London, as so many cities have done for millennia, uses its river for waste. In 1858 disease and ‘The Great Stink’ led to Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s super-sewer for 4 million people.

150 years later the population is now closer to 10 million. This is what’s happening…

Forward Thinking BC. To get a handle on how advanced the thinking was on ‘waste management’ thousands of years ago, the Mesopotamians had already figured clay sewer pipes around c.4000 BC. Utilised to remove wastewater, and capture rainwater in wells. But, let’s fast forward through history… The world continued to progress their early sewer/sanitation systems as other ‘influencer countries’ went on to build their own versions in places such as; Egypt, Greece, Rome, China (first toilet paper), Pakistan, India [Indus Valley & Harappan civilisations] and so on. All of which points to the fact that over the 1000s of years since then, until the mid-1800s, not much progress (in terms of 6000 years of sewage management) had been made. The investment in Tideway is the biggest single sewer investment in Europe since Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s day.

copyright Hendriksen & Hopson ‘It’s All About Poo’ [A History of the Toilet.]

Heading Downstream. Since the dawn of civilisation, human settlements had grown and evolved best around rivers where, within close proximity, fresh water could be sourced – and wastewater crudely diverted downstream to be diluted and supposedly ‘vanish.’ Importantly for this brief article, by comparison to today, the world’s population was smaller, people used less water, planet earth was greener, it was way ahead of any industrial revolution, and there weren’t factors like ‘travel and tourism’ nor other modern-day developments to take into account.

A Changing World. In this regard, the world was relatively well looked after for many millennia i.e. none of the ‘nasties’ pollution, chemicals, plastics, and certain industries destroying our environment and ecology, about who we so often hear about in the news. Wars and weaponry were also far less sophisticated and caused less damage to ‘less’ infrastructure. Back then the earth’s surface had less ‘ground’ taken up by houses and other buildings as well. This led onto natural drainage being a whole lot better and, on which note, brings us onto rainwater, the importance and unpredictability of which we’ll explain about in a short while. What hasn’t changed is that ‘Everybody Poops.’

Better Sanitation for All. Before we move on to Sir Joseph Bazalgette and what he did for London, something that’s worth flagging for the sake of perspective and comparison is global sanitation. Even now in the 21st century 25% of the world still doesn’t have access to basic sanitation and/or water. The impact for all of us, as major contributors to what goes down the loo [toilet] and regarding what needs to be done with our waste, is a priority in keeping all of us healthy. It is an ongoing challenge for us and a far greater one for the less fortunate 25%. Sanitation needs to be on everyone’s radar and in our conversations, ‘Out of Sight should not mean Out of Mind.’ Diseases spread, and diseases travels – as the current pandemic has clearly shown. Let’s look back at London 1858, and then we’ll return to 2020.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette. The name Bazalgette (pronounced Bazal’jet) is synonymous with Sir Joseph Bazalgette. His proposal was an ambitious solution to what the press at the time in 1858 called, ‘The Great Stink.’ His colossal project was accepted and it became a turning point for an ageing and inadequate sewer system that emptied directly into the Thames. This wasn’t ‘just a bad stench’ it was also related to a substantial number of deaths from the water-borne transmission of diseases [typhoid and specifically a cholera epidemic.] A toxic cocktail of human excreta, slaughterhouse waste, and industrial chemicals poured freely into the River Thames, turning it into an open sewer. Between 1831 and 1866, approximately 40,000 people died from cholera in London alone (2% of the population) an equivalent of 200,000 people today.

We should bear in mind that the population of London at the time was c. 2m. Bazalgette had the foresight to construct for a population of 4m, double that number. The cost in today’s terms would be roughly £1bn. Currently, London is heading towards a population of 10m, add to that ‘transient’ tourists/visitors to London, estimated to have been around 20m+ in 2019, and that’s a lot of waste to move out of town (or any majorly populated area in the world for that matter.)

In brief, here’s what happened back then. Bazalgette’s scheme was an extraordinary feat of engineering involving the construction of major new ‘intercepting sewers’ that would gather sewage from the existing collection of sewers at the time, and move it further down the river. On the north bank of The Thames, sewage would be carried eastwards as far as Beckton, eight miles east of St Paul’s Cathedral, to be stored and then discharged on the outgoing tide. On the south bank, the sewage would flow as far out as Crossness, two miles further downstream of Beckton, and discharged there. The project was completed by 1875. However, at the time, although it moved out of the more populated areas of London it ended up ‘downstream’ but still back in The Thames. In other words, the problem hadn’t gone away, it had gone elsewhere.

