New documentary breaks taboos to explore America’s wastewater infrastructure

Documentary filmmaker Karina Mangu-Ward is going to make a splash with FLUSH, which premieres worldwide on November 15th, 2017.  Mangu-Ward’s images are captivating, the editing is excellent, and the film features some of North America’s most important sanitation heroes. It will change the way you think about poop.

Flush solid backgroundWe here at the other PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) have previewed the film and are sponsoring the official release. FLUSH grows from Brooklyn resident Mangu-Ward’s interest in knowing what happens to her poop after flushing. She follows it downstream, interviewing many experts along the way. Professionals from local environmental organizations show her how her poop may end up in nearby streams due to Combined Sewer Overflows or CSOs. Like many other cities, New York combines wastewater streams, including dirty water from households, industrial wastes, and stormwater from city streets, in the same overflow sewer pipes. On very rainy days, local wastewater treatment facilities cannot handle the input and discharge raw sewage to local waterways. Mangu-Ward’s concern leads her to investigate this issue further for the next few years!

The documentary does a fine job addressing interlinked issues of sewer infrastructure problems and persistent taboos about talking about poop. Mangu-Ward meets Shawn Shafner, founder of the arts-based organization The People’s Own Organic Power (POOP) Project. Through their adventures, including a trip to see where NYC ships dried biosolids sludge, he helps Mangu-Ward understand how shame is deeply embedded with pooping. The film highlights several organizations managing sh*t in more eco-friendly ways. Rich Earth Institute collaborates with city officials to recycle urine and push for policy change in Vermont, SOIL provides life-saving ecological-sanitation systems in rural Haiti, and Kailash Ecovillage composts toilet wastes in a Portland housing community and beyond.

The documentary brings essential concepts surrounding sewerage and sanitation into everyday discussions. FLUSH raises the public awareness that is a precondition for fixing America’s sewer infrastructure and addressing human equity and environmental sustainability.

My main lingering curiosities revolve around two questions. First, why is sewer infrastructure in some of the wealthiest global cities not functioning to protect people and the environment? A recent article in the New York Times does an exceptional job highlighting the interface between economics, politics, and technology in driving change in water infrastructure across America over the coming decades. Perhaps a similar argument could be made for sewer infrastructure change. Second, what are examples of large urban systems that solve the CSO and biosolids problems? The documentary highlights well-respected change-makers in sanitation design, but it would have been nice to see a few more functioning in the urban realm. The innovative Bullitt Center in Seattle has “the world’s only six-story composting system” Or what about apartment-buildings in India prototyping closed-loop systems. Partners of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance are researching onsite sanitation. With the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and technical partners, SuSanA has developed the SFD tool  to assess how poop is or is not safely managed as it moves from defecation to disposal or end-use.  The new book FSM Innovation offers peer reviewed cases where SFDs are applied in decentralized sludge management systems.

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