tremendous energy loads, about 4 percent of the United States’ total electricity expenditure. And the “waste” still ends up going back to pollute the larger water system, along with runoff from septic systems.
We could change what is essentially grave mismanagement. Humans can upcycle sewage. Stop thinking sewage and start thinking nutrient management. Stop thinking ugly, smelly liability and start believing the old adage money doesn’t stink. In fact, that expression from the Latin, Pecunia non olet, came from the Roman emperor Vespasian, defending the unsavory nature of his tax on public urine. Roman citizens bought urine to tan their leather and clean clothes and were taxed accordingly. When Vespasian’s son expressed his repulsion, the emperor held up a coin and asked if it smelled bad. The son replied that it did not, and Vespasian pointed out that it was earned from urine. Money doesn’t stink.