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To carry the book openly or to stash it away, that is a question one faces when reading Dave Praeger's Poop Culture:  How America is Shaped By Its Grossest National Product.  That is an unusual reaction when reading something that, at its core, deals with a quite serious subject and deals with it well. And, that discomfort proves one of the core points of the book -- about how American (and much of modern) culture seeks to suppress understanding and discussion of what is, at the end of the day (or whenever you hit the can or release gas or ...), one of the most shared human experiences (after, perhaps, breathing ...).

Reading this book provided an interesting experience, ranging from outright laughter to points that challenged thinking about daily activities to squeamish discomfort about the subject matter.  I learned, in some ways too much, about feces and humanity's relationship with it.  

But this series, this review, is about Energy ... and, well, poop and energy and what we can learn from Poop Culture ...

On consideration, there are several key arenas where Poop Culture relates to critical energy issues:

  1. Sewage systems are a huge infrastructural investment, that take major energy investments to create and operate.

  2. The system is quite wasteful in terms of resources and opportunities exist, in some ways, to turn this around toward a more fruitful energy path.

  3. The sewage system is an excellent example of how decisions made decades, even century+ ago, related to infrastructure drive our choices today and into the future, constraining options.  And, well, it is not just physical but cultural as well -- our mental constructs sometimes constrain even more than the physical. (For example, how many of you recycle and do composting yet do not (as I do not) do Humanureusing some form of a composting toilet?)

Think about the following, as Praeger discusses the infrastructure costs of 'poop', opening with a discussion about a play in which every visit to a toilet had to be paid for,

"a hilariously terrifying universe in which peeing and pooping cost money

"It made you glad to live in a society where the most important things in life are free

"But they're not.  Glistening in the stark bathroom light, bobbing gently in the toilet bowl, framed by a chocolate halo on the water's surface, your poop is unneeded by your body and unwanted by society. You need only flush to remove it from the consciousness of both. But the simplicity of that mechanism belies the intricacy of the infrastructure and the magnitude of the capital invested in the sanitary-industrial complex that makes it so easy.  The effortlessness of pressing a little lever to remove a fresh poop from any bathroom anyehwere in the country at any time of the day maby be teh birthright of every single American, but it is not free." [p 90]

This an example of Praeger's amusing and insightful style. And, he is raising an important point -- just how many Americans consider the cost implications when they flush?  Quite roughly, based on one analysis, the average household flush (from construction to water to toilet paper) costs $0.41 or a total cost of perhaps over $26,000 over an eight year period. [p. 93] As Praeger comments, "The financial cost of all this is staggering; just as shocking is the general ignorance of the cost."

This is all too similiar to the question of Cost to Buy vs Cost to Own when it comes to energy. Do you ever consider the life-cycle cost of owning a toilet? Have to say it hasn't been on the tip of my toungue for cocktail conversations ...

But, this fiscal cost is really just the start. Due to how the sewage system works, the oganic materials of human waste end up mixed (in general) with other wastes (toxic metals, chemicals, etc), making it difficult to safely return it to the environment.  Contaminated sludge isn't the most fruitful way to fertilize food for the kitchen table. (Sadly, there aremany parts of the world where contaminated water/contaminated sludge is a principal source of irrigation water.)

Yet, does it have to be?

Americans flush 108 million pounds of plant food down the toilet every day. ... the US uses 12 billion tons of nitrogen fertilizer alone every year, 65 million pounds a day, 55% of it is imported.  Our poop is being wasted.

Yes, our poop.  We spend a huge amount of money, a huge amount of energy to support a sewage system that requires extensive amounts of clean water and ends up throwing out something that could be fruitfully used.

Praeger advocates composting, "the process through which bacteria and heat break down organic materials into humus". He then discusses composting toilets and The Humanore Handbook, discussing how some already are composting (and getting great vegetables from thsi soil).

But the foresightful and industrious few cannot avert the coming crisis. To drastically reduce our water usage and to stop contaminating our farmlands, we need a poop composting system that every American will use. It must accommodate city dwellers without backyards, the elderly and those who can't lift 20-pound buckets, the lazy who would empty their bucket out the window to save a trip to the pile, and the indoctrinated -- the vast majority, loyal to the institutions of fecal denial who would fight like hell in their refusal to deviate from it.  It's conceivable that society can be persuaded to accept a neighbor's poop compost pile if it doesn't smell or attract vermin, but it's hard to image most Americans giving up their beloved porcelain thrones for sawdust-billed, manually-emptied five-gallon buckets.