Sewage Treatment Works. What was missing from the original big idea was that no ‘sewage treatment works‘ were part of the plan at the time, i.e. no separation of effluent and water before to sending it back into the river. It wasn’t until a disastrous accident in 1878 caused the underworld and earth to collide, when a passenger steamboat sank after crashing into a coal-carrying ship downstream from the two pumping stations… just after they’d pumped 75m gallons of raw sewage into the river. The resultant pressure from MPs in the 1880s forced the first ‘treatment works’ for raw sewage, where the solid waste was ‘settled’ and subsequently only the liquid waste was discharged into the Thames at Beckton, and also 2 miles farther along at Crossness. The Bazalgette drainage system was passed to the London County Council and they appointed a Chief Engineer, Sir Alexander Binnie, to be responsible for all of their infrastructure. He designed the first sewage treatment works (originally just lime settlement) at the ends of the sewer outfalls created by Sir Jospeh Bazalgette.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the problems. By the time Bazalgette died in 1891, 5.5m people were living and defecating in inner London. 1.5m more than anticipated just 30 years earlier. The other key part to operating and improving London’s sewers were called ‘combined sewer overflows.’ In the USA a more descriptive term is used, ‘storm-water regulators.’ All of which brings us back to a typically British subject, ‘the weather.’

What’s Caused the Latest Stink for the UK? Today, we have the benefit of Sir Joseph’s incredible construction and the ever-improving ‘sewer treatment works,’ but new challenges like ‘wet wipes’ and all sorts of other things that shouldn’t get put down the toilet (except the 3Ps.) Apart from the dangers of bacteria to ourselves, bacteria in sewage can also absorb the dissolved oxygen from the water, killing off fish and water-dwelling plants as well. All of which brings us onto one other equally significant call of nature apart from our own, and that’s rainwater. Rain needs to drain for which reason even now, 150 years after the original ‘Bazalgette’ sewers were completed, around 40 million tonnes of raw sewage still spills, untreated, into the River Thames every year. The present-day population, (as mentioned previously) has now more than doubled. Fortunately, a few years ago, the European Commission [EC] and European Court of Justice made a new ‘stink’ about the latest problems, which subsequently resulted in the new £4bn construction project known as ‘Thames Tideway,’ owned by a consortium of investors, and it’s respectfully called ‘Bazalgette Tunnel Limited.’

Professor Chris Binnie (great grandson of Sir Alexander Binnie), chaired the Thames Tideway steering group for 5 years and we got in touch to ask, in relatively simple terms, what’s going on with London’s sewers – now due for completion by 2024 and referred to as the ‘Super-Sewer.’ However, ahead of his reply, let’s try and make all the pieces finally fit neatly together. We’ll begin, as we did, by figuring what ‘combined sewer overflows’ means and why, as the old saying goes, ‘when it rains it pours.’ If the storm is too great for the sewers/drainage pipes to cope with there’s what’s called a, ‘combined sewer overflow‘ [CSOs.] These are a collection/system of pipes and tunnels designed to simultaneously collect surface runoff (the flow of water occurring on the ground surface from excess rainwater) and sewage water – in a shared system. When this relief structure is overloaded valves are opened that still release the combined wastewater, untreated sewage and runoff into the Thames.

Map credit & copyright Tideway

From Bazalgette to Bazalgette + ‘Combined Sewer Flows.’ If the CSOs are only used occasionally, that’s considered an acceptable amount of ‘nearly just stormwater.’ But if the frequency increases greatly, so does the, ‘not so pleasant addition to the stormwater’ that ends up back in the river. As Chris Binnie explained, “The European Commission had given guidance that 20 ‘spills’ per year might be the limit. Without doubt, there were about a dozen CSOs that exceed such a frequency. So, the ECJ found the UK in breach.” To help do the math, there are about 50 combined sewer overflows happening in London each year. Chris added that, “Over the last 10 years all the sewage treatment works have been upgraded and now meet the required standards including spill frequency, so the only issue was with the central London combined sewerage system.” In 2016 Thames Tideway began constructing a giant tunnel, seven metres wide and it will run for 25 kilometres to intercept sewage that would otherwise pollute the river, click the link to Thames Tideway to dig deeper (excuse the pun;)) The aim is to capture, store and move the vast quantities of raw sewage and rainwater across London connecting to 34 of the most polluting CSOs via transfer tunnels, and taking sewage (that would normally be pumped into the Thames) to a treatment facility at Abbey Mills in east London – designed many years ago by a certain Joseph Balzagette.

