Dealing with our Waste

In this world where there is a day for everything, today, 19 November, is International Toilet Day. Basic sanitation is still a luxury in many parts of the world – as this BBC photo spread shows.

The Redback on the Toilet Seat

Some dangers are specifically Australian. Record cover of the single released by Slim Newton, June 1972

Human waste disposal is a problem. A contaminated water supply can lead to cholera, dysentery and other infectious diseases, while parasites such as hookworm or schistosomiasis are picked up walking through contaminated soil or water in bare feet. Women in particular are at risk for other reasons, because finding a private place for their ablutions is difficult and potentially dangerous.

Australian cities have not always had clean and reliable sewerage. Until fifty years ago many Brisbane houses had septic tanks rather than a sewered system, potentially contaminating the ground water, and smelly in a hot climate. Particularly during summer months, children often suffered from what was then called ‘childhood diarrhoea’. It was probably dysentary.

Before septic tanks, there were earth closets. In cities these were emptied weekly – the pattern of small lanes behind the main road system, particularly in Melbourne, is a reminder of the ‘night soil’ collectors that once used these lanes.

Once, the earth closet too was a great innovation. On 15 September 1869 the Brisbane Courier devoted an entire article to the ‘many excellencies of the earth closet’.

The earth scheme has been declared superior to all others, not only as a deodorizer of the vicious abominations which taint our atmosphere during the summer months, but as offering an easier means of keeping closets and similar places clean than any agent yet employed… At the late exhibition in Brisbane, complete working closets of full size were on view, and appeared to attract much attention and interest. …The mechanical construction of earth closets… is such that…matters deposited therein are instantaneously covered with a layer of dry earth, and thus deodorized….

It removes all danger of the impregnation of wells with excrementitious matters, an accident now of frequent occurrence… Its universal adoption would lesson the demand upon the water supply of towns to a very large extent – an important consideration… and lastly, but not by any means least, such a system might be made to restore to lands the large amount of valuable fertilizing matters which now flow through the sewers of seaboard towns to contaminate the water for miles around. The value of wasted sewerage in populous countries is enormous.

And there’s the rub. We have replaced earth closets – essentially the composting toilets of their day – with a system which puts a huge demand on our scarce water supply, wastes a valuable natural resource, and flushes it out of our cities to ‘contaminate the water for miles around’.

Brisbane was only sewered in the 1950s and 1960s, and some households went directly from earth closet to sewered toilet, prompting a rash of newspaper advertisements:

For Sale: Weatherboard E.C. Good condition. Cheap.

There are still some weatherboard EC’s around, because they were recycled as tool sheds, overflow storage – or just for their original function as somewhere to sit and think. Perhaps we should think more about how we waste our waste.

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3 responses to “Dealing with our Waste

  1. residentjudge

    I’ve been travelling along the same railway line for the past fifty years and I’ve always been fascinated looking at the back yards of the houses abutting the line, especially in the inner suburbs. There’s not a single ‘dunny’ left in any of the backyards I can see (and of course, so many backyards are being swallowed up by high density apartment blocks that there’s fewer and fewer backyards as well!). Perhaps the EC is having a renaissance, though. Our local festival had eco-toilets this year- with a long drop and plenty of sawdust to cover up. Much, much better than the dreaded porta-loo.

  2. I have written on the sanitation problems in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century Thompson Estate and Junction Park, in my new book, “No regrets in the evening of life: The history of Junction Park State School (1888-2013),” pending publication in 2015 by Boolarong Press. It was a major area of concern for local residents and caused havoc for local institutions, such as schools. It also raises questions about local governances in this era. I don’t have sufficient information, but it seems that the divisional boards and shires were falling short in their public obligations. Certainly, the records show that they were each keen to pass the buck to other local governmental authority.

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