The infrastructure challenge is huge -- to figure out how to and then invest to shift from over a century of investments in the current (and planned) sewage system to something that doesn't waste over 54,000 tons of plant food every day -- and, concurrently, reducing water and energy use to match.  But, compared to the social/cultural challenge, this daunting engineering challenge could be easy.

And, well, this is a parallel for the entire energy question.  We can move toward a far more environmentally friendly and fiscally sound energy system, rather quickly, but the challenge is -- in no small part -- cultural.  Are people ready to drive smaller cars or are SUVs an inalienable human rights issue?  Ready to turn off some lights? Set the air conditioning at a higher temperature?  Fly less frequently?  As Royal Dutch Shell's CEO wrote

More than half the energy we generate every day is wasted.

What's the point of producing even more energy if we continue to waste most of it? Instead, we should aim to become twice as efficient in our use of energy by the middle of the next century. That is entirely feasible, provided that the will is there.

And, well, the same is true for our sewage system.  We can move to a less wasteful, more sensible sewage system, "provided that the will is there".  Sadly, based on the unease which readers encountered with Poop Culture, that will might be far away.

Ask yourself:  

Are you doing
your part to


Are you ready
  to do your part?

Your voice can
... and will make a difference.

So ... SPEAK UP ... NOW!!!


Originally posted to A Siegel on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 12:43 PM PDT.


When you poop, do you ...

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips / Mojo: 14 Sept 07 (33+ / 0-)

    This is a quite interesting read ... different than what I expected.  Only a small portion of the book is energy related, but it does provide a very interesting (skilled, humorous, well-written) discussion of human waste in American culture / American life.  It has given me a new vocabulary ... fecal paranoia, etc ...

  •  Think about farm animal poop, too (10+ / 0-)

    I've often wondered if we could solve two problems at once by taking hog effluent (which is liquid for the most part) and use the water in it to -- ta-dah! -- create celluosic ethanol, thus a) keeping it out of the groundwater supply and b) keeping the ethanol plants from sucking up our aquifers.

  •  Hey! How can I tell with that tiny thumbnail (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SallyCat, mataliandy, Floja Roja, A Siegel

    if my poop is healthy or not?  I must know!

    thanks for a fun and informative must be flush with pride.

    NetrootNews coming soon!

    by ksh01 on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 12:48:35 PM PDT

  •  Make biogas out of it! (4+ / 0-)

    Here's link to a group making biogas from animal manure.  Similar projects are being pilot-tested in developing countries in Asia and Africa, with the application being substitution of biogas for cooking over traditional charcoal.

    Not sure if human waste can create the same amount of methane, but hey why not think about it!

    Ala Ka Tile Here Caya (may we have peace in the day)

    by montanamatt on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 12:49:42 PM PDT

    •  beyond sewage fermentation (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      montanamatt, A Siegel, Outrider, JeffW

      in more built up areas where the sewage systems are already in place, shred garbage and mix with the sewage. This gives a better balance of carbon to nitrogen, and a higher solids content feeding the fermentation vessels.

      And relatively recent technologies can do better than biogas. There are separation methods than give product streams of good quality methane, good enough to use in the natural gas system, and CO2+N2, which possibly could be used in algae farms to produce oils and more mass to feed the methane digesters.

      •  The problem with shredded solid waste... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        A Siegel that there's a lot of non-digestable stuff in
        in, along with some really toxic stuff. I worked
        briefly in the environmental engineering field in the
        late 1970's, and building a plant that could separate
        out plastic, metals, glass, etc., from the putrescable
        material was a really BIG stumbling block. Separation
        and recycling may help, but the occasional dead battery or compact florescent could kill your digester
        biomass pronto.

        Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight.

        by JeffW on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 02:12:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  that is a problem (0+ / 0-)

          and you want to get as much of the recyclables out of the garbage first.  But a fluorescent bulb isn't going to kill it, nor is typical residential and commercial waste oopsies.  You do need some holding-mixing volume to avoid excessive pH swings.

          There've been plans around for some time for this concept. With proper shredder design metals tend to end up as small dense lumps that are simple to separate, glass and ceramics become sand that are settled out before the fermentation tanks.

          And indeed most plastics and such will not digest. But they get picked up with the sludge after fermentation, the lot can be treated by thermo-depolymerization to generate various fuels and inorganic salts. A longer term goal would be the development of microorganisms that concentrate as many of the heavy metals, use them in a finishing stage after the methane digesters, and feed that into the thermal depoly unit. The metals end up in the inorganics, much reduced in volume over the sewage and garbage and possibly in concentrations high enough to make recovery cost effective.

          This works best if combined with a power plant, so that the low grade heat from the generation system can be used to heat the mix, first sterilizing it and helping break down the organics for quicker digestion, and at a lower temperature for keeping the fermentation tanks at proper temperature.

          Trail systems have given a 95% reduction in BOD, roughly half that carbon being recovered as methane. The 100 to 120 C sterilization/pre-digestion also speeds up breakdown of some of the pharmaceuticals in sewage, although further treatment may be desirable.

  •  If you want Americans (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Prof Dave, A Siegel, DWG, Horsefeathers

    to switch to composting toilets, they'll have to make them sexy, spa style. The one pictured simply won't fit in those glass and granite palaces people are building these days.

    "I wish that for just one time You could stand inside my shoes You'd know what a drag it is To see you" - Dylan

    by Floja Roja on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 12:52:45 PM PDT

    •  You're right ... (5+ / 0-)

      but there are fancy ones out there ones that have been made quite attractive

      You can always check out Composting Toilet World ...

      •  Something else that will be needed (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mataliandy, Floja Roja, A Siegel

        is the ability to handle hosting parties. The literature from various commercial composting toilets states or suggests that the increased contributions will overload the system, unless it is greatly oversized for the typical usage.

        And then there's the wastefulness of composting toilets - much of the organic matter goes up the vent as CO2 and a bit as methane, some of the combined nitrogen is lost as nitrogen gas.

        •  Generally the system can handle short term (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          A Siegel

          Peak loads. It's only when you overwhelm it consitently that you find it needs manual intervention - aka, grab a bucket, scoop most of the contents out (there's a convenient drawer for doing this) and dispose of it.

          In our case, we already have an outhouse, into which such deposits can be made. I have no idea what outhouse-free people would do.

          Beware the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.

          by mataliandy on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 04:24:09 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  outhouse free (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mataliandy, A Siegel

            the only person I've know that had an outhouse was my greatgrandmother, who lived in a town of about 150 people in the Dakotas.  

            Everywhere I've lived an outhouse is clearly in violation of civic ordinances.  Even septic tanks and drain fields were done away with because of eutropification, and in some cases rather stinking ponds formed at low points from the seepage of many blocks of housing.

            Many places I've lived a composting toilet's output would be banned for health reasons, unless it was periodically certified. There's too many pathogens that make it through low temperature composting for just dumping on the surface, shallow burial, or putting anywhere that would allow leaching into neighboring property.

            •  Stinking ponds (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Floja Roja, A Siegel

              Alas, in VT, where manure is spread 3 - 4 times a year on nearly every field, there are a lot of stinky green ponds come August (or even mid-July sometimes).

              When we had our well drilled, the contractor didn't shock the well with chlorine when he was done. After the entire family was hit with "the runs" the day after we started using the well water, we sent a sample off to the lab. There was 10,000 times more eColi than alloawable by Federal limits. It seems that there's enough eColi on the soil surface courtesy of Bessie and her pals to have done quite an effective job colonizing a deep drilled well. We shocked the well ourselves.

              Anyway, our outhouse is located over very deep sandy loam. The compost from the toilet is largely devoid of liquid, since it drains from the toilet into its very own mini-septic tank. What gets into the outhouse (except when the kids are too muddy to be allowed into the house) is semi-composted solid matter comprising 50% peat moss, 40% sawdust, humanure and toilet paper. The outhouse is essentially a compost bin with a roof.

              Relative to the groundwater pollution created by 16 acres of cow manure that flow down across our property, our personal effluent provides pretty much nothing.

              Beware the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.

              by mataliandy on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 07:49:09 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  Those images have just solved a problem for us (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        A Siegel

        I now know how I'm going to fit the toilet in the 2nd floor bath ... if and when we get that far.

        Beware the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.

        by mataliandy on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 03:50:58 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well ... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Floja Roja

          it is nice to know that today's blogging serve some sort of purpose.

