Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
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By G.I. Bergstein
Eight billion people pump sewage into rivers and oceans everyday on this planet. Not equally mind you, but more people than ever before have access to indoor plumbing and every one of them require large inflows and outflows of water. Apparently about 100 gallons per day per person, but conservatively let's say 40 gallons of sewage is created per day per person. With an estimated population of 8 billion people, that's 320 billion gallons of sewage per day and we're relying on a 19th century waste treatment technology built upon a 2000 year old plumbing idea to do the job. Thankfully there's 82 billion billion gallons of water in the world's oceans and we're not wallowing in our own feces just yet. But the issue still stands as it's not just the fecal water that ends up in the world's seas but also the chemicals, hormones and environmentally damaging waste products that are allowed to be flushed out to fragile aquatic and marine habitats. Improving the sanitary conditions of people around the world and at the same time preserving the biosphere necessitates that new technologies and methodologies be applied in processing our water wastes.

The plumbing infrastructure of developed nations typically take in fresh water from centrally treated reservoirs. These are sourced from local rivers and lakes, and are then distributed to the residents and industrial sites as part of a municipal-wide water supply network. From a residential system's point of view, the treated water entering the households is the input. On the output side, the waste products are carried through a centralized sewage treatment network, where various methods are employed to clean the water as much as possible before it is released to a nearby sink location - typically your local sea or back into the same river downstream. Overall the system works remarkably well and it would continue to work if it weren't for problematic things aside from bio-waste ending up in the sewage. Plastics, chemicals, hormones in our stools, industrial toxins, non-biodegradable garbage are all difficult things that cannot be easily taken care of by this infrastructure. What we need is to stop these things from ending up in the output. But how?

There are expensive solutions such as reverse osmosis and distillation that do not 100% guarantee pristine water but they can be very effective. Once the soluble elements are separated, the water can be reclaimed for other uses. Alternative research avenues seem to suggest that there may be organisms or chemical processes that can break down plastics and other environmentally harmful substances. But whether those are feasible or not remains to be seen. These two broad methods however do show promise if they can be integrated with other infrastructures such as power generation. Theoretically for example, electrical power generation that rely on steam may be able to utilize some of this contaminated water (after all the large solids are removed such as through a sludging process). By boiling the sewage, the steam can be used to do work, distilled, and then the resulting water can be used for something else or released safely into the environment. The remaining toxic portion can be concentrated and undergo further processing, perhaps bio-gas reclamation or as a food source for those experimental microbes/fungi that can break them down to less toxic wastes. Maybe there can be chemical processes to create various forms of batteries from the wastes. By adding certain agents, one batch would create an anode and another a cathode. Connect a wire between them to create a toxic battery (electrical or otherwise). The remaining toxic materials that cannot be broken down completely should be concentrated, solidified and contained. Perhaps they can then be used as combustible fuel produced as part of such systems as in fecal sludge management. If not then ideally they should be disposed of in barren areas away from water sources. These can then be fed into mining operations as a recycling effort. In all cases, we must recognize that any and all potential solutions must ensure our wastes do not enter into any waters, both fresh and salty.
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By Candideto
Waste management in general is a difficult and expensive process to both implement and to operate. There are cost and efficiency parameters to consider and you can't have one without negatively affecting the other. While supplying fresh water to densely populated settlements using plumbing was a boon to civilizations, disposing the waste was always a bigger challenge - as is the case in any complex system that deals with unwanted byproducts. As cities industrialized and densely concentrated a large population of poor workers, disease outbreaks occurred more frequently and higher mortality rates associated with poor sanitary conditions were quickly recognized to be the cause. This forced many in the educated circles to realize the need for clean living spaces, and the 19th century gave birth to key technologies such as indoor toilets and underground sewage systems. It was a critical success that is often taken for granted in western nations. In the meanwhile, many developing and poor nations live through the horrors of an existence that lacks this basic need.

The sanitation system effectively treats the residential area as a black box, which takes in water and outputs unusable waste. We can either continue to treat it as a black box and deal with the output in sewage treatment facilities or we can open it up and control/shape the output in some way. For example, separating urine from solids can be an effective way for higher efficiency biogas generation as you can do this most effectively through the ammonia in the urine. So if there was a separate pipe for urine versus the rest, one can theoretically divert this to a separate facility just for biogas generation. Separating the stools is also possible to do but carrying it off out of the residence is still a problem. Currently the toilet flushes using the traditional 2 gallons of water to expel it into the common sewage. An alternative solution without water will need other means of transporting it for further processing. Vacuum suction such as in airplanes combined with septic tanks is an option and perhaps this can allow for a more efficient localized treatment of the fecal waste. But this might be another vector for disease if it's not situated sufficiently away from the residence. Once the feces is processed, it can be hardened and burned as fuel or be transported elsewhere for fertilizing unusable lands.

It should be noted that there's also a global waste trade in existence, where countries pay other nations to take their waste products and let them deal with processing it. This is mostly for land-based wastes such as recycling and garbage. But it's possible that fertilizers derived from human stools can be traded in this manner, not just between nations but also between municipalities. For example, the dried and compacted fertilizer can be transported to arid nations, locally hydrated from a water source (desalinated water for instance), and then sprayed in areas assigned for greenage. If properly designed, a few rounds of fertilization efforts should be enough to allow the grown vegetation to keep a sustaining ecosystem going without needing any additional input (aside from irrigation). Thus it can be a way to both reverse the process of desertification and a method to properly dispose of domestic sewage.
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By Sybilla
Although domestic sewage is an issue, industrial waste is a far more hazardous concern, and hence the need to address it is more pressing. Those who ignore or excuse the waste products ending up in the environment should be viewed as accomplices in criminality and as instigators of biological and chemical warfare upon the local inhabitants. The western world at large chose to offshore the industrial waste problem to far-away countries eager to industrialize at the expense of their fragile ecosystems. Investing in cleanup methods and technologies is a low concern when kicking the can down the road is far more convenient. As long as the problem is far away and the laws are set up to indemnify the top war criminals, why bother to waste even a single iota of effort in worrying about the consequences?

The nations selling their backyards to fill them with the garbage of the rich do so at their own ultimate demise. Those garbage mountains are toxic and neither the land nor the "resources" in the wastes are practically recoverable. They will not compost for hundreds of years and if any of it seeps into the ground water, then that would lead to further disasters. Perhaps the thinking is that this is a short term solution out of necessity. There would be a miracle technology in the future that would wave its magic wand and make the problem disappear. Or maybe this is the price they're willing to pay now, and the garbage problem will be something that future generations will need deal with. The pattern looks reminiscent of the abused becoming the abusers, and in turn inflicting their pain upon their defenseless easy-prey children. Are the future generations of such little worth that they are to be relegated as the cleanup crew for the pig generations that begot them? Must the sins of the fathers be paid by the sons?

Rather than condemning future generations to hardships due to our unwillingness, because it is indeed our unwillingness rather than our inability to solve the problem that is at the heart of this narrative, we must strive to create opportunities and beauty for our children to appreciate. This is the way humanity (the decent people who actually cared for their young and their fellow human beings) has worked, despite what cynics, heartless pragmatists, and self-aggrandizing kings and queens of their cocooned worlds would like to say and believe. It is not and has never been their universe. It was always the world created and sustained for the children and nobody has the right to destroy it for their own sake, no matter how good of a justification they may hold in their own subjective ego-centered minds.