All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

In praise of poo science

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My friend Diana suggested that I should call my blog “the poo blog”, especially given what my earlier book review (three and a half good books on poo ) was called.  I have to admit, it has a nice ring to it.

And she should know, she is a pro – well, she is a sewage engineer, to be specific.  It’s a surprisingly interesting profession, and it is remarkable that so few people know what actually happens once you flush a toilet – and that so few are interested.  For instance, if a stranger tries to pick her up, asking “and what do you do?” – the very mention of her profession tends to be a conversation stopper.  Then again, saying “oh, I’m into shit” can be effective against unwanted attention.  Hans Selye used to munch on raw garlic when he didn’t feel like answering any more questions.  Whatever works.

The lack of interest is a shame, though, because it is preventing us from seeing the obvious: how we manage our poo can make all the difference between polluting our lakes and oceans, and recycling a resource that provides fertilizers, energy, carbon sequestration, organic matter, you name it.

And there is a fount of trivia about manure, sewage, call it what you want.  Diana recently sent me couple of links worth mentioning.

Toto`s poobike

The energy content of human waste is illustrated by its ability to power things.  Toto, the Japanese toilet maker, has invented a mobile toilet mounted on a motorcycle that is powered by, well, deposits to a toilet.  The article doesn’t rate the performance of the motorcycle in terms of kilometers per bowel movement, unfortunately.  But the intrinsic potential for offering relief during traffic jam is certainly clear.  All joking aside, this neat little contraption is an example of the wasted energy value of what we flush.

The second set of links that Diana sent me (here and here) is somewhat more intriguing and more whimsical.

A bit of background is necessary.  What actually happens after a flush?  Well, at the end of a long pipe is a series of tanks that hold bacteria – many of them.  These bacteria specialize in eating sewage (as the rolling latrine above shows, there’s plenty of energy, aka calories, in sewage), releasing just water and relatively harmless carbon dioxide (yes, it’s a greenhouse gas, but nobody’s perfect – you do too).  The problem is that these bacteria leave behind a sludge (made up of dead bacterias – which is kinda sad when you think of it) and it’s that sludge, which is messy but is a decent fertilizer, that costs money to dispose of.

sewage treatment plant, aka home for happy bacteria

But a sewage treatment plant operator in Germany claims to have found a way to speed up the process – which saved him over 10,000 Euros last year.  His trick?  Play classical music to the bugs (Mozart, to be precise).  According to him, this makes the bugs more efficient, or something, and they produce less sludge.  Maybe they live longer?  Listening to classical music has always been considered healthy, and maybe the bugs have a couple of things to teach us.  And we know that playing classical music to cows makes the produce more milk, and calms down chimpanzees in the zoos.  So they say (they also say that playing rock and roll to the same chimpanzees makes them cranky and agitated, and in the sixties this was held as a proof that classical music was superior to rock.  But I digress).

Neither article attempts to explain how on earth classical music could affect bacteria, who, after all, do not have ears.  Maybe it`s new-agey thingy revealing the cosmic consciousness of all life, including bacteria.  But I would suggest that it may well have to do with the fact that the music is produced by special under water speakers (under sewage speakers, to be exact).  Researchers elsewhere have tested the effects of various sonic frequencies on sludge.  Basically, if you blast dead microbes at the right frequencies, their membranes rupture and their contents dissolve, which is another way to say that they are gone.  Maybe it`s just the speakers, and Def Leppard would be just as effective.  But hey, since this is Germany, let`s go with Mozart (they play the Magic Flute).  It`s so much more romantic and gives a human face to our bacteria.  At any rate, Roland Meinusch, the plant manager hopes to attract a PhD student to look at what`s under all this.

Now, don`t you wish you were a sewage engineer? Fascinating stuff!

Too bad for the poo blog idea, though.  The name is already taken, and by someone obsessed with his own bowel movements.  What a lack of imagination!   And to think that there are more poo trivia in heaven and earth than exist in your philosophy…

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Written by enviropaul

February 9, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] even wrote a post once on poo trivia – at the urging (or was she just kidding?) of my friend Diana, the sewage engineer. And doing so, […]


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