Going underground

Dispose of it

Flush the toilet and forget about it. You are not expected to do any differently. Modern sanitary systems are designed to remove your shit instantly and permanently, or so you assume, using sewers and wastewater-treatment plants. Though this method requires using drinking water – an increasingly scarce resource – and though no one has yet figured out how to safely deal with sludge (the dirt removed from cleaned sewage), conventional wisdom still considers flush toilets and sewers the best option available. If you live in areas that can’t spare all that drinking water or can’t afford sewers, a low-cost option is the flying toilet. Take a plastic bag, defecate in it, wrap and throw. Don’t worry about your neighbors; they will be returning the favor.

Going underground illus 1It was a long, hot summer in London that year. The River Thames always stank, as it was where all London’s cesspits were emptied (and where drinking water came from). But only 1858 was the year of the Great Stink. Heat, shit and water combined to make a smell so bad, politicians in the riverside palace of Westminster first doused curtains in lime to stop the stink, then voted to install the biggest, most comprehensive sewer system in the world. Chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette spent £4 million (US$9.5 billion in modern money) to build a network belowground that was as intricate as the roads above. There are lanes, roads and highways. There are sewers big enough to drive a bus through and others of rat-size. Some are wagon-shaped; some are egg-shaped. All do the same thing: They transport the capital’s sewage away from the city, to somewhere else. Since then, sewers and waterborne waste treatment have become the default method of waste disposal in industrialized countries. But they are flawed. London’s sewer system, built for 3 million people, now serves 15 million. And those 19th-century engineers installed the wrong kind. Combined Sewer Systems like London’s take rainwater and sewage together. Too many people, not enough space: most city sewer systems now flood after only two millimeters of rain.

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Depending on location, weather and time of day, a sewer could contain motor oil, grease, grit; shampoo, soap, toiletries; bleach, polish, paint; tampons, applicators, condoms, sanitary towels, diapers, bandages, razor blades, syringes, hospital waste; cell phones, bras, jewelry; cows and motorbikes.

Going underground illus 2Drugs

Up to 90 percent of drugs are excreted unused. This concoction of pharmaceuticals may be linked to antibiotic-resistant superbugs and genetic mutations linked to cancer, though the World Health Organization says its effects are yet unknown.

Going underground illus 3Gold

Toshers were sewer entrepreneurs who sifted for valuables in 19th-century London’s sewers. Modern toshers still work in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Baghdad, Iraq, panning for stray gold specks in drains near jewelry bazaars.

Going underground illus 5Fat

Congealed fat, oil and grease (FOG) cause two-thirds of the UK’s 200,000 annual sewer blockages. In China, people scoop oil from drains then reuse it. One in 10 meals are cooked with this “swill-oil,” according to China Daily newspaper.

Going underground illus 4Broomstick

In 1997, New York City flushers succeeded in retrieving from the sewers a broom handle that had been used by police officers to sodomize Abner Louima. He received US$8.7 million in compensation for the attack; the sewer workers weren’t rewarded.

Going underground illus 6Fetus

Sewerless cities often have pit latrines, which require emptying. Pour in salt to harden contents, then kerosene for the smell. You may find fetuses or babies. Abortions cost money, but the latrine is free.

Going underground illus 7Poison

After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor exploded, highly radioactive cesium ended up in local sewers via rainwater, creating radioactive sludge. For now, no one knows how to deal with it safely, so it is piled up and stored.

Going underground illus 8

From the pages of COLORS #82 - Shit.