Insert your favorite euphemism
November 24, 2008 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Rose George wants you to start talking about waste. And no, she isn't concerned with your recycling habits, your fluorescent light bulbs, or the packaging on your electronics. She's concerned with your, ahem, human waste. Ms. George has written a book on the way both first and third world societies deal with sewage, and now Freakonomics is talking with her about it.
posted by aliceinreality (30 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone Poops
posted by djeo at 12:51 PM on November 24, 2008

Nice. This thread will be fun to watch.

Wonder if she has a chapter on poo transplants.

My shit don't stink.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:53 PM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Q: Why, as you write in the book, is a toilet still only a distress purchase in the U.S., while it’s constantly being developed and advanced in a country like Japan?

A: For all sorts of reasons. The Japanese toilet revolution has happened over 60 years and for several reasons. Transforming the toilet into a must-have product appealed to the Japanese love of gadgetry, for a start. Having toilets with inbuilt bidets that can massage you, but are totally hands-off, appeal to the Japanese sense of wabi sabi (i.e. a love of cleanliness and purity), but also enable Japanese to have no contact with their excrement.

Clean, hands-free. It was a winnable concept.

As for why Americans haven’t been convinced yet, it’s because, like most of us with flush toilets, as long as they flush and work, we don’t notice them. Until you use a Japanese robo-toilet, you won’t get it. Perhaps when they make more headway in the U.S., Americans might start to see the light. But they’d have to be cheaper first.

I do think there’s a market in the U.S. for washing rather than wiping: I did a Q&A for Salon recently, and of the 70 or so comments that were left, nearly all were about washing your butt and how much better it was. I was astonished.
I'm intrigued. Toilets in Japan.
posted by stbalbach at 1:04 PM on November 24, 2008

More like Wankonomics AMIRITE? Are they still arguing that inequality isn't really rising because rich people buy more expensive stuff?
posted by delmoi at 1:08 PM on November 24, 2008

personally, i'm more intrigued at the idea of a Japanese toilet revolution.
posted by aliceinreality at 1:48 PM on November 24, 2008

If it's from Japan, it'll probably be a toilet toilet revolution.
posted by Dr-Baa at 2:00 PM on November 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've been thinking of buying some kind of bidet for a while now (I use too much toilet paper right now).

As for a sanitation revolution mascot, perhaps we could have a cartoon version of John Snow.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:26 PM on November 24, 2008

Put your Poo Hats on.
posted by longsleeves at 2:30 PM on November 24, 2008

Also, at the risk of TMI, I wish there were squat toilets available in the US. I much prefer that position.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:37 PM on November 24, 2008

The only thing keeping me from putting an outhouse on my property is it's illegal; the soil here is primarily clay, I live on a ridge miles from any creeks, rivers or lakes, I could use that outhouse for the rest of my life and my shit would never find the water table. I would never have to use a flush toilet again, and my neighbors would never know it was an outhouse, if I built it to look like a toolshed attached to the garage. It makes such good sense it makes me sick the city probably wouldn't even consider allowing it. I say probably because I haven't asked, and I don't want them snooping around later on, if I decide to go forward with my, um, toolshed.
posted by Restless Day at 2:47 PM on November 24, 2008

They can have my poop when they pry it from my cold, dead row upon row of carefully labelled mason jars that fill up my house.

I got my rights.
posted by codswallop at 2:47 PM on November 24, 2008 [7 favorites]

The only thing keeping me from putting an outhouse on my property is it's illegal; the soil here is primarily clay, I live on a ridge miles from any creeks, rivers or lakes, I could use that outhouse for the rest of my life and my shit would never find the water table.

Why not build yourself a sawdust toilet? All you need is a couple of five gallon buckets, a toilet seat, and your spiffy "toolshed" in which to put it. No permits, no worries about how to explain the oldfashioned toilet when you sell the house.
posted by Forktine at 2:56 PM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, cool, you remembered the "poop" tag. That saves me a lot of exclamation points.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:59 PM on November 24, 2008

posted by BrotherCaine at 2:59 PM on November 24, 2008

Dang, Forktine beat me to it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:00 PM on November 24, 2008

"Sell the house"? Please, tell me more.
posted by Restless Day at 3:24 PM on November 24, 2008

I was just at "The Humanure Handbook"s author, Joe Jenkins' house a few days ago, and had the pleasure of using his sawdust toilet, as I have many times over the years.

Just a couple of Sundays ago, Joe threw a surreal party at the request of the South Korean film crew that was at his place filming a documentary about Humanure and his family's and neighbor's lifestyle (back to the land homestead). His book has been translated into Korean (and Hebrew and Norwegian), and is titled (in Korean) "Shit Can Save the World". I worked up lyrics to the tune of "Old Joe Clark" and busted it out at the party, and it was a hit. When I looked at Forktine's sawdust toilet link above, there was one of the lyrics (slightly changed) from years ago when I did the same thing for Joe's birthday party. Its the line about appetizers and fertilizer.

I think that composting human manure will soon become a huge deal, especially in the developing world. Cheap, very effective, sanitary, and when you're done, you have valuable rich soil.
posted by BarryP at 3:30 PM on November 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

I think that composting human manure will soon become a huge deal, especially in the developing world. Cheap, very effective, sanitary, and when you're done, you have valuable rich soil.

People have been saying this for what, four decades? Maybe longer? But unfortunately, the barriers (cultural, technical, regulatory, etc) to this happening on any sort of wide scale have yet to be resolved pretty much anywhere in the world. It's sort of sad, because the alternatives are often much worse, but at the same time I think the hippy-rific aesthetic of so many composting toilet projects just emphasizes their location on the fringe.

