Holy Crap! What goes around comes around
From plate to loo and back again
“Out of sight, out of mind”
We’ve been blessed with a generous helping of blind spots, whether we’re aware of them or not. In some cases they are exploited for our continued consumption. In others, our insouciance is perfectly convenient to the status quo.
Undeniably, there is an ever-growing disconnect between our actions and their consequences. Between our behaviour and our environment. Between what we consume and its provenance, how it was produced and what happens once we’re done.
So be honest and tell me the truth. Have you ever wondered what happens after you pull the flush?
The Problem -
Water scarcity is a very real environmental issue with the summer of 2022 seeing some significant droughts worldwide. In the UK, the head of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan wrote: “Part of the solution will be to reprocess the water that results from sewage treatment and turn it back into drinking water — perfectly safe and healthy, but not something many people fancy.” ¹ There was outcry, indignation and disbelief. Accusations of reverting to Victorian times and returning to primitive practices were made. The public was horrified. What we don’t realise is that many countries already do this.
So, join me on a trip down the toilet and through our sewage network to see where our water will come from in a not so distant future and the shocking repercussions we already endure.
The Process -
Wastewater from our baths, toilets and sinks flows through our home’s pipework, into drains, through to the sewers and into sewage treatment plants, where it will undergo a series of processes.
Preliminary screening is the first step, this is where wet wipes, sanitary pads, plastic bags, condoms and all sorts of crazy stuff gets fished out. The UK has a combined sewerage system meaning treatment plants can also take rainwater effluent which contains debris from the road surface such as tyre crumbs, cigarette butts, brake dust, construction waste, tipped chemicals and the list goes on.²
The next step is known as Primary settlement, here the solids are separated from the water in a sedimentation tank. The solids are heavy and sink to the bottom, forming a layer of sludge, whereas the scum rises to the top, not unlike our government and some industry executives.
Secondary settlement comes next, here the wastewater is moved into large, aerated tanks to promote bacterial activity and degradation of organic matter. This is called activated sludge and at this point, the wastewater is deemed clean enough to be discharged into waterways.⁵ The cleaning and filtering of the water are remarkably effective. Some sources report an almost total removal and recovery of microplastic fibres that come off our clothes during the wash cycle.²-⁶ Great news, you can throw out your Guppy Bag!
Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR) is how we most commonly turn this wastewater into drinking water again. It requires filtering through membrane bioreactors, then reverse osmosis to filter out microorganisms and pharmaceuticals and finally further disinfection by ultraviolet. The treated water is reintroduced into groundwater where it will stay for half a year or so and be filtered further by natural processes. Eventually, this water will be drawn out again and go through the standard water purification process.
“Toilet-to-tap” or Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) differs in that the recycled wastewater is not re-introduced into the environment but rather immediately sent back into our water system. DPR was first used in Windhoek, Namibia in 1968, where until recently, it existed as the only DPR system in the world. As water scarcity increased over the last few decades California, New Mexico and Texas have begun to adopt it. Singapore has been doing it since 1998 and many countries have followed suit.³
The By-product -
So this is Toilet to Tap, the process that Sir James Bevan was referring to and it may sicken you or it may seem entirely logical if you belong to the “Water is Blue Gold camp”, but whatever the case may be, we can agree that the water coming out of our taps has been well treated. This, however, is not the end of the story.
From both the primary and secondary settlement stages, the sludge is collected and 87% or 3.6 millions tons,⁶ is sent to farms as fertiliser. The sludge is screened for contaminants, and rightfully so, but unfortunately, regulations haven’t been updated since 1989. In that time, we’ve manufactured some very complex and different substances. The screening process which only looks for some harmful bacteria, heavy metals and fluorides is woefully unsuitable for the contaminants we now find in our sewerage system.⁶ This leaves notoriously harmful and carcinogenic substances in the sludge such as glyphosate, triclosan, a range of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs*), Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS**), dioxins, fuerans, Benzo(a)pyrene (a known Class 1 Carcinogen) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).⁶
An undercover report by Unearthed identified not only antibiotics, biocides and metals in the sludge but also E.coli and Salmonella creating the perfect environment for breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria, arguably one of the gravest threats of our time.⁶
However, a decision that defies all logic, reason and sanity occurs. The microplastics that were successfully filtered out of the wastewater during primary and secondary treatment are put back into this contaminated sludge.²-¹⁴ This sludge is then sold to farmers, as fertiliser to spread on their cropland via a process known as landspreading⁴, for the very food we subsequently buy and eat.
If you’re still able to focus on these words after repeatedly battering your head against your desk then congratulations, you’re made of sturdy stuff.
