Why is our current system failing us?
When most of us flush a toilet or throw an apple core into the garbage, we don’t give much thought to why or where it goes. Our waste management systems are designed to quickly and easily make these materials “go away”. Conventional waste systems were designed around the idea that the apple core and your toilet contributions are problem materials with no value and require disposal.
Both food scraps and humanure are organic materials rich in nutrients needed to sustain healthy soil and to grow healthy plants, including those we eat. When we dispose of these materials, we fail to return them to the system out of which they came. Landfills and wastewater systems make the organic material unavailable for practical recycling, and so we degrade our soils and rely on chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to make up for it. These outdated systems have other drawbacks, including the release of greenhouse gases, discharge of excess nutrients to land and water bodies, and the unnecessary use of clean water.
Nearly all food residuals (95%) are disposed of in landfills or incinerators. Food scraps are made up of mostly water, but also valuable nutrients. When composted, they become valuable humus that can be used to build healthy soil. Humanure is typically managed through flush toilets and wastewater systems that use clean water to discard the material through expensive treatment infrastructure. On average each of us use about three thousand gallons of clean water per year to flush away 150 gallons of humanure.
Even though many of us now understand the high financial and environmental cost of wastewater and solid waste systems, flush toilets and landfills prevail. Reasons for maintaining the status quo include the capital investment needed to implement a better system, existing infrastructure, established waste handling industries, and the change in behavior needed to make eco-san successful.
Why is Ecosan worth investing in?
Conventional approaches to managing organic material are fragmented, wasteful, ineffective, and expensive. Our dependence on conventional disposal systems and chemical alternatives has a ripple effect that undermines the health and resilience of our communities and environment. Much of our wastewater infrastructure is old and in need of replacement. We have the opportunity to invest in better systems as we replace old ones. Landfills are filling up and the cost of solid waste is increasing. Recycling organic materials will be critical in investing in the larger effort to reduce waste. Existing "waste" industries have the opportunity to create jobs and sustain business as they convert to ecological sanitation practices. There is also a significant need for investment in education, which can incorporate principals of eco-sanitation to bring about behavior change. When evaluating the cost of investing in ecological sanitation, it is also important to consider the cost of environmental damage conventional systems can cause and the value of the ecosystem services healthy systems provide. Perhaps it is not a question of being able to pay for the ecological sanitation, but a question of what it will cost if we do nothing.