Teun Freriks

Shitty Business

Fertilizing the land with human excrements: now that ideas about the ‘circular economy’ are gaining momentum, ‘human fertiliser’ is in the picture again. Indeed, again: up until the beginning of the twentieth century, it used to be a common practice in Western societies. The end of this period even saw the emergence of an entire urban infrastructural network to efficiently collect and sell human waste. A short history of this ‘fosse mobile-systemin the Netherlands.


Collecting human excrements from door to door - Source: Stadsarchief Amsterdam https://archief.amsterdam/beeldbank/detail/1a3fd9b0-f2d5-d1b1-57fb-3341e451fd50

The height of the Dutch fosse mobile or ‘mobile pit’ was short-lived and only lasted about thirty years. Nevertheless, many cities used the system in the years between 1870 and 1900. The idea was simple: one relieved him- or herself in a barrel, that was often collected several times a week in a special cart. The cart was emptied at a specific assembly point, in most cases at the edge of a town -either to be made into compost or to be shipped to the countryside in crude form.

This may sound cumbersome and unhygienic, but the fosses mobiles meant a big improvement to older practices of waste removal. Many households still used (and often shared) a ‘cesspit’ outside the house to dump all their bodily and other waste. Others donated their excrements to a nearby canal, or simply dumped it onto the street. Cities, one can imagine, didn’t smell particularly nice.

These practices, however, had another downside: tons and liters of valuable shit disappeared in the ground and the water – at a time when demands for fertiliser were high. The fosses mobiles promised to turn the collecting and selling of faeces – in itself not a new phenomenon – into a lucrative business, through a centrally organised infrastructure. With this infrastructure, the digestion of hundreds or thousands of people became part of the bigger economic and agricultural cycles between the city and the countryside. A visit to the private meant a small (or big) contribution to the wealth of the region. The household and the body were opened up to the market – except those of the poor: research had shown that their diet was too meager to produce valuable faeces.

Making profit was the top priority of the system, which put hygienic details in second place. The city of Groningen makes a good example. Here, the fosses mobiles had operated for over two centuries and had resulted in much-envied profits. One of the reasons for this was the simplicity of their system. The city didn’t use standardised barrels; instead, people used all kinds of buckets, barrels and pots for defecation. Lidless, these were carried through the house and onto the street, with the contents showing and smelling and, in the case of smaller ones, often spilling over the side. The collecting carts too were often driven through the streets with its load out in the open. Ignoring the resulting smell and the recommendations of experts, the city council was hesitant to deal with the matter, because, as they argued, profits would suffer.

Nevertheless, changing attitudes and growing resentment towards the smell and exposure of excrements contributed to the retreat of the fosse mobile around the turn of the century. With different speed and success, the fosses were replaced by underground draining systems that made the faeces too watery to be of any agricultural use. During the twentieth century, they were completely replaced by artificial fertiliser.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the environmental crisis has led to discussions about our waste removal once again. But because we’ve gotten so used to the convenience of running water, to the invisible and ‘insmellible’ draining of our excrements with just a push on the button, a radical change of direction hardly seems possible. Even though our present world is in many ways different from that of the nineteenth century, the revenue models and belief in technological solutions have hardly changed. That is why current research on the re-use of human waste follows that same path: when convenience and material wealth suffers, the market offers very little room for change.


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