Thursday, January 10, 2013


If you read my last post, you may know where I'm going with this.  If you're squeamish about body functions, you may also want to stop reading now.  And, warning, the language is going to get a bit rougher than usual.

Joseph Jenkins, the author of The Humanure Handbook, puts it bluntly: "The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don't.  We in the western world are in the former class.  We defecate in water, usually purified drinking water.  After polluting the water with our body's excrements, we flush the once pure but now polluted water 'away', meaning we probably don't know where it goes, nor do we care."

The Humanure Handbook means to change all that. Jenkins originally wrote it and self-published it, creating 250 copies--which was about as much as he could imagine selling.  The first edition went through four printings and eventually sold over 10,000 copies.  The second edition (which I got out of the library) is distributed by Chelsea Green publishers and will probably sell a lot more.

It covers all the basics that you need to know: how to make a simple bucket toilet arrangement and how to compost what you collect; where to buy composting toilets (which are quite expensive--compared to the do-it-yourself versions); the process of composting (basically anything, but with an emphasis on humanure--which is shorthand for human manure); a detailed chapter on pathogens entiled 'Worms and Disease'; and lots of reassurance on the safety of the process.  The important thing to know is that you need to add a carbon source if you don't want it to get smelly and attract insects--most toilets I've used (and what he recommends) use sawdust, the same way that food scrap composting piles tend to use leaves.  He also includes a chapter on 'Alternative Graywater Systems', which doesn't quite have to do with humanure but is also quite useful, and has appendices on 'Sources of Wetland Plants' and 'State Regulations' for 'Composting Toilets, Graywater Systems, and Constructed Wetlands'. 

As you might guess, I think this is an amazing and incredibly useful book.  Given the complexities of the subject and concerns about spreading disease if you don't do it right, I would recommend that anyone who wants to compost their feces should read this book.  My one concern is that Jenkins occasionally attacks or puts down 'fecophobes'--ie, people who can't deal with the fact that their excrement needs to be dealt with.  I understand his frustration, but given the importance of spreading this information, a more understanding approach might be in order.  However, this shouldn't stop anyone from reading this book.  I think we all need the information it contains.

If you are skittish about composting your feces and want to start with something simpler, or you just pee a lot and don't always want to mix that into the compost (as Jenkins suggests that you do), the book Liquid Gold by Carol Steinfeld is a starting place for thinking about simply collecting and using urine.  It lists the composition of urine (lots of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur--but also a lot of sodium and chloride), how to think about the carbon-nitrogen balance issue (urine is heavy in nitrogen and almost lacking in carbon), and recommendations on the best way to use it (compost it, add it to graywater, or dilute it and use directly on plants).  For use directly on plants, Steinfeld recommends eight parts water to one part urine. She ends the book with a chapter filled with examples of gardeners and farmers who use 'liquid gold' to increase productivity.  Unfortunately, the first third of the book is filled with 'urine lore' and pictures of cute urinals--which seems like filler material to me.   The author could have concentrated on the agricultural aspects and created a shorter, tighter pamphlet that would have addressed all the significant issues.  Still, the stuff here is important enough that I think it's worth at least reading this book.  It may be worth ordering or at least finding out if your local library will get it.

Finally, on a related subject, is a book called How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer.  This is oriented toward campers and how not to pollute streams and groundwater with your droppings.  I wish I could recommend it but it is filled with camping tales and info on the word 'shit' and low on the information I think is important.  (Yes, an even higher ratio of filler material to the useful stuff than Liquid Gold.)  As far as I'm concerned, the most important information (as in how to actually 'shit in the woods') is simple and could be summed up in two sentences: "Choose a location well away from creeks, streams, and lakes--150 feet is generally recommended..." and "... dig down six to eight inches".  Beyond that, there is information about the spread of Giardia (a pathogen that for some reason Jenkins doesn't cover--and he covers a lot of pathogens), a chapter on peeing in the woods for women, and an interesting chapter on natural alternatives to toilet paper.  If any of this interests you, or you want a book with amusing stories of squatting in the woods, or if you find it cheap in a used bookstore, it may be worth getting.  Unfortunately, I doubt many libraries will carry it.

Just like regular composting, humanure (and 'liquid gold') closes the loop and creates a sustainable way of dealing with what is, after all, a natural process that each of us does every day.  If we want to create a world where we enrich the soil (rather than deplete it) as well as a world of zero waste, we are just going to have to deal with this.

Quote of the Day:  "It is ironic... that we humans have consistently ignored one problem that is very near to each of us--one waste issue that all of us contribute to each and every day... Perhaps one reason we have taken such a head-in-the-sand approach to the recycling of human *excrement is because we can't even talk about it. ... For *waste is not found in nature--it's strictly a human concept, a result of our own ignorance.  It's up to us humans to unlock the secret to its elimination.  Nature herself provides us with the key..." - Joseph Jenkins

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