Night soil

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18th-century London nightman's calling card

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)".[1] Night soil is produced as a result of a sanitation system in areas without community infrastructure such as a sewage treatment facility, or individual septic disposal. In this system of waste management, the human feces are collected in solid form.

The term night soil is more and more seen as a "historical term" and is being replaced by "fecal sludge".[2]

Waste management[edit]


Feces are excreted into a container such as a chamber pot, and are sometimes collected in the container with urine and other waste ("slops"). 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 occurs within the residence, such as in a shophouse. This system is used in isolated rural areas and is important in developing nations or in areas that lack the adequate infrastructure to have running water. The material is collected for temporary storage and is disposed of depending on local custom[citation needed]. The collectors are known in Indian English as "scavengers".


A night soil man's lamp

Disposal has varied through time. In urban areas, usually slums, a night soil collector will arrive regularly, at varying time periods depending on the supply and demand for night soil collection. Usually this occurs during the night, giving the night soil its name.[citation needed]

In isolated rural areas such as in farms, the household will usually dispose of the night soil themselves, but this practice is generally not referred to as night soil, though the eventual fate of the night soil, and style of handling, is similar.

After arriving at a collection point, usually as a special treatment center within the city, or perhaps an open cesspit, methods of dealing with the waste vary. The waste may go on being shipped to another larger centre to be ultimately taken care of, or be disposed of at that particular juncture[citation needed].

Sanitation issues[edit]

The use of unprocessed human feces as fertilizer is a risky practice as it may contain disease-causing pathogens. Nevertheless, in developing nations it is widespread. Common parasitic worm infections, such as ascariasis, in these countries are linked to night soil, because their eggs are in feces.

These risks are eliminated by proper composting, see humanure. "Finished compost should never be 'sterile,' but it should be sanitary. That means the compost should be teeming with beneficial microorganisms that do not pose a threat to human health. Any human disease organisms that may have been in the original organic material should have been eliminated, weakened, or greatly diminished by the time the compost has become mature."[3]

Human waste 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 safe reduction of human waste into compost is possible. Many municipalities create compost from the sewage system biosolids, 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.


Ancient Attica[edit]

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.[4]

United Kingdom[edit]

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.


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.[5]

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[clarification needed]. 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".[6]

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.

China, Singapore, and Hong Kong[edit]

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"[citation needed].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jackson, D; Winkler, M; Stenström, TA (2015). Sanitation safety planning: manual for safe use and disposal of wastewater, greywater and excreta. World Health Organization. ISBN 978 92 4 154924 0. 
  2. ^ Tilley, E., Ulrich, L., Lüthi, C., Reymond, Ph., Zurbrügg, C. (2014). Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies - (2nd Revised Edition) (PDF). Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), Duebendorf, Switzerland. ISBN 978-3-906484-57-0. 
  3. ^ Humanure Handbook (PDF). p. 9. 
  4. ^ Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, PP. 269
  5. ^ Ebrey, P., Walthall. A., & Palias, J. (2006). Modern east asia: A cultural, social, & political history. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston & New York. p. 337
  6. ^ "Pictures". Ohio State University. Retrieved 4 December 2010. 

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