Up shit creek. When shit hits the fan. Don’t give me that crap. What a brownnoser. You’re such a turd.
We use poop as a dirty word all the time. But we also rarely speak of it. When I started this story, I knew nothing about poop. My interest began with horror reports of bacteria on attack, algae blooms, Ala Wai canal going septic, cesspools leaking into bays and causing sores that wouldn’t heal. I wanted to know where my shit went, and what it meant when my shit went wrong. Because it can go wrong. If our shit seeps into our water, if it touches our food, if it piles up and festers, it can kill us. But it can also go the right way, giving back to a natural cycle with rich nutrients that are food for microorganisms and fertilizer for plants. In case of apocalypse, if we don’t know what to do with our excrement, we may very well be up shit creek. So I had a mystery to solve. Where does our doodoo go, exactly, and what will we do with it if the world as we know it ends?
It’s 9 a.m. at Kenny’s Diner in Kalihi. Across from me in a semi-circle booth sits Kanoa O’Conner, a large man with curly hair nearly as voluminous as his booming voice. After our waitress stops by our table with a slice of rainbow cake, coffee, and a chicken sandwich with fries, we get down to talking dirt. “To me, Hawaiians had to be super clean,” he says. “You’re not going to have a million people living here [if] you’re not.”
O’Connor has earned the nickname of “doodoo boy” from the professors at the Hawaiian Studies department at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he is pursuing his master’s degree. After earning his bachelor’s from Stanford University in environmental engineering with a focus in wastewater management, he realized he had little knowledge of how his ancestors handled the same thing in ancient Hawai‘i. Now, he is trying to solve the mystery of poop, searching through everything from missionary documents to ‘ōlelo no‘eau, or traditional proverbs.
Early on, he discovered an article by O.A. Bushnell, “Hygiene and Sanitation Among the Ancient Hawaiians,” published in 1966 in the Hawaii Historical Review. It is one of the only academic pieces that explores how the far-flung population handled its bodily functions and protected its streams and springs from contamination. “Out of respect for the gods, the Hawaiian refrained from polluting their abodes,” Bushnell writes. “Out of fear for himself, he was most careful to keep his body’s parts, or its wastes, and his personal possessions from falling into the hands of the dreaded sorcerer.” Poop, Hawaiians believed, carried mana, or life force, and was considered an extension of oneself. In one mo‘ōlelo, or story, a jealous sorcerer from Lāna‘i travels to Kaua‘i to steal the excrement of powerful prophet Lani-kaula. He brings it back to Lāna‘i, where he sets it on fire. Lani-kaula senses what has happened right away, and realizing he is going to die, orders that he be buried under stone knives so his bones are not used for fishhooks.
But using the bathroom was, realistically, a daily chore. Mary Kawena Pukui compared the sanitation practices of ancient Hawaiians to that of cats: They buried it all the time. O’Connor theorizes that the way poop was disposed of varied by location and social status. “The ali‘i had a special retainer (servant) that would collect their doodoo inside a calabash, and then in the cover of night, go take care of it for them,” O’Connor says. “That wouldn’t have happened for a maka‘āinana (commoner), because you would have had to take care of your own shit.”
In another mo‘ōlelo, a chief gets diarrhea while traveling along a path and stops to relieve himself. A runner passes by, and the chief asks him how it was back at his starting point. Very wet and full of fish, the runner tells him. It’s not until the chief returns to his retainer and passes along the news that he realizes the runner’s answers were a joke about his poop, not the weather.
“Even though we have this understanding of these social constructs [in ancient Hawai‘i], sometimes that might not have even been true,” says O’Conner. “Sometimes an ali‘i would have plopped down by the side of the road and done his business.” Generally, he says, if you were out fishing, you went in the ocean; if you were traveling along a path, you stepped off to the side and dug a hole; if you were living in a dry, volcanic area, you most likely had a designated communal lua, or hole in the ground, since digging an individual one every time would be nearly impossible.
According to O’Connor, ancient Hawaiians had a bounty of language to describe the act and product of defecation. Kūkae is commonly used today, but according to O’Connor, the more appropriate words that were used were honowā, which refers not only to poop but also what is inside of your intestines, and hana lepo, which literally means to make dirt. “We had an understanding of the connection of poop and dirt,” O’Connor says.
But digging holes, as he has tested, isn’t convenient. “It’s so easy to flush,” says O’Connor, who remedies this with his own methods for conserving water. “I don’t flush anymore when I pee, and people get angry at me. … To me, something like a composting system really does solve all the problems, but it doesn’t solve the easiness problem. I don’t know if you can ever solve the easiness problem and the healthy-for-the-land-and-water-and-people problem, too.”
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, O’Conner theorizes, “The realization we’re going to have to return to is that doodoo and water don’t mix.”
