Nicholas C Kawa

Grant Type

Post PhD Research Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Ohio State U.

Grant number

Gr. 9787

Approve Date

April 27, 2019

Project Title

Kawa, Nicholas (Ohio State U.) "Waste or Resource? The Contested Use of Human Excreta in Midwestern Agriculture"

Prior to industrialization, human excrement was commonly harnessed as a resource for agricultural fertilization. Following the advent of the hydraulic sanitation system, however, it became increasingly channeled into waterways rather than reincorporated into terrestrial agro-ecosystems. To counter this trend, efforts are being made to transform human “waste” into an agricultural “resource” once again, but not without controversy. This project asks: how do sensorial experiences and concerns over “nuisance odors” shape the acceptability of these resources for users and their communities? And how do perceived safety threats associated with human excreta – and the diversity of chemical compounds directed into sanitation systems – further complicate their use as an agricultural fertilizer? This project seeks to answer these questions through an ethnographic investigation of the use of “biosolids” (i.e. treated sanitation sludge) in two regions of the American Midwest. It examines how wastewater treatment workers, farmers, gardeners, and community activists respond to concerns over odors and industrial chemical compounds that are often cited as barriers to biosolids adoption. In doing so, this project advances anthropological theory by illuminating how human conceptions of waste are not only determined by social prescription but also marked by embodied sensorial experience and forms of techno-scientific mediation.