There seems to be an irrational fear among fecophobes that if you don’t die instantly from humanure compost, you’ll die a slow, miserable, and wretched death, or you’ll surely cause an epidemic of something like the plague and everyone within 200 miles of you will die, or you’ll become so infested with parasitic worms that you’ll no longer be recognized as human (your head will look like spaghetti).
These fears exist perhaps because much of the information in print concerning
the recycling of humanure is confusing, erroneous, or incomplete. For example,
when researching the literature during the preparation of this book, I found it
surprising that almost no mention is ever made of the thermophilic composting of
humanure as a viable alternative to other forms of on-site sanitation. When
“bucket” systems are mentioned, they are also called “cartage” systems, and are
universally decried as being the least desirable sanitation alternative. For
example, in A Guide to the Development of On-Site Sanitation by Franceys
et al., published by the World Health Organization in 1992, “bucket latrines”
are described as “malodorous, creating a fly nuisance, a danger to the health
of those who collect or use the nightsoil, and the collection is environmentally
and physically undesirable.” This sentiment is echoed in Rybczynski’s (et
al.) World Bank funded work on low-cost sanitation options, where it is stated
that “the limitations of the bucket latrine include the frequent collection
visits required to empty the small container of [humanure], as well as the
difficulty of restricting the passage of flies and odors from the bucket.”
I’ve personally used a sawdust toilet for 20 years and it has never caused odor problems, fly problems, health problems, or environmental problems. Quite the contrary, it has actually enhanced my health, the health of my family, and the health of my environment by producing healthy, organic food in my garden, and by keeping human waste out of the water table. Nevertheless, Franceys et al. go on to say that “[humanure] collection should never be considered as an option for sanitation improvement programmes, and all existing bucket latrines should be replaced as soon as possible.” Say what?
Obviously Franceys et al. are referring to the practice of collecting humanure in buckets without a cover material (which would surely stink to high heaven and attract flies) and without any intention of composting the humanure. Such buckets of feces and urine are presumably dumped raw into the environment. Naturally, such a practice should be decried and strongly discouraged, if not outlawed. However, rather than forcing people who use such crude waste disposal methods to switch to other more prohibitively costly waste disposal methods, perhaps it would be better to educate those people about resource recovery, about the human nutrient cycle, and about thermophilic composting. It would be more constructive to help them acquire adequate and appropriate cover materials for their toilets, assist them in constructing compost bins, and thereby eliminate waste, pollution, odor, flies, and health hazards altogether. I find it inconceivable that intelligent, educated scientists who observe bucket latrines and the odors and flies associated with them do not see that the simple addition of a clean organic cover material to the system would solve the aforementioned problems, and balance the nitrogen of the humanure with carbon.
Franceys et al. state, however, in their aforementioned book, that “apart from storage in double pit latrines, the most appropriate treatment for on-site sanitation is composting.” I would agree that composting, when done properly, is the most appropriate method of on-site sanitation available to humans. I would not agree that double pit storage is more appropriate than thermophilic composting unless it could be proven that all human pathogens could be destroyed using such a double pit system, and that such a system would produce no unpleasant odor, and would not require the segregation of urine from feces. According to Rybczynski, the double pit latrine shows a reduction of Ascaris ova of 85% after two months, a statistic which does not impress me. When my compost is finished, I don't want any pathogens in it.
Ironically, the work of Franceys et al. further illustrates a “decision tree for selection of sanitation” that indicates the use of a “compost latrine” as being one of the least desirable sanitation methods, and one which can only be used if the user is willing to collect urine separately. Unfortunately, contemporary professional literature is rife with this sort of inconsistent and incomplete information which would surely lead a reader to believe that composting humanure just isn’t worth the trouble.
On the other hand, Hugh Flatt, who, I would guess, is a practitioner and not
a scientist, in Practical Self-Sufficiency tells of a sawdust toilet
system he had used for decades. He lived on a farm for more than 30 years which
made use of “bucket lavatories.” The lavatories serviced a number of visitors
during the year and often two families in the farmhouse, but they used no
chemicals. They used sawdust, which Mr. Flatt described as “absorbent and
sweet-smelling.” The deciduous sawdust was added after each use of the toilet,
and the toilet was emptied on the compost pile daily. The compost heap was
located on a soil base, the deposits were covered each time they were added to
the heap, and kitchen refuse was added to the pile (as was straw). The result
was “a fresh-smelling, friable, biologically active compost ready to be
spread on the garden.” 3
From a Public Radio Commentary
“People are saying that the Year 2000 computer problem could foul up a lot of stuff we usually depend on, all at once. I thought I’d give this Y2K Practice Day a try. Turn off the heat, lights, water and phones. Just for 24 hours. The day before Practice Day, I complained to Larry, telling him that I was bitterly disappointed not to try out an emergency toilet. This complaining really paid off. Larry, who’s also a writer researching Year 2000 emergency preparedness, phoned a man named Joe Jenkins, author of a book called the Humanure Handbook. Joe reassured my husband of the safe, sanitary, and uncomplicated method for composting human waste. His solution is based on 20 years of scholarly study. It turns out that the thermophilic bacteria in human waste, when mixed with organic material like peat moss or sawdust, creates temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, rapidly killing pathogens just as Mother Nature intended.
