Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Putrid Business of Scavenging

Now to most of us, the word 'scavenger' brings to mind a hyena, or some other animal that sates its hunger from eating carrion or the remains of dead animals.

But eighty years ago, the term had another meaning altogether. It was described as a person that retrieved waste from private homes as well as from public conveniences. A century ago, this rather distasteful task was carried out by private contractors, commissioned by the government. The reason it was particularly unpleasant was the fact that a large proportion of homes then did not having flushing toilets (just about all, actually, in 1900).

But for the Chinese contractors, collecting human poo could be a fairly profitable endeavor. Not only did you get paid by the government, but you could then take the excreta, called 'nightsoil' then, and sell it to farmers for a healthy profit. The New Territories farmers, of which there were many, would not turn up their noses (although they might wrinkle them a bit) at a bit of urban emissions.

Trouble was, it wasn't just a bit - the large amount of scavenging to be done made it a rather tricky endeavor, particularly from 1895 to 1920, when plague-struck Hong Kong was trying to do all it could to alleviate the rate of infection. Allow me to quote from the Sanitary Report of 1924:

For the purpose of Refuse Collection the City and Hill District is divided into three main districts, East, Central and West, each with an Inspector in charge. There is an Inspector in charge of Kowloon peninsula and the District Inspectors of Health Districts 14 and 15 combine superivision of refuse collection with district work...The villages of Aberdeen, Aplichau, Stanley and Taitam are scavenged by contractors under the supervision of the Sanitary Inspector in charge.

Approximately 260 tons of refuse were received daily at the refuse depots from the City of Victoria, Hill District and Kowloon Peninsula. Slightly under 10 tons daily were collected from Shaukiwan and Quarry Bay and 2.5 tons from Kowloon City and dumped on waste ground. The cost of the service in Hong Kong...has risen from $1.25 per ton to $1.30. The increase is due to normal expansions.

Outlying villages of Stanley and Taitam, and Aberdeen and Aplichau were scavenged by contract at a yearly charge of $396 for the first two and $840 for the latter two. The contractor has the privilege [!] of receiving nightsoil in each case in addition.

The bulk of the refuse from the City of Victoria and Kowloon was barged away to sea as hitherto. Some 6,000 tons were dumped at Cheung Sha Wan where a reclamation is being gradually formed...
Now before we are outraged at the refuse dumped into the harbor, let us not forget that all sewage, raw and untreated, was pumped straight out into the harbour until 2001 or so. Today, still a good 40% of sewage is untreated as the city shoots its bilge straight into the harbour...but let us continue:
The contractors for the removal of nightsoil from Victoria and the Kowloon Peninsula, Shaukiwan and Quarry Bay, Aberdeen and Aplichau, Stanley and Taitam respectively carried out their work satisfactorily.

During the year the monthly payment due from the contractor [please note - the contractor is paying the government here for this high concentration of the city's excreta! - Ed.] was reduced by $1,396.00 in respect of flush-closets opened in Victoria and $542.00 in respect of flush closets opened in Kowloon and owing to circumstances rednering the dumping of nightsoil at sea inevitable for 20 days at the end of July the contractor was relieved of all payment of fees for 10 days amounging to $1,717.00 The total deducation amounted to $8,972.00 for Victoria and $4,180.00.
So, a fairly profitable business for its day - but with the advent of the WC, it could be seen, already in 1924, as a sunset industry. Or, as we might also say, a rather crappy business...


Anonymous said...

"The most wasteful piece of equipment ever devised -- the flush toilet."

"Nearly a third of all household drinking water in the US is used to flush toilets" -- Joseph Jenkins, "The Humanure Handbook"

"The function of all organic matter, animal and vegetable, is to maintain the fertility of the soil" -- J.C. Wylie, "The Wastes of Civilization"

The Moule Earth Closet from: From: http://journeytoforever.org/compost_humanure.html

Moule's Patent Earth Commode Pat. 1869 -- Mark Henderson

In 1859 the Rev Henry Moule of Dorset in England decided the family cess-pit was a foul abomination, had it filled in, and told his family to use buckets, the contents to be emptied and buried in trenches in the garden -- where, within weeks, "not a trace of it could be discovered". What could soon be discovered was a "luxuriant growth of vegetables in my garden" -- and that dry surface earth, not water, was the place for "offensive matters". He wrote a pamphlet on it: "National health and wealth, instead of the disease, nuisance, expense, and waste, caused by cess-pools and water-drainage", and became a tireless campaigner for his by-now patented Moule Earth Closet (No 1316, 1860) -- wondrous Victorian-style machines which "flushed" dry earth via a lever, or automatically when you stood up, with luxury models in mahogany and oak. The soil could be dried and re-used up to seven times without offence or nuisance. It was a powerful fertilizer: a neighbouring farmer's swedes grew a third bigger when he used it instead of superphosphates. "Manure for the millions," Moule wrote in a letter to the cottage gardeners of England. Schools used them, and barracks, The Lancet wrote of them glowingly, even Queen Victoria had an earth closet (though of course she never had to use it...). But in the end the sheer mindless convenience of the water closet (flush toilet) won the battle -- though perhaps not yet the war.

Dave and Stefan said...

love it!