Maneuvering Humanure

In taking the steps away from dependence (on fuel, on outside food sources, on nameless, faceless people making things in factories we will never see) one goes through many layers of hype, inflated opinions, greener-than-thou judgement and a speck of truth for every log of ambushing agendas.

My own journey has been one from processed white bread, bologna and boxed macaroni with ‘cheese food’, to food-based beauty and skin care, to shopping organically, to discovering my definition of ‘whole foods’, to growing and making things myself and shopping for items as close to their source as possible.

 As a person winds their way through the curves of discovering and implementing sustainability, it becomes less of a ‘level’ issue and more of a holistic thought issue.  As the Australian-born permaculture concept displays so clearly: little waste = little outside input.  The way we think about ‘waste’ in our culture is very wasteful indeed.

So I’ll just cut to chase in this instance.  You’ve all read the title, you all know where this post is going.  You may suspect what is about to hit the fan.

Aside from things like plastic cups, styrofoam bowls, paper plates, car batteries, toaster ovens and CDs, the thing known as “human waste” commonly refers to excrement; our poop and urine.  The term is quite fitting when these by-products of digestion are discarded (into landfills, into incinerators, into our water supply), when people think that when we flush it simply goes ‘away’.  But when the concept of recycling these things is harnessed, “humanure” can be one of our richest organic resources.

One of the tenets of a holistic view is the concept of cycles.  For humans, eating and digestion are both part of a cycle.  Other steps include enriching the soil, growing the food, discarding the post-digestion materials and, in the case of a broken cycle, wasting and polluting.  But in the case of a healthy, intact cycle, (the re-cycling aspect that keeps it all going) is to compost, and return to the soil that which we have taken from it.

Without going into great detail, I am not talking about the “night soil” that parts of Asia are infamous for (the spreading of raw human manure over agricultural fields) which is a known pathogen-spreading method.  But fully composted (meaning combined with adequate dry, absorbent material, and allowed to stand for at least a year with internal temperatures reaching at least 113F) humanure can be a rich source of (FREE) organic matter and (FREE) minerals, like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus plus calcium and carbon.  Done correctly and well, not a trace of pathogens or harmful bacteria will exist in the finished, composted humanure.

While I’ve used outdoor latrines and squatted in the bushes many times, a compost toilet (as opposed to a ‘composting toilet’, which is the entire system – often quite expensive to assimilate or install) seems to me the best option for stewardship of our resources and ‘micro-husbandry’.  Latrines are a good idea in light of not wasting by flushing, but often carry the dangers of polluting ground water.  Squatting in the bushes, as any dog-walker will attest, is favorite of nitrogen-loving weeds like dandelions.

This simple compost toilet looks much like its cousin, but doesn’t get clogged up or spill over onto the bathroom floor when it’s upset.  As long as you can haul a 20-pound bucket from your bathroom to your compost pile this is a smoothly running system.

First you take a bucket, then you think about how you want to sit over the bucket and you construct a seat (in this case, it looks very similar to a regular toilet.  You then find some absorbent material (weed matter, dry vegetable scraps, cocoa fiber, rice hulls, sawdust – just not from pressure-treated wood which contains chromated copper arsenate, a known cause of cancer and not something you want to end up in your food garden) and keeping a supply nearby, like in another bucket next to the toilet, you line the bottom of the toilet bucket with 2-3 inches of the material to get a good absorbent layer started.  Then each time you use the toilet, simply cover your deposits with another fine layer of material and you’re good to until the bucket gets full and you exchange it for another clean bucket while you take that one out to the compost pile.

When composting the bucket contents, you want to have another good layer of absorbent, dry material covering the bottom and dug out, kind of like a bowl for you to toss the raw humanure into.  Cover that with another absorbent layer (all these absorbent layers are your carbon sources.  The human excrement is high in nitrogen and would take for-stinky-ever to break down and compost; you ideally want a ratio of 30:1, carbon:nitrogen in any compost pile.)  Once you have added consistently to this pile for a year, let it alone and start another pile so this one can get up to temperature and have time to break down, cool down and finish the composting (and disease- and pathogen-killing) process.

You are now ready to use your (FREE) humanure as you would any other compost throughout your garden, ornamental bed or orchard.  Congratulations, you have closed that loop and completed the cycle.

A Few Facts:

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins

-10,000 landfills have closed since 1982; 20% of these are the hazardous waste-contaminated Superfund sites.
-Older, unlined landfills can have a groundwater contamination area of 3.4 miles or more
-Organic materials thrown into landfills are the greatest contributors to global methane emissions; goodbye ozone layer.
-In the west, most of the water we defecate into is purified drinking water
-67% of the world’s households don’t have running water
-Americans use 340 billion gallons of water every day
-In 2000, 55% of US lakes, rivers and estuaries were not clean enough for fishing or swimming according to the EPA
-By flushing soil nutrients down the pipes, we increase our need for agricultural fertilizer – otherwise known as synthetic chemicals.  And so, erosion, nutrient run-off and excessive or incorrect use of these synthetic fertilizers is the largest diffuse source of water pollution.