Night soil is a euphemism for human feces collected at night from cesspools, privies, etc. and sometimes used as a fertilizer. Another definition is "untreated excreta transported without water (e.g. via containers or buckets)". The term "night soil" is more and more seen as a historical one, and is being replaced by "fecal sludge" and "fecal sludge management" which is an ongoing challenge to this day, particularly in developing countries.
Night soil was produced as a result of a sanitation system in areas without sewer systems or septic tanks. In this system of waste management, the human feces are collected without dilution with water.
Collection and disposal
Feces were excreted into a container such as a chamber pot, and sometimes collected in the container with urine and other waste ("slops", hence slopping out). The excrement in the pail was often covered with earth (soil), which may have contributed to the term "night soil." Often the deposition or excretion occurred within the residence, such as in a shophouse. This system may still be used in isolated rural areas or in urban slums in developing countries. The material was collected for temporary storage and disposed of depending on local custom.
Disposal has varied through time. In urban areas, a night soil collector arrived regularly, at varying time periods depending on the supply and demand for night soil collection. Usually this occurred during the night, giving the night soil its name.
Uses in agriculture
Human excreta may be attractive as fertilizer because of the high demand for fertilizer and the relative availability of the material to create night soil. In areas where native soil is of poor quality, the local population may weigh the risk of using night soil.
The use of unprocessed human feces as fertilizer is a risky practice as it may contain disease-causing pathogens. Nevertheless, in some developing nations it is still widespread. Common parasitic worm infections, such as ascariasis, in these countries are linked to night soil use in agriculture, because the helminth eggs are in feces and can thus be transmitted from one infected person to another person (fecal-oral transmission of disease).
These risks are reduced by proper fecal sludge management, e.g. via composting. The safe reduction of human excreta into compost is possible. Some municipalities create compost from the sewage sludge, but then recommend that it only be used on flower beds, not vegetable gardens. Some claims have been made that this is dangerous or inappropriate without the expensive removal of heavy metals.
The use of sewage as fertilizer was common in ancient Attica. The sewage system of ancient Athens collected the sewage of the city in a large reservoir and then channelled it to the Cephissus river valley for use as fertilizer.
China, Hong Kong and Singapore
The term is known, or even infamous, among the generations that were born in parts of China or Chinatowns (depending on the development of the infrastructure) before 1960. Post-World War II Chinatown, Singapore, before the independence of Singapore, utilized night-soil collection as a primary means of waste disposal, especially as much of the infrastructure was damaged and took a long time to rebuild following the Battle of Singapore and subsequent Japanese Occupation of Singapore. Following the development of the economy and the standard of living after independence, the night soil system in Singapore is now merely a curious anecdote from the time of colonial rule when new systems developed.
The collection method is generally very manual and heavily relies on close human contact with the waste. During the Nationalist era when the Kuomintang ruled mainland China, as well as Chinatown in Singapore, the night soil collector usually arrived with spare and relatively empty honey buckets to exchange for the full honey buckets. The method of transporting the honey buckets from individual households to collection centers was very similar to delivering water supplies by an unskilled laborer, with the exception that the item being transported was not at all potable and it was being delivered from the household, rather than to the household. The collector would hang full honey buckets onto each end of a pole he carried on his shoulder and then proceeded to carry it through the streets until he reached the collection point.
Hong Kong has a similar euphemism, 倒夜香 dàoyèxiāng, which literally means "pour night fragrant".
The reuse of feces as fertilizer was common in Japan. In Edo city, compost merchant gathered feces to sell for farmers. That was good additional income for apartment owners. Human excreta of rich people were sold at higher prices because their diet was better; presumably, more nutrients remained in their excreta. Various historic documents dating from the 9th century detail the disposal procedures for toilet waste.
Selling human waste products as fertilizers became much less common after World War II, both for sanitary reasons and because of the proliferation of chemical fertilizers, and less than 1% is used for night soil fertilization. The presence of the United States occupying force, by whom the use of human waste as fertilizer was seen as unhygienic and suspect, was also a contributing factor: "the Occupationaires condemned the practice, and tried to prevent their compatriots from eating vegetables and fruit from the local markets".
Mexico and Central America
Various Mesoamerican civilizations used human feces to fertilize their crops. The Aztecs, in particular, are well known for their famous chinampas, artificial islands made of mud and human waste used to grow crops that could be harvested up to 7 times a year. Current research has placed the origins of chinampas in an Aztec town of Culhuacan in the year 1100 C.E. They were constructed by first fencing an area between 30 m x 2.5 m and 91 m x 9 m, using wattle. Then filled in with mud, sediment, feces and decaying vegetation. To stabilize the chinampas, trees were often planted on the corners, primarily āhuexōtl(Salix bonplandiana) or āhuēhuētl (Taxodium mucronatum). Chinampas were very common before Spanish conquest but today they can still be found in Mexico.
A gong farmer was the term used in Tudor England for a person employed to remove human excrement from privies and cesspits. Gong farmers were only allowed to work at night and the waste they collected had to be taken outside the city or town boundaries. They later became known as "night soil men" or "nightmen". In the Manchester area they were also known as the Midnight Mechanic.
People responsible for the disposal of night soil are considered untouchables in India. The practice of untouchability was banned by law when India gained independence, but the tradition widely persists as the law is difficult to enforce. This "manual scavenging" is now illegal in all Indian states.
The Indian government's Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment stated in 2003 that 676,000 people were employed in the manual collection of human waste in India. Social organizations have estimated that up to 1.3 million Indians collect such waste. Further, workers in the collection of human waste were confined to marriage amongst themselves, thereby leading to a waste-collecting caste, which passes its profession on from generation to generation.
Employment of Manual Scavengers and Creation of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 has made manual scavenging illegal.
Modern Japan still has areas with ongoing night soil collection and disposal. The Japanese name for the 'outhouse within the house' style toilet, where night soil is collected for disposal, is Kumitori Benjo (汲み取り便所). The proper disposal or recycling of sewage remains an important research area that is highly political.
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- Necessary and Sufficient - Night soil in colonial America
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- Etymology of soil