Incredibly, farmers are not even aware of the content of the sludge they’re purchasing and spreading. They’re not aware that their fertiliser is essentially a potent and toxic chemical cocktail harming both themselves and the health of their soils to the point that they’ll eventually be unsuitable for agriculture. An extreme case of toxic sludge in Georgia caused the deaths of hundreds of cows. Numerous reports of disease and poisoning have come to light over the years, with some farmers showing extremely high levels of chemicals in their blood and developing a variety of cancers.²-⁹ Parkinson’s, the fastest-growing neurological disorder in the world, and one for which there is no cure has been linked to the use of chemicals in farming.⁹
As if there wasn’t already enough rubbish in the soil, we purposefully add microplastics to the soil to increase friability and help root growth. In Europe, it is standard practice to use fertiliser pellets coated in plastic films to slow down the release of nutrients. As the film breaks down over time, it turns into microplastics. The jury is still out as to whether the microplastics are mostly washed out to sea thus contaminating the marine food chain, or if they mostly accumulate in the soil, leading to contamination of the food chain here as crops absorb pollutants through their roots.²
Plastic pollutants are also present in animal feed. Tons of expired supermarket foods are salvaged from landfill each year and used as animal feed, but often with their plastic wrappings.¹⁰ Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam has found that 80% of meat and dairy products from farm animals contain microplastics.¹¹ Faster to list where plastic is absent. We live in the Age of Plastic. What Lead was to the Romans, so shall Plastic be to us.
The extent to which we poison the lands on which we grow our food makes Chernobyl seem like a toddler’s fart in a bathtub. Those working in the agriculture industry are already suffering from these oversights and whilst long-term studies of the ingestion of these compounds through food on human health are still inconclusive, I’ll bet you a pound to a pinch of shit that it won’t bode well.
The Cop-Out -
The summer saw some egregious sewage dumping scandals which earned the UK a moniker we can all be proud of, “Sewage Island”. Whilst some of us were wrestling with used sanitary pads on our leisurely sea swim, others were glued to their surfboards by human faeces. The offending water companies casually pocketed billions in profits.⁸
The reasoning goes that during heavy rainfall, to avoid raw sewage flooding homes, roads and other open spaces, combined storm overflows (CSOs) are opened and our wastewater is “exceptionally” released into waterways. Some reports claim 200 discharges like these occur every year, an abomination which hardly seems temporary or exceptional.¹³ A recent report shows evidence of 146 illegal “dry spills”, so discharges without rain occurred in the last year.¹³ With E.coli and Salmonella, let alone the antibiotic-resistant kind, having been identified in our swimming waters, the health impacts are grave and sometimes fatal.⁸-¹²-¹³ The repercussions on sea and river ecology are catastrophic. The pollutants are ingested by marine life where they cause disease, infertility and stunted growth thus throwing off the fine balance of those ecosystems.²-⁶
Just like farms abiding by the Red Tractor Standard, water companies self-regulate and are expected to report their sewage discharge to the authorities.⁸-¹³ We’ve handed over monopolies. And this is increasingly the case in all industries.
The Conclusion -
For a modern civilisation to knowingly pollute its water and food sources is beyond comprehension. We literally shit where we eat.
Landspreading, a process that on paper makes perfect sense, has been corrupted by obscurity and greed. Supply chains have multiple middlemen, contractors, sub-contractors and even waste brokers, exhibiting a confused hierarchy frighteningly reminiscent of the Sopranos.
Everybody is getting in on the action. Waste is regularly miscoded, mislabelled, mixed and misplaced. Financial incentives are at odds with best practices. The Environment Agency, the very body supposed to prevent illegal dumping and monitor the safe disposal of our waste, is understaffed, underfunded and utterly toothless. As a result of our disgraceful lack of public funding, charity groups such as Surfers Against Sewage and Top of the Poops have had to step up and monitor sewage dumping and the safety of our swimming waters through their Safer Seas and Rivers app.
We’ve grown disconnected from our environment. Paul McCartney’s famous quote, highlights this perfectly: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian”. Instead, we consume in blissful ignorance, unwilling to question our ways, terrified of facing the discoveries we might make and the changes they may precipitate. We neither question where things come from nor where they go once we’re done with them. We consume irresponsibly and with impunity. But we cannot rely on others to catch and fix the consequences of our carelessness. The institutions that are responsible for protecting us are incompetent, greedy and corrupt. Once again, the responsibility falls on our shoulders to vote with our wallets and consume with awareness. We must apply pressure above to see the changes we desperately need.
Farmers are front-line victims in this too. We need to update policies and regulations on not only the screening and use of sludge but also on how to deal with waste overflow and what is deemed acceptable. We need to stop using chemicals in everything. They are everywhere and truly perilous to our health. The polluter must pay and water companies that pollute our environment and ultimately our food chain must be sanctioned commensurately. The grotesque profits they report should be used for reparation and prevention of damages not to further line their pockets. There is simply no excuse for this reluctance to expand capacity, tighten standards and adequately perform the job they are handsomely paid for.
We must also realise that “out of sight-out-of-mind” no longer applies. “Out of sight until it ends up on your plate and poisons you” would be more appropriate. All of our planet’s systems are at their breaking point and we can no longer afford this glaring lack of curiosity. We must question everything and must confront it when it is wrong.
Next time you throw something down the toilet, just remember it may well end up on your plate.
Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS):
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are highly carcinogenic chemical compounds, formerly used in industrial and consumer products, whose production was banned in the United States by the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1979 and internationally by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.
Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS):
(conjugate base perfluorooctanesulfonate) is a chemical compound having an eight-carbon fluorocarbon chain and a sulfonic acid functional group and thus a perfluorosulfonic acid. It is an anthropogenic (man-made) fluorosurfactant, now regarded as a global pollutant.
George Monbiot: Regenesis “Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet”