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Sewers Past and Present

Raymond Smith and Nicholas Young chart the history of human waste disposal.

A stream of human filth runs throughout history. Each adult adds to it between 150 and 450 grams of excrement and 1.3 to 1.5 kilos of urine every day. In Britain, this now generates an annual total of more than 25 million tonnes of sewage sludge, over a quarter of which is still dumped at sea.

Under pressure from the EC to comply with higher standards for marine and bathing waters, coastal towns will have to treat sea outfalls or find other ways to dispose of the sludge. Most water companies dealing with metropolitan sewage are going ahead with proposals for incineration plants, to end sea dumping by 1998, as agreed by the British government. This has dismayed a growing environmental lobby. Incineration will, arguably, merely pass on environmental costs of disposal into the atmosphere. And anyway, isn't human waste a pre-eminently renewable resource that could supply a less chemical-intensive agriculture, rather than being regarded, and treated, as rubbish? In many parts of the Far East, the natural cycle has never been broken. Why should Borsetshire Water PLC not now be providing Tony Archer with a constant supply of sewage-derived compost for his 'organic' carrots?

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