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.
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 The result was that at the end of the 19th century the city was, totally unlike Cohen’s ideals, stuck with a very outdated waste disposal system compared the other Dutch cities.