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The Big Necessity: Why I Wrote a Book About Human Waste

Rose George, Slate
Slate editor:
This week, we are publishing exclusive excerpts from Rose George’s new book, “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters”, part of which originally appeared in Slate.

I need the bathroom. I assume there is one, though I’m at a spartan restaurant in the Ivory Coast, in a small town filled with refugees from next-door Liberia, where water comes in buckets and you can buy towels second-hand. The waiter, a young Liberian man, only nods when I ask. He takes me off into the darkness to a one-room building, switches on the light, and leaves. There’s a white tiled floor, white tiled walls, and that’s it. No toilet, no hole, no clue. I go outside to find him again and ask whether he’s sent me to the right place. He smiles with sarcasm. Refugees don’t have much fun, but he’s having some now. “Do it on the floor. What do you expect? This isn’t America!” I feel foolish. I say I’m happy to use the bushes; it’s not that I’m fussy. But he’s already gone, laughing into the darkness.

I need the bathroom. I leave the reading room of the British Library in central London and find a “ladies” a few yards away. If I prefer, there’s another one on the far side of the same floor, and more on the other six floors. By 6 p.m., after thousands of people have entered and exited the library and the toilets, the stalls are still clean. The doors still lock. There is warm water in the clean sinks. I do what I have to do, then flush the toilet and forget it immediately, because I can, and because all my life I have done no differently.

This is why the Liberian waiter laughed at me. He thought that I thought a toilet was my right, when he knew it was a privilege.
(7 October 2008)

The Zero Life: Two weeks, a zero-waste kit, and no trash

Stratton Lawrence, Charleston City Paper
From the moment you wake up and brush your teeth, wash your hair, and shave your face with products packaged in non-recyclable containers, you’re contributing to the waste stream. Need to buy something at a big box retailer or grocery store? Good luck finding anything in recyclable packaging. Going out to eat can be especially wasteful, as restaurants continue to use Styrofoam and other disposals, simply because it’s deemed cheaper or easier than having to wash dishes.

Trying to live without generating trash is next to impossible. But we decided it was worth a shot.

For 14 days, the folks who participated in our experiment went to extremes, constantly discovering previously unnoticed and often unavoidable sources of trash in their daily lives. Between the lawyer and the meteorologist, the outdoor ed teacher and the work-at-home mom, the college student and the City Paper reporter, none of the eight participants made it more than three days without contributing to the waste stream.

Of course, attempting to live waste-free inevitably leads to some awkward moments. The girl at the register at your noontime haunt might look at you funny when you ask for your sandwich on a plate you just pulled out of your backpack. Bartenders might mock you when you tell them that their non-recyclable plastic cups won’t do, or when you’re seen dropping your empty cans and bottles into your purse. Your co-workers probably won’t be too happy with you when you forget to take your hand towel to the bathroom, and they inquire about the wet door handle they’ve just grabbed on to. And try walking down the street with your dog’s poo fisted in a dish glove — at least it’s easier than rinsing out a poop baggie.
(24 September 2008)

Minimizing waste, through the lens of the lab
(text amd video)
Mark Tovey, WorldChanging
Toronto-based biochemist, science writer, and artist Eva Amsen has released Lab Waste, a short documentary calling attention to issues surrounding waste in bioscience laboratories, and what can be done about it. The film is “inspired by a decade of throwing out single-use plastics in labs” and “by a lifetime of being told to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.” Says Amsen:

In cell biology or molecular biology labs the emphasis is on working sterile, quickly and reproducibly. So companies have been selling all these incredibly useful products to life science labs: sterile plastic tubes of all shapes and sizes, single wrap multi-well tissue culture plates, sterile plastic dishes, sterile pipettes. All these products make it a lot easier to do the required work. I can’t even imagine how you could work in a cell culture lab without them, but they do create a lot of waste.

An atmospheric opener gives a visual sense of the scale of the problem.
(15 October 2008)
Video at original.

A year without shopping

Samantha Weinberg , Observer (UK)
When Samantha Weinberg decided to give up shopping for ethical reasons, she little realised that it would coincide with the global credit crunch. Now her choice is one more of us may have to consider

When I decided to give up shopping for a year, it was all about the grand environmental gesture. I’d already made a start. I gave up eating fish six years ago, and then flying four years later, and I wanted to stretch my commitment a little further, to see if I could do without something that I’ve always enjoyed. Or at least assumed I had.

I didn’t give much thought to what it would involve at first; I just wanted to lighten the load of those vast, smoke-belching cargo ships by a few T-shirts, some kids’ toys, maybe a dress or two. As a bonus, it gave me something vaguely shocking to talk about in the months running up to Christmas, when the other mothers at the school gate were discussing the interminable progress of their seasonal shopping.

By the time New Year came, I’d told too many people to turn back. So I gritted my teeth, hid my credit card, and set the parameters of my pledge. From midnight on 1 January, for one year, I would not buy anything that wasn’t strictly necessary. Food was all right, obviously, and other consumables – light bulbs, washing powder, loo paper and diesel. Magazines and greetings cards were out; stamps in. Children’s games and toys were verboten; their clothes, when strictly necessary, would be second-hand, but their shoes could be new. My only luxuries were books – used or borrowed where possible – and anything that might grow into something edible.

… With the year galloping towards its close, and the recession increasingly evident around us, those shopping urges are fewer and further between. To my surprise, I rarely think about it; in the past few months, there have been few additions to my Did Not Buy list. That’s not to say I’ve been perfect. There have been minor lapses: cricket whites for Alfie, flamenco shoes for Notty, and a small picture for Mark’s birthday – of the dead tree in the field outside our bedroom, painted by a friend shortly before it blew down in the storms earlier this year. I even bought my first roll of Sellotape last week. Nothing I regret, though, and nothing for myself. But how long will it continue?

I contacted Judith Levine, the American writer who’d spent 2004 ‘Not Buying It’, to ask What Happened Next? She was reassuringly upbeat: ‘No, I have not jumped back on the shopping treadmill. Having lived happily for a year without shopping I realise I can live happily without whatever it is I feel like buying. Not buying has had the lasting effect of a sense of security about my future. I know I can save more now and live happily on not much at all.’
(19 October 2008)