          •  I can't even tell you how happy (0+ / 0-)

            LOL!  I can't even tell you how happy I was to see that blue bathroom pic.

            I now know how to fit the toilet and a bathtub into the small space we'll have available for them on the second floor: Skip the large-ish composting toilet, and use a cleverly disguised bucket system, with bucket access from the hallway OUTSIDE the room.


            Where did the pic come from?  Do they describe loo?

            Beware the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.

            by mataliandy on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 07:30:30 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  How can anyone not recommend this diary? (8+ / 0-)

    Especially anyone with small children who find poop endlessly interesting.

    Disability Rights Advocates -- Fighting for justice for disabled veterans

    by mwk on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 12:53:43 PM PDT

  •  Is There a Compromise? (4+ / 0-)

    People naturally find human poop disgusting - it's partly cultural, but there's a definite biological basis and evolutionary advantage to the desire to avoid poop.

    So, the question becomes - is there a way to get the poop out of sight and out of mind of the average person quickly, efficiently, and without stench and still save it for it's useful purposes?

    An engineering challenge if I ever saw one. Maybe some kind of system of poop vacuums that are picked up every x amount of time by a waste pickup service that gets to sell the manure and be subsidised, or somesuch.

    •  Absolutely a serious engineering challenge ... (5+ / 0-)

      and there are far fancier composting toilets out there that don't require the sawdust.  You can always check out Composting Toilet World.

      Again, though, I wonder whether the significant technical/infrastructure/industrial challenge is bigger than the cultural one.

      And, finally, Praeger's book is overall about poop in American culture -- how it is such a taboo subject.  For example, I never thought about it: toilet paper is about the only major consumer product for which you never see direct discussion of how well the product works.  (Think, ever seen an ad along the lines of:  "Scratch TP -- it might not feel great but it wipes your butt clean and leaves nothing behind"?)

  •  "Waste is a terrible thing to mind" (5+ / 0-)

    Just thinking ahead to the marketing campaign...

    (We'll need one, because the Yuck votes are winning in the poll right now.)

  •  Hey, you're in my territory now, pal. (8+ / 0-)

    Poop diaries need to be cleared through me.  It's in Wikipedia and everything.

    This is a great book.  Praeger is a gifted writer who has made me laugh out loud more than any other author this year (besides Newt Gingrich, but that was unintentional).  All while making you think deep about a subject you never expected you'd ever be thinking deeply about.

    Rating: ****


    "Judge me on the content of my character, not the underwear on my head."

    by Bill in Portland Maine on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 01:02:44 PM PDT

  •  I once was part of a local economic developement (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SallyCat, DaleA, Prof Dave, A Siegel

    task force. We met in the conference room at the local sanitary district and one day I asked the liason from the sanitary district point blank:

    How much shit can you handle?

    Our town already using sanitary sewer sludge as fertilizer as well as composting yard waste.

    Democracy is a constant conversation and if we value democracy, our conversation can't be over, yet.

    by Bill White on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 01:04:08 PM PDT

  •  This struck me funny (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SallyCat, mataliandy, A Siegel

    Have to say it hasn't been on the tip of my toungue for cocktail conversations ...

    I have been to a very boring cocktail parties that I was seriously tempted to expostulate on human waste disposal just as way to jerk people's chains and play with their heads.  

    All fun aside, you have hit upon another environmental issue.  Balancing sanitation with protecting precious water, land and energy resources is a challenge.  

    A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. - Aristotle

    by DWG on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 01:16:11 PM PDT

  •  Seriously we're looking at the incinerator type (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mataliandy, A Siegel

    toilets that can use solar power for converting waste to ash for yards. We'll be realistically installing something like this in 2008 or 2009 in our place in the mountains.

    Any ideas or information on these in your research?

    Never forget: Mother Nature bats last...and she is pissed.

    by SallyCat on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 01:36:16 PM PDT

  •  The Humanure Handbook is an excellt resource (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SallyCat, mataliandy, A Siegel

    on this subject.

    Biodigesters are my personal fave.  Why o why do we dump such a rich resource into our lakes rivers and oceans?

    A biodigester can help break down the components (studies show even break down toxins and pathogens so much quicher then they naturaly would or via chemicals) while also harvesting the methane gas .  Methane that stuff you pay a lot of money for to some gas company to dig holes in the ground and pump up for you to burn on your stive (if you don't have an electric stive).  Methane a gas that can be used on site to turn water into steam to turn steam turbines to make electricity.