We grew bold and daring and decided to use our emergency five gallon bucket with the toilet seat, layering everything with peat moss. Larry spent maybe a half hour building a special compost bin. This was right up his alley, since he already composts all the kitchen scraps, yard, and dog wastes.
Surprisingly, I found myself liking that little toilet. It was comfortable, clean, with no odor, just a slightly earthy smell of peat moss. The soul-searching came when I contemplated going back to the flush toilet.
By coincidence, I recently heard a presentation by the director of the local waste treatment facility. He was asked to address the issue of Year 2000 disruptions and explain what preparations were being made. In a matter-of-fact voice, he described what a visitor from another planet would undoubtedly consider a barbaric custom. First, we defecate and urinate in our own clean drinking water. In our town, we have 800 miles of sewers that pipe this effluent to a treatment facility where they remove what are euphemistically called solids. Then they do a bunch more stuff to the water, I forget exactly what. But I do remember that at one point, they dose it with a potent poison — chlorine, of course — and then they do their best to remove the chlorine. When all this is done, the liquid gushes into the Spokane River.
At this meeting was a man named Keith who lives on the shores of Long Lake, down river from us. Keith was quite interested to know what might occur if our sewage treatment process was interrupted. The waste treatment official assured him that all would be well, but I couldn’t help reflecting that Keith might end up drinking water that we had been flushing. I like Keith. So I decided to keep on using my camp toilet.
My husband is a passionate organic gardener, at his happiest with a shovel in his hand, and he’s already coveting the new compost. He’s even wondering if the neighbors might consider making a contribution. I’m just grateful the kids are grown and moved out, because they’d have a thing or two to say.”
Judy Laddon in WA (excerpted with permission)
Perhaps the "experts" will one day understand, accept, and advocate simple humanure composting techniques such as the sawdust toilet. However, we may have to wait until Composting 101 is taught at the university, which may occur shortly after hell freezes over.
In the meantime, those of us who use simple humanure composting methods must view the comments of today’s so-called experts with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Consider, for example, the following comments posted on the World Wide Web by an “expert.” A reader posted a query on a compost toilet forum website wondering if anyone had any scientific criticism about the above mentioned sawdust toilet system. The expert replied that he was about to publish a new book on composting toilets, and he offered the following excerpt:
“Warning: Though powerfully appealing in its logic and simplicity, I’d expect this system to have an especially large spread between its theoretical and its practical effectiveness. If you don’t have a consistent track record of maintaining high temperatures in quick compost piles, I’d counsel against using this system. Even among gardeners, only a small minority assemble compost piles which consistently attain the necessary high temperatures . . . Health issues I’d be concerned about are 1) bugs and small critters fleeing the high-temperature areas of the pile and carrying a coat of pathogen laden feces out of the pile with them; 2) large critters (dog, raccoons, rats . . .) raiding the pile for food and tracking raw waste away; and 3) the inevitable direct exposure from carrying, emptying, and washing buckets.
Some clever and open-minded folk have hit on the inspiration of composting feces . . . by adding them to their compost piles! What a revolutionary concept! . . . Sound too good to be true? Well, in theory it is true, though in practice I believe that few folks would pass all the little hurdles along the way to realizing these benefits. Not because any part of it is so difficult, just that, well, if you never ate sugar and brushed and flossed after every meal, you won’t get cavities either.”4
Sound a bit cynical? The above comments are entirely lacking in scientific merit, and expose an “expert” who has no experience whatsoever about the subject on which he is commenting. It is disheartening that such opinions would actually be published, but not surprising. The writer hits upon certain knee-jerk fears of fecophobes. His comment on bugs and critters fleeing the compost pile coated with pathogen-laden feces is a perfect example. It would presumably be a bad idea to inform this fellow that fecal material is a product of his body, and that if it is laden with pathogens, he’s in very bad shape. Furthermore, there is some fecal material probably inside him at any given moment. Imagine that — pathogen-infested fecal material brimming with disease-causing organisms actually sitting in the man’s bowels. How can he survive?
