City and waste

We are very familiar with recycling paper, glass and recently, plastic. It feels good that this waste is turned into a resource again. Many of us are also recycling food scrapes through municipal services, backyard compost heaps or small-scalle vermiculture.  However,when we are flushing the toilet, we do not often see our own waste as a valuable resource.

Our sewage system seems the only and logical answer nowadays but it was highly debated in the 19th century for its disadvantages before it was adopted (like pasteurisation was rejected by medical doctors  because it would also kill all the ‘good’ in milk, see Dupuis 2005). Alternatives were cesspools or the barrel system. Cesspools and sewage pipes were believed to leak and thus to contaminate the groundwater. Contaminated groundwater due to the absence of city-wide waste disposal systems was, by then, seen as the primary cause for outbreaks of cholera and typhus in the mid 19th century.

barrel cart Groningen

The Netherlands had a vocal protagonist of the barrel system in the medical doctor Ali Cohen from Groningen (Houwaart 1997). He became nationally known for his zeal for urban waste disposal. The barrel system simply meant that human waste was collected in barrels which were emptied in a cart behind horses. The waste was then turned into compost at a city composting place after which the compost was sold to the farmers outside the city. Cohen strongly believed in the composting of human faeces as a fine example of restored balance between man and nature, city and countryside.

Various Dutch cities tried the barrel system. However, it turned out not to be profitable, except in the city of Groningen. The special conditions in north of the Netherlands, including the existence of good waterways and large farm holdings in the immediate area were lacking in other parts of the country ( Houwaart 1997). While other cities started investing in sewage systems, the barrel system continued in Groningen until the beginning of the 20th century. Not a very clean practice, emptying barrels in the middle of the street. But the city government always refused to improve the system despite new ideas such as not emptying it on the spot but changing the barrel for a cleaned and disinfected one.  The result was that at the end of the 19th century the city was, totally unlike Cohen’s ideals, stuck with a very outdated waste disposal system compared the other Dutch cities.

5 thoughts on “City and waste

  1. Talking of alternatives the Liernur system has to be mentioned. This vacuum system succesfully functioned in several cities in the Netherlands and abroad, and was the modern version of barrel system in that it captured the human waste for it to be sold as fertilizer, but without the laborious and unhygienic collection of barrels (for an interesting article in Dutch check: or read the 1986 dissertation by Henk van Zon on the history of the sewage system). Different developments such as the rise of artificial fertilizer did in this technology, but a modernized version in combination with anaerobe digestion has been developed by WUR and is being tested in Sneek (see e.g. )

  2. Hi Paul, thanks a lot for these very interesting contributions. And yes indeed, I sometimes forget the latest good high tech research of this uni! Petra

  3. Pingback: Metabolic rift « Rural Sociology Group Wageningen (Weblog)

  4. Another interesting book that traces how soil has been perceived and acted towards over time is”Dirt” written by David R. Montgomery in 2007. At least, the review sparks my interest for example his “treatment of the intersection of the institution of slavery and soil destruction in the American South” See for this review by Cornelia Butler Flora the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability nr 7 issue 2 P147

  5. The subject is very interesting in relationship with water, sanitation and health (WasH) and the cradle to cradle concept.

    I recently visited the pilot in Sneek and the company involved Landustrie (recommendable to go!). The organization called ‘Waste’ in Gouda did also research about eco-sanitation.

    Adriaan Mels, lecturer of Urban Environmental Technologies and Management can tell you a lot about this topic.

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