science

Capitalism for Crap

Wait, maybe that’s crap for capitalism. Or… capitalist crap! Yes, that’s it!

There are a lot of names for it, but I’m reminded of the title of a children’s book: Everybody Poops. When you’re a parent, getting your kid to poop on the potty is a moment to celebrate. No more diapers! But…

After you poop, what happens to it? Here in the developed world of indoor plumbing and septic systems, it’s discreetly whisked away and we never again have to look at it, or smell it. That’s not the case everywhere, and as someone who spent a good chunk of her childhood with an outhouse for a crapper, I’m very aware of what a family’s worth of crap looks and smells like after a surprisingly short time. Now, let’s multiply that by 7 billion people, and suddenly, the fecal matter hits the impeller. That’s a LOT of poop.

So what to do with all that schtuff? Well, I’ve worked in a field that had been fertilized with biosludge, a processed mass of fecal matter and other wastes generated from a local city’s sewage. It was gray, caked and dry. A bit dusty but not, as I recall, stinky. That’s one way to deal with the poop problem, but it’s only one, and in most of the US, you can’t use biosludge on fields that will be producing food. For good reason.

Waste is waste for a reason. The human body doesn’t rid itself indiscriminately (when in healthy condition) of unnecessary nutrients. Unlike the rabbit, which doesn’t fully digest it’s food until the second time around (yes, they are coprophages), human guts do a good job of taking what’s needed. What’s left is greasy, full of microbes, and in many parts of the world, parasites. Untreated, using it anywhere near food is a really bad idea. However, treatment is expensive, which is where capitalism comes in.

According to Unicef, 4.5 million people in the world don’t have a way to deal with their own poop. Funding that would be difficult, if not impossible, and an unfair burden to throw on the shoulders of the developed world. However, what if there were ways to make poop pay it’s own way?

That’s where capitalism comes to the rescue. If cash can be had from caca, that revenue will alleviate the sanitation burden. Entrepreneurs around the world are thinking outside the septic system and using waste to build businesses. Besides the obvious of creating fertilizer from human manure, it’s been discovered that you can use it to produce fuels, building materials, and even cosmetics. Yes, I said cosmetics, and if you’re delicate of stomach you might want to quit reading now. Human waste is used to feed fly maggots (from a very specific species) and before the pupate, they are harvested and pressed for oil, which is then used for a number of purposes.

So far from being inundated with a wave of our own droppings, humans are ingeniously turning it into a way to make a living, standing on the shoulders of men who have done the dirtiest of jobs since the time of the first cities. Once humans stopped shitting on the ground and then moving camp when it was too foul to live with any longer, ways to handle waste have been badly needed. Plagues and epidemics could have arisen from the foul miasma – the theory of ‘bad air’ isn’t terribly off the mark, really. Instead, the sweet smell of success might be emanating from those latrines.

Just don’t breathe too deeply.

 

7 thoughts on “Capitalism for Crap

  1. Fuels I was aware of (as well as fertilizer, yes) but cosmetics? That’s new one. Though it should not really be a surprise. Pretty much anything considered waste is, in a different light. “ore.”

  2. This isn’t totally new, although some of the uses might be. There used to be people who picked up animal manure off the city streets to sell to the market gardeners outside town (which then fertilized the crops that fed the people and animals of the town). And I think that, at least in some parts of China, they may still have people who collect both human and animal poop to make methane and fertilizer.

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