For most proponents of composting toilets (Joe Jenkins very much not included), it is a great solution for other people's shitting needs, while they are happy to keep their flush toilets, thank-you-very-much.

(I'm definitely a supporter of poop composting, but as one of a wide range of acceptable alternatives, and I think sometimes the "human manure" proponents are their own worst enemies.)
posted by Forktine at 4:05 PM on November 24, 2008

When I was 3 years old, my parents took me to visit my great-grandfather's house in the remote woods of Maine. Being 3, I didn't quite understand the concept of his incinerating toilet other than it used fire to burn whatever was flushed. I wouldn't even walk past the bathroom, as I was certain that thing was going to eat me alive. The story of the "destroylet toilet" is legendary in our household.

Oh, and the first time I stayed at a hotel with a bidet, I had to call a friend and have her google instructions on how to use it.
posted by hwyengr at 4:20 PM on November 24, 2008

I have been reading this book---it's really very interesting. And of course, it's part of my bathroom library.
posted by etaoin at 5:35 PM on November 24, 2008

Yes Forktine, the barriers to widespread use of composting toilets are huge, but when situations get desperate enough, people are willing to try things that they earlier laughed (or held their nose) at. I'm suggesting that we are at the edge of a tipping point, where many green technologies that the tree-huggers have been advocating for years, are going to get traction. The fact that the global economy is also going into the shitter (sorry) will only accelerate this.
posted by BarryP at 5:49 PM on November 24, 2008

Rose, George was the very model of a modern Major General.
posted by notmtwain at 5:59 PM on November 24, 2008

The best method of handling human waste was the way my Great-Uncle did it. Up until the early 70's their farm was so remote that they didn't have electricity. They had a two hole privy attached to the back side of the house. There was about a ten foot drop to the bottom. The bottom of the facility was open to the south and allowed the chickens that were free ranged in that area to enter the facility. When anyone used the privy instead of flushing, a handful of cracked corn was thrown down the hole. There wasn't any more human waste after a few minutes. This was one of my favorite places to visit, just to feed the chickens.

posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 6:27 PM on November 24, 2008

Jumpin Jack Flash; wow. So the chickens ate your poop and you ate the chickens, and the circle of life was complete!

Forktine, the problem with hippies* is that they're no good at marketing, and they don't care if you think they're weird. Set Madison Avenue loose on things like solar panels and composting toilets, and then suddenly it's the wave of the goddamn future.

*from a promotional standpoint
posted by emjaybee at 6:45 PM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

10 or more years ago Ken Davis, then a producer at Chicago Public Radio and host of their morning magazine show, spent a week following a flush, to put it delicately. It was some of the best radio I ever heard. Can't find it in WBEZ's archives (links are three of the searches I tried, I also googled many combinations and permutations of Ken Davis, WBEZ, turd, feces, shit, waste stream etc.), but if one of you internet wizards here can track it down, it's well worth posting.
posted by nax at 7:52 PM on November 24, 2008

emjaybee...Yep, the hogs got the chicken entrails and kitchen scraps. The chickens got the egg shells back after they had dried and were crushed. The hogs also got any unsaleable milk from the cows. The manure from the various animals was put back on the fields. My Great-Uncle lived to 91 and was still farming at the end. My Great-Aunt lived to be 89 anbd was still canning produce from the garden. Their offspring are into their late 70's now and going strong. My Grandfather lived in town and had a small garden. He grew a large bed of strawberries and traded these with the various relatives for whatever they had, such as blueberries, apples, etc.

The "good ole days".
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 8:14 PM on November 24, 2008

Pushed post too quickly...My Grandfather used to haul a big washtub of cow manure home for his garden in the trunk of his '39 Chevy.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 8:21 PM on November 24, 2008

I grew up in the woods and I'm happy to use an outhouse, as long as it's clean (no, not an oxymoron, actually) - here in the city, not so much of an option. I also know that in the woods, the proper method for poo disposal sans outhouse is to dig a hole, poo in the hole, and cover it back up. When camping with a group on a summer trip from high school, we couldn't help but giggle a little bit requesting the "bowel trowel."

Anyhoo, in the city that's hardly an option. Even in most residential areas in small towns, your own personal outhouse will hardly win any zoning permits. I do appreciate toilet paper though, it does much better than leaves.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:32 PM on November 24, 2008

Everyone in New York has told me that you can drink New York City tap water straight from the sink. What’s likely in that water? Should I use a filter anyway?

I don't know why people not from New York think the water is lousy there. Maybe they think it comes from the East River (once infamous for its industrial pollution). But the water comes from the Adirondacks and Catskills and is tremendously well-filtered before it even gets into the awesomely durable and complex water tunnel system, and New York City's water routinely wins flavor competitions.

Anyway, it's actually more at risk from algae in the watershed than it is from human waste. This was sort of a dumb question to ask her.
posted by dhartung at 10:44 PM on November 24, 2008

See also Dave Praeger's Poop Culture. Presentation's a little bit more sensational, but the thrust is the same. He's particularly interested in the way taboo leads to irrational situations: for instance, the example of the water-starved Orange County where highly efficient "toilet-to-tap" recycling is available, but is disputed because inefficient environmental filtering, that produces poorer water, is perceived as cleaner.
posted by raygirvan at 4:20 AM on November 25, 2008

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