“Basically, I’m trying to figure out where my poop goes,” I tell Markus Owens, the public relations officer for Honolulu City and County’s Department of Environmental Services, when we meet at Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. A tall, broad-shouldered man who moved to Hawai‘i to play baseball at UH in the 1970s, he takes a coach’s encouraging tone as he works me through the complexities of pumping stations, the technology for fixing cracks in pipes, and the work that goes into getting our poop out of our way.
When someone flushes a toilet back in Pālolo Valley, excrement and several gallons of previously clean water travel into pipes, where they flow downward along with sewage from other toilets, showers, and sinks. This is also joined by water—a lot of it, if there has been a storm—that seeps through flaws in the pipe, which can introduce contaminants lingering in the ground like dieldrin, used as a termite pesticide before being banned in the 1980s. This concoction arrives to the Ala Moana pumping station, then is sent along to the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Here, the poop water is screened for trash like tampons and gravel, then piped into what looks like a giant mixing bowl. Egrets flock overhead as a massive wand slowly churns the dark gray water. The point of this tank is to separate solids and fluids. Ferric chloride and polymer (which cause the gray color) are added to help speed up this process. Effluent, as the water is now called, is then run under two sets of UV panels to neutralize most remaining microorganisms (by far the most energy intensive part of the process, Owens estimates that it costs close to $5 million annually to operate). Then, the water is discharged a mile and a half out from land, 240 feet below the ocean’s surface.
The solids that settle in the tank—made up of dying bacteria and fiber from poop and toilet paper, along with contaminants like metals and chemicals from cleaning products or prescription pills—are now called sludge. This is treated, thickened, heated, dried, and then turned into pellets the size of rabbit dung in a giant white globe operated by Synagro. These pellets, deemed biosolids, are used as fertilizer by commercial farms, landscapers, golf courses. At the time this article was written, anything not reduced to a small enough size—usually about 7 percent of solid matter—was being sent to the landfill, along with the rest of the solid waste created by eight of Honolulu City and County’s nine other treatment plants (La‘ie composts its own). Annually, this adds up to about 200,000 tons. However, if everything went according to plan during an April 2015 test run, this is now all trucked over to H-Power, where it will be burned as part of our state’s sustainable energy plan. Man-made power to da max.
However, issues arise with our modern sewer system in several ways. If sewer pipes fail or overflow, groundwater can be contaminated with feces—a danger that has caused overseers to flush raw sewage into canals emptying into the ocean instead. Also, the system requires hundreds of gallons of freshwater to be removed from their watersheds each day and turned into wastewater. Finally, if a large disaster wipes out any of our ocean-side treatment plants, those connected to it can expect to see sewage flowing out of manholes, pump stations, and even their own toilets—a health hazard of watershed proportions.
Hawai‘i’s first modern sewer facility was the Kaka‘ako pumping station, a charming lava rock building with large paneled windows that still rests, now retired, just off Ala Moana Boulevard. Built in 1900 in the trend of sewer management coming out of Europe, its job was to pump untreated sewage into the ocean. Sewer engineering was imported from Europe, where it originated in the 1880s. “The solution to pollution is dilution” became the rule in all kinds of pollution management. Water was the perfect diluent, hence the primary dumping ground. The Environmental Protection Agency was only founded in 1970 and the Clean Water Act widely recognized in 1972, inspired by such things as rivers catching fire.
Built in 1928, Wahiawā Wastewater Treatment Plant is the oldest in Hawai‘i, as well as the only one on the island that discharges into a freshwater body, Lake Wilson. For this to happen, the water receives tertiary treatment, the highest level of treatment after primary and secondary, before being considered recycled. On the other hand, the Sand Island plant, which was opened in 1976, only performs primary treatment of wastewater, one of the last in the country allowed to do this. In 2010, the EPA issued a decree requiring Honolulu City and County to upgrade this plant and the Honouliuli Wastewater Treatment Plant to perform full secondary treatment, as well as fix pipe leakage by 2035. Both plants have completed 381 of 484 milestones, but the conversions of the wastewater treatment plants loom ahead.
While this may bring to mind an ever-expanding network of underground pipes around the islands, our sewer systems are limited to urban areas. Hawai‘i, in fact, has the largest number of cesspools in the nation—about 90,000 total. If someone poops in Pūpūkea, for example, at a house connected to a cesspool, the doodoo water doesn’t go on a long-distance journey; instead, it is sent down into an underground hole or well, where solids settle and water leeches out through the wall, filtered by layers of earth and plant roots.
This is a much simpler, cheaper route, but one that can backfire. Cesspools inundated by overuse aren’t able to give the matter appropriate settling time, causing wastewater to seep into the ocean or groundwater. Last year, spurred by ocean contamination along the coasts of Maui and O‘ahu, the Department of Health proposed an amendment that banned new cesspools and required existing ones to be converted to septic tanks (encased underground tanks that perform primary treatment) when the homes were sold, but it did not go over well. The majority of Maui, in fact, does not have access to a sewer system. Its three county-owned wastewater treatment plants all produce some recycled water, but the county is still determining the direction to take its poop since centralized systems mostly mean draining water into the ocean. Maui is a much drier island than O‘ahu, and wastewater is wasted water.