A Breath of Fresh Air. Work on the ‘super-sewer’ started 4 years ago, we’re halfway there. It’s backed by investors but, in case you weren’t aware, at some point it will appear as a cost on your water bill too. This isn’t only a matter for London and a future post will look at other world cities facing similar challenges. Ultimately, this won’t be the last time London’s sewers need to be better figured out for the future. Global sanitation is probably the world’s biggest and most important issue if humanity is to survive. Ask the WHO, UN, WTO, UNICEF and, and, and – it’s not a sexy subject but unless we overcome this Taboo, we are burying our heads in the sewers – that, as it was back in 1858, will be extremely dangerous. A few subsequent articles on the project, and their links, can be accessed below. Meanwhile do contact us with any comments or questions. We look forward to returning next week with another post on ‘loos and no. 2s.’ Until then have a good week…

  1. The Museum of London, ‘How Bazalgette Built London’s First Super Sewer.
  2. BBC 2017 ‘Work begins on London’s super sewer to stop Thames becoming a toilet.’
  3. The TV 3 part Series from 2018 [now available via Daily Motion] The Five Billion Pound Super Sewer.
  4. Wired, ‘London’s Super Sewer Won’t Solve The City’s Epic Poo Problem.‘ Dec 2018
  5. An update from the BBC in Feb 2020 ‘Inside London’s Super Sewer.’
  6. Tunnelling Work Restarts on Super Sewer‘ from PBCToday May 13 2020.

‘Beauty Spots’ where to go when there’s nowhere to go? This week’s news on loos & no. 2s.

Getting out and about as lockdown eases. Illustration from the children’s book ‘All Animals Poo & We Do Too’ copyright Hendriksen & Hopson

Scoop the Poop. The past few weeks have seen more and more people out and about in the sunshine at parks and beaches. But at the same time public toilets have so far remained shut. This has led to a number of headlines highlighting the growing problem of ‘where to go when there’s nowhere to go’ and what’s subsequently been happening to these well-loved beaches and beauty spots. We’re used to the ‘scoop your poop’ signs and doggy doo’s bags and bins for our pets, but as for us humans? A more tongue in cheek sign at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, Canada recently served to highlight the issue, one that we felt needed to be discussed in this week’s post. Here’s that exact article by Jenny Yuen for The Toronto Sun in which she said, “Ten thousand people, no bathrooms, you do the math.” So we did – see below!

Facebook | Ira Samuel Cohen

Scoop on the Poop. To focus on one country as an example, the UK has approximately 9 million pet dogs. One in four households in the UK has a pet dog, and they produce 1,000 tonnes of poop a day, or 365,000 tonnes a year [Hansard UK Govt.] and that’s about 85,000 times as heavy as a Hippopotamus [The Measure of Things.] Now that your imagination is ignited… That would mean that in theory if the UK population still had to poop their average 4-500 grams a day outside [LiveScience] then at 68 million people, we would be depositing the equivalent weight of approx. 68 million adult Pandas of poop in the open each year. That’s without accounting for the use of tissue to clean up after, which would mean mountains of mess throughout the land and widespread disease. Fortunately for us that’s not the case, but remarkably it is still the case for 1/3rd of the world population.

To be in the Loop. This may seem rather abstract but it helps us to add a perspective on outside pooping, and also introduces the more serious and less publicised point that open defecation (rare in the toilet owning world), is a huge problem for over 1 billion people worldwide [WHO] that still have to ‘go outside.’ An even higher figure if you add those without access to basic sanitation or water, which brings the total to 1 in 3 people globally. Add to that the extraordinary number of diseases associated to this scenario and you may be surprised to learn that those diseases include; cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. According to the WHO diarrhoea remains a major killer (432,000 diarrhoeal deaths annually). So far 380,000 deaths have occurred worldwide from coronavirus. But, better water, sanitation, and hygiene could prevent the deaths of 297,000 children aged under 5 years ‘each year’ from said diseases.

