Where does it go when you flush? | VailDaily.com

Where does it go when you flush?

Matt Scherr
Vail, CO Colorado

Where does it go when you flush?


Down the Rabbit Hole

We will first presume you are using the informal, collective “you” and are not inquiring after my own personal habits. Either way, I am grateful for your letter because it gives us good cause to talk again about that vast and mysterious place called “Away.”

As long as we humans have been dropping our pants (even loincloths) and making stinkies, we have been variously leaving, burying, composting or sending it “away.”

Once we became a relatively sedentary folk, leaving it behind quickly and understandably lost favor. Burying was, and still is, a fine way to not only be sanitary, but also to keep nutrients in a natural system. But even burying, when staying for extended periods, can crowd things a bit.

But laziness is the father of invention. Still not wanting to move, and having already learned some neat farming skills, composting human waste along with other organic waste helped us distribute the waste burden … some.

Problem is carnivores and herbivores don’t make such great manure. Especially these days, we humans (omnivores) consume many “unnatural” things, such as food preservatives, hormones and toxins that are, at best, unknowns in the chemically sensitive compost stew.

So for that fact and continued laziness ” a.k.a. “convenience” ” we began our modern journey to Away. Our first efforts to send things away were ditches and gutters that led to natural waterways. Upon realizing a correlation between open sewers and the presence of disease, we wised up and enclosed sewers.

Then after continued complaints from the neighbors and one or two wars, we thought of collecting and treating all the goodies at the end of the line. It was the first time we really knew or cared where “Away” was. And that didn’t happen as policy in the U.S. until the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. Dumping raw sewage is still a fetid fact in much of the world.

So now we catch human waste, and treat it. We do this, primarily, in two ways.

About a quarter of the U.S. uses on-site septic systems. “Sludge” (solids) from wastewater drops to the bottom of an underground septic tank where bacteria help it decompose. “Scum” (grease and oils) rises to the top where it is pumped out every couple of years and put in a landfill. Between these layers is icky water that leaches out into surrounding vegetation and soil for “natural” and final treatment.

Septic can actually be a pretty good system. But paints, cleaning chemicals, tampons, too much grease ” to name a few drain favorites ” can seriously muck up this sensitive system and even contaminate drinking water. In this case Away ain’t far enough away to make it someone else’s problem.

The rest of us folk in the U.S. use wastewater treatment facilities that separate the sludge the scum and the garbage on a community scale. Bad bacteria and microorganisms are killed in the process and the sludge is used in fertilizers, incinerated, composted, used to produce methane or buried.

If this were it, the biggest issue we might face is the vast amount of water we consume for our flushing convenience. But many of the nasties we put in the system directly, such as toilet cleaners, or indirectly, such as birth-control hormones, cannot be effectively treated and must re-enter the environment.

Both septic and wastewater treatment facilities create good opportunity to keep nutrients in a natural cycle. But the things we add to these systems aren’t so natural.

This idea of “Away” has led us to believe in open systems where we can merely expel what we don’t want. But the problem is that “Away” is not so far away as we believe, and it’s getting closer all the time.

” Scummily,


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