In early 2015, two bills were introduced to state congress that requested funds to research water scalping, which involves pulling wastewater early in a sewer journey and sending it to a more localized treatment center that would refine the water to a recycled level, again for local use. When I asked Owens if his department thought they were promising, he said yes, but that there were concerns. The department appreciates efficiency and knows scalping would decrease the amount of water processed at the plant. However, they hesitate because with less water in the system, poop moves more slowly and begins to ripen, releasing methane gas and nitrogen that could corrode the pipes if they are not resized. (This is the cause of Kaka‘ako’s methane stink, since there isn’t enough water to consistently keep things moving through pipes scaled for a larger population). The other thing? Cost. All of the money that is paid in sewer fees by property owners already goes straight into maintaining the system. They know the uphill battle that would surround adding another dollar to that monthly sewer fee to fund such research. There is no budget to plan for the future.
This is personal—we don’t want to pay for shit we no longer understand.
“I was essentially shipped here with the container,” jokes Lauren Roth Venu, a tall woman with a tomboy tone. We are at the Makiki Nature Center, standing beside a repurposed 4-foot-wide by 8-foot-deep shipping container called the Living Machine, outfitted with solar panels and a blue paint job. Once wastewater reaches a certain level in the center’s septic tanks, it is flushed into the shipping container. Here, it moves through different sandy-bottomed compartments populated with plant life, fish, microbes, and snails. “Waste is food for living things,” says Roth Venu. Microbes render nitrogen into a usable form for the plants, and fish dine on solids. As the water runs through its wetlands journey, it becomes more oxygenated and poop-free. When it is sent out for irrigation, it is recycled water.
Roth Venu oversaw this container at its first stop, the old slaughterhouse on Fort Wheeler Road in ‘Ewa, where it treated water used to wash the facilities and holding pens. She populated it with native plants and koi. In 2006, she founded Roth Ecological Design International, and today she consults on and oversees a variety of projects in state and abroad. “The city is constantly just putting out fires and doesn’t have time for long-range planning,” says Roth Venu, who serves on the board of the State Water Commission and is on the committee that advises the Department of Health on their water reuse guidelines.
“I like the idea of mimicking the watershed,” she says of the natural flow of water from mountain to ocean. “If we can maintain and manage our water within the watershed, including our service, then there is no net in and out; we’re not diverting.” Take Makiki Nature Center, for example, where water is treated on-site before being used for irrigation, entering the ground and making its way down the mountain. This model can be expanded to entire communities within watersheds. An easy place to start is at home with a rainwater catchment and gray-water system. She has also been in strategic planning sessions with regulators about on-site systems within high-rises that would treat water to be reused for flushing toilets or maintaining coolant systems, instead of it having to be piped in and out. While poop would still be sent to a centralized system, any sludge from a septic tank could theoretically be pumped and composted.
In June 2014, Roth Venu finished an onsite wastewater system at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Office in Kona. Here, primary treatment takes place in septic tanks, after which water flows through an outdoor constructed wetland, rendering it clean enough to be used for irrigation. A nurse thought the flowers from the wetland were so pretty that now, once a week, its operator clips blooms that are delivered to patients.
If apocalypse were to arise, this facility actually may have its shit somewhat figured out. But what about the rest of us? “I would say you probably shouldn’t flush toilets,” Roth Venu says. “You probably should go to a compost toilet. I don’t think we’d have the luxury of using water that way.”
“You’re writing about poop? Do you know about the humanure handbook?!!!” a friend texts me excitedly. Now in its third self-published edition, The Humanure Handbook envisions a world of humanure compost heaps that are the boon of gardens. It features drawings of composting toilets that make readers giddy. It also confirms what ancient Hawaiians observed, O’Connor knows, state and county departments are facing, and Roth Venu is trying to solve: Water and doodoo should not haphazardly mix. When apocalypse hits, a new system will have to be agreed upon, one requiring creativity and native intelligence. If you find you have survived the end of the world, grab a bucket for your bowel movements, start a compost heap far away from your stream, and make do with dirt, you lucky little shit.
GUIDE: Ways We Handle Our Poop
Cesspool: an underground well into which wastewater flows. Solids settle to the bottom and water leeches out through sides, where it is further filtered by soil, microbes, and plant life.
Septic tank: an underground enclosed tank where solids settle and are anaerobically digested. Water typically flows into a drain field.
Sewer system: a network of pipes and pumping stations take wastewater from toilets, sinks, and showers to a centralized wastewater treatment plant.
Composting toilet: a dry toilet in which human waste is composted.
Bucket toilet: a rudimentary composting toilet in which waste is layered with peat moss or sawdust, then disposed of in a compost pile.
Lua: in Hawaiian, a hole in the ground used as a toilet.