The Big Necessity.‘ There are many resources you can access if you want to know more, and plenty of statistics and eye-opening stories but our ‘take home on this’ is that while the problem is being addressed through a number of determined passionate people and organisations, this is nowhere near enough supported to stop the tragic and yearly consequences from being anywhere near adequately addressed. For what we consider to be one of the most ground-breaking, informative and unforgettable books on the subject, go buy Rose George‘s, ‘The Big Necessity‘ – it’s a fascinating read as she exposes the biggest single unexposed health problem on planet earth.

When Nature Calls. Meanwhile back to where we started, and a few links to get you through the weeks ahead until the public toilets reopen. Stay safe, stay aware and please leave no trace when pooping outside to keep other safe too. As an addendum, we just spotted an article in the Evening Standard by Lezlie Lowe, published today 5th June, entitled, ‘As lockdown eases we need to talk about toilets.’ Here, Lezlie reiterates the comments we’ve made and also those we discussed about improving public toilets for women, link here. Well worth reading as she’s researched the subject far more than we, and do buy her book too, ‘No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs.’ The other article that’s popped up since we published was in HuffPost on 6th June, where Sophie Wilkinson writes for ‘Opinion’, ‘Public Toilets Are An Equalities Issue. Why Don’t We Care?‘ Great to see these expert views on the subject.

  1. Huffpost: How To Pee And Poop Outdoors If Provincial Park Washrooms Are Closed.
  2. Road Trippers: Nature is calling: Here’s how to poop properly in the great outdoors.
  3. A classic list from Adventure Journal: Seven Ways to Poop Outdoors.
  4. The Manual: How to Poop in the Woods: A Guide for When Nature Calls.

We’ll be back again next week.

‘Mr. Toilet. The World’s #2 Man’ is now available on Amazon.

Mr. Toilet. The World’s #2 Man

A film title that may feel less than serious than it actually is, as this film has an important message. A docu-film about one man’s mission to focus world attention on the enormous percentage of the population who have no access to basic sanitation and/or water. What percentage? According to the World Health Organisation it’s over 2 billion, which to provide a perspective one can more easily imagine is over 25% of the world’s population!

In ‘Mr. Toilet. The World’s #2 Man’ prepare to wade through a lot of poo and unpleasantness that should make you open your eyes to these problems, even if you have to pinch your nose. To get the message across Jack Sim does exactly that, by taking a serious subject with a twist of humour to engage his audience. You’ll see many striking visions of just how bad it really is and how, quite frankly, not enough is being done to resolve the problem, nor to educate and encourage use of toilets and better sanitation practices.

In the earliest times, people really weren’t that fussy about privacy nor easily embarrassed about open defecation, so they tended to just go, when and where they felt like it. Before the first toilets, people lived by, washed, drank and defecated in rivers. But, it wasn’t long before our ancestors figured it was not such a great idea to use the same cleaning and drinking spot in the rivers to also go the loo. They soon understood it was better to wash upstream and do their ablutions downstream, so as not to mix the two! Civilisation was beginning to dawn. It’s been slow progress over thousands of years for the evolution of the ablution and sanitation to get to where it is today. But in these poorer places it’s not a great deal different to those earliest times, the outcome of which is spreading disease and many other serious and worrying peripheral problems.

But, when you get the likes of politicians and ambassadors around the world, plus the UN, Water Aid, Water.org, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the WHO involved, and then add Matt Damon into the mix plus get a movie made about you, then you’ll see why Jack really does make a difference. The film is engaging and honest, but could perhaps have a slightly different structure and focus for a call to action i.e. tangible results. That said it’s a remarkable achievement and Jack’s personality, passion, positivity and engaging nature are getting results and a lot of media attention – if that makes a difference and improves sanitation in those poorer cultures, then ultimately it makes a difference to us all and he has to be congratulated.

If you’ve got Amazon Prime then it’s free, if not… check it out anyway, ‘Mr. Toilet, The World’s #2 Man‘ starring Jack Sim, founder of WorldToiletDay [every year on Nov 19th.]