  •  This diary gives a whole new meaning to the word (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SallyCat, mataliandy, JeffW


    "I'm not writing to make conservatives happy. I want them to hate my opinions. I'm not interested in debating them. I want to stop them." - Steve Gilliard

    by grog on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 01:43:07 PM PDT

  •  I didn't realize how far ahead of the curve (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    my relatives were!  They had an outhouse when I was small - a two-holer!  My brother, cousin and I used it for a clubhouse.  They had indoor plumbing by then, so the smell wasn't overwhelming.

    Only problem I see with "composting" toilets would be the stench.  It ain't pretty and having it inside a house would be disasterous, no matter what you did to sweeten it up.

    I do agree that recycling human and animal waste is the way to go.  The "lagoons" they create for large animal farms could be capped and the methane captured, same for commercial sewage treatment plants.

    The ONLY reason none of these answers is being pursued is because the oil companies want to wring every nickel out of US they can while they simultaneously buy up all the technology that will become viable in the next several years.

    •  Actually ... re stench ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mataliandy, Leo in NJ

      the composting toilets (both 'simple' and 'sophisticated') basically eliminate this issue.

    •  Our experience with smell (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel, Horsefeathers

      We have been living with a composting toilet for 2 years. Our smell experience went like this:

      1. Install toilet.
      1. Use toilet.
      1. No smell. Yay!!!
      1. Hmmm, now there's smell.
      1. Why is there smell?
      1. Ah, the stack pipe is too short (not long enough for chimney effect).
      1. Add pipe extender.
      1. Yay! No smell again!
      1. Open the upstairs window when all other openings are closed, window creates strong draft - down the stack pipe into the house. Ugh. Smell. (This would be unique to our little cabin, others are unlikely to experience it.) Close window until further notice.
      1. It gets cold outside, warm inside, chimney effect reverses, turns into downdraft. Ugh. Much smell.
      1. Detach stack pipe, insert small 12-volt muffin fan (like for cooling a computer), install light switch to control fan. All is well with the world once again.
      1. It gets very cold for an extended period of time and the pipe in the crawlspace under the cabin is insufficiently insulated. Pipe freezes. Liquid effluent cannot leave. Note, there is no water in this system, it's liquid sewage concentrate... Stinky beyond your wildest imaginings.
      1. Get under house in sub-zero temps, in the middle of the night (hubby did this, not fecophobic me) and cut out the pipe, replace it with a new one, insulate the hell out of it.
      1. Go away long enough for pipes in house to freeze. All of them. At least this time the cutting can happen indoors...
      1. Decide on a simpler, freeze-proof method for waste handling.

      Beware the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.

      by mataliandy on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 04:08:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  We need Still Suits. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    What's you Dune?

    I want to hear somebody asking them why They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are But theyre never the ones to fight or to die - J. Brown

    by OHdog on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 02:06:42 PM PDT

  •  OMG, is hilarious!! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mataliandy, A Siegel, Joffan

    Highly recommended for truly gut laughs.

    "It does not require many words to speak the truth." Chief Joseph - Nez Perce

    by Gabriele Droz on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 02:29:58 PM PDT

  •  Ecological Waste Systems (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mataliandy, A Siegel

    There are a number of different ways to treat blackwater, greywater, and manure using ecological systems thinking.  I particularly like John Todd's work because I've watched him develop his thinking, working prototypes, and scale of operation over the last thirty years.  We can keep the already existing infrastructure from the house down through the sewers and simply replace our existing sewage treatment plants with John's ecological waste treatment systems.  The output would then be clean water, trees and plants, and edible fish.  It's a proven technology that needs only (only?) enough investment to scale up from hundreds of thousands of gallons per day to millions and then billions of gallons per day.  If we had the will to change and the imagination to do so.

    See for more.  Many pretty pictures and exciting concepts.  When was the last time that you saw a sewage treatment plant that looked like a jungle planted inside a greenhouse?

    PS:  I remember two-holer outhouses too.  Used them up in Vermont when I used to visit there.  And composting toilets have come a long way from the first Clivus Multrums that Abby Rockefeller introduced to the US, again, thirty years or so ago.  Currently, I like the look of the Biolet, a nice compact unit with a good reputation.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

    by gmoke on Fri Sep 14, 2007 at 03:16:12 PM PDT

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