when was the last time you shit in the Hudson River?
Never, you say? Youíd never think of engaging in such a disgustingly
crude and irresponsibly polluting act.
Well, your unprocessed shit may be ending up in the river
a lot more often than you think, especially if you live in
one of the riverside municipalities that depend upon sewage
plants along the Hudsonís banks.
Iím sure Iíve shit in the Hudson many times over the years.
I never did it with intent or by dropping my drawers at riverís
edge. It might have been the result of forces outside of my
direct control, but it was my shit, nonetheless, that went
So how is it that our shit gets rolling down the river without
our knowledge? Perhaps if we took a moment to follow the journey
of a typical turd through the Albany sewage system youíd have
a much better idea about how this might be possible.
We have to start first with water, for no turd will be going
anywhere without plenty of water to speed it along. Our local
sewage-treatment systems are dependent upon large amounts
of water. It has been estimated that for every ton of excrement
flushed it takes another 1,000 to 2,000 tons of water to propel
it along its waste-treatment journey.
The water that I use in my house is from the Alcove Reservoir,
a body of water that is located in the Town of Coeymans on
the Hannacroix Creek, a tributary that eventually flows into
the Hudson. It has recently been under heightened security
due to terrorist threats. This water travels more than 20
miles to fill my toiletís reservoir for each flush. Itís strange
that we defend clean water against terrorists so we can defile
it with excrement.
Now, turds donít just appear in thin air. Turds are made up
of that matter remaining after the body has processed food
into energy. Theyíre post-nutritional. They reflect the bodyís
preferences and inefficiencies in utilizing food, resulting
in a rich mix of unused nutrients passing through our digestive
systems and out into the world. As much as 80 percent of this
human manure is water. The remaining matter contains up to
55 percent carbon, 5 to 7 percent nitrogen, 4 to 5 percent
calcium, 3 to 5 percent phosphorus and 1 to 2 percent potassium.
We shit this rich waste into a porcelain bowl filled with
water and spend millions of dollars trying to get it to disappear.
With each flush, I let loose about one-and-a-half-gallons
of water (though many U.S. toilets use up to 5 gallons). The
water rushes down the toilet, driving the turd along plumbing
that eventually leads through the front basement wall of my
house. There, it enters plastic piping and runs in a straight
line under my front yard and into the city sewer line, just
below the sidewalk.
When the turd leaves this plastic pipe and enters the city
sewer, it has left my jurisdiction in the sewer pipeline and
become the responsibility of the city-owned part of the system.
The turd then progresses across town, twisting and turning
through a maze of progressively larger pipes, heading east
toward the river.
Eventually the turd enters a final length of large piping
that delivers it to the South Wastewater Treatment Plant at
the Port of Albany, where it is processed and chemically treated
under the jurisdiction of the Albany County Sewer District.
The more solid constitution of our traveling turd settles
into sludge that is eventually incinerated and then trucked
off to a landfill. The liquid aspect of this bit of shit is
released into the Hudson via a diffuser located out in the
middle of the river near the portís shed No. 5. This is how
things normally flow.
When heavy or persistent rains hit the area, the flow changes.
Like many older cities in the United States, Albanyís storm
sewers that collect runoff from the streets (including all
the toxic contaminants swept up in the flow) empty into the
same sewer system as the flushes rushing down from my toilet.
When a flash flood hits the sewage collection system in conjunction
with, for example, a summer thunderstorm, runoff pours into
streetís storm sewers. This can cause the entire system to
flood, with unprocessed shit discharged directly into the
river. It is in this way that I have made unplanned contributions
to the Hudsonís feculence as have many unsuspecting Metroland
The Capital District Regional Planning Commission wants to
conduct a three-year study to find ways to prevent your shitting
in the river. While separating street runoff from the rest
of the sewage system would provide one costly option to cut
down on the untreated excreta flowing down river, the magnitude
of this environmental problem should warrant some reasonable
foresight. With a growing population, it should be expected
that the ability to waste good water to float our shit around
town will be seriously reduced while the amount of shit produced
will inevitably rise. With all the growing concerns we have
about the quality of the foods we eat, shouldnít we show at
least a little concern for the quality of the shit we leave
Perhaps what is needed first is to try to adopt a different
view of our shit. In The Humanure Handbook (free downloadable
copies at www.weblife.org/ humanure), Joe Jenkins provides
another important perspective on dealing with our dung. He
examines it as a potential resource for composting and applying
to soil building. He reviews the research on how humanure
can be safely used in domestic agriculture. He suggests that
as a culture we need to become less fecophobic (shit fearing).
Perhaps instead of relying on massive engineering and construction
projects that will provide only high-cost short-term solutions,
we need to focus on simpler approaches that better integrate
our shit into the environment over the long run.
I donít want to shit in the river anymore, how about you?