When one lives with a humanure composting system for an extended period of time, one understands that fecal material comes from one’s body, and exists inside oneself at all times. With such an understanding, it would be hard to be fearful of one’s own humanure, and impossible to see it as a substance brimming with disease organisms, unless, of course, one is diseased.
The writer hits upon another irrational fear — large animals, including rats, invading a compost pile and spreading disease all over creation. Compost bins are easily built to be animal-proof. If animals are a problem, the problem can be remedied by lining a compost bin with chicken wire, or surrounding the compost with pallets, straw bales, or similar barriers. In 20 years of humanure composting, we have never had a problem with animals, have never seen a rat in our compost, and our compost bins are not wire-lined. We have had dozens of skunks, possums, and raccoons in our chicken house, but never in our compost pile 50 feet away. It seems that the thermophilic composting process itself makes the organic material undesirable for larger animals, including dogs.
The writer warns that most gardeners do not have thermophilic compost. Most gardeners also leave critical ingredients out of their compost, thanks to the fear-mongering of the ill-informed. Those ingredients are humanure and urine, which are quite likely to make one’s compost thermophilic. Commercial composting toilets almost never become thermophilic. Does the author also condemn those? As we have seen, it is not only the temperature of the compost that destroys pathogens, it is retention time. The sawdust toilet compost pile requires a year’s construction time, and another year’s undisturbed retention time. When a thermophilic phase is added to this process, I would challenge anyone to come up with a more effective, earth-friendly, simpler, low-cost system for pathogen destruction.
Finally, the writer warns of “the inevitable direct exposure from carrying,
emptying and washing buckets.” I’m not sure what he’s getting at here, as I have
carried, emptied, and washed buckets for 20 years and never had a problem.
Other recent experts have thrown in their two cents worth on the sawdust toilet. A book on composting toilets (also about to be published as I write this), mentions the sawdust toilet system.5 Although the comments are not at all cynical and are meant to be informative, a bit of misinformation manages to come through. For example, the suggestion to use “rubber gloves and perhaps a transparent face mask so you do not get anything splashed on you” when emptying a compost bucket onto a compost pile, caused groans, a lot of eyes to roll, and a few giggles when read aloud to seasoned humanure composters. Why not just wear an EPA approved moon suit and carry the compost bucket at the end of a ten-foot pole? How is it that what has just emerged from one’s body can be considered so utterly toxic? More exaggeration and misinformation existed in the book regarding temperature levels and compost bin techniques. One warning to “bury finished compost in a shallow hole or trench around the roots of non-edible plants,” was classic fecophobia. Apparently, humanure compost is to be banned from human food production, never mind the human nutrient cycle. The authors recommended that humanure compost be composted again in a non-humanure compost pile, or micro-waved for pasteurization, both bizarre suggestions. They add, “Your health agent and your neighbors may not care for this [sawdust toilet composting] method.”
I have to scratch my head and wonder why the “experts” would say this sort of
thing. Apparently, the act of composting one’s own humanure is so radical
and even revolutionary to the people who have spent their lives trying to
dispose of the substance, that they can’t quite come to grips with the
idea. Ironically, a very simple sawdust toilet used by a physician and his
family in Oregon is featured and illustrated in the above book. The physician
states, “There is no offensive odor. We’ve never had a complaint from the
neighbors.” Their sawdust toilet system is also illustrated and posted on
the internet, where a brief description sums it up: “This simple composting
toilet system is inexpensive both in construction and to operate and, when
properly maintained, aesthetic and hygienic. It is a perfect complement to
organic gardening. In many ways, it out-performs complicated systems costing
hundreds of times as much.” Often, knowledge derived from real-life
experiences can be diametrically opposed to the speculations of “experts.”
Sawdust toilet users find, through experience, that such a simple system
can work remarkably well.
What about “health agents”? Health authorities can be misled by misinformation, such as that stated by the above authors. Health authorities, according to my experience, generally know very little, if anything, about thermophilic composting. Many have never even heard of it. The health authorities who have contacted me are very interested in getting more information, and seem very open to the idea of a natural, low-cost, effective, humanure recycling system. They know that human sewage is a dangerous pollutant and a serious environmental problem, and they seem to be surprised and impressed to find out that such sewage can be avoided altogether. Most intelligent people are willing and able to expand their awareness and change their attitudes based upon new information. Therefore, if you are using a sawdust toilet and are having a problem with any authority, please give the authority a copy of this book. I have a standing offer to donate, free of charge, a copy of the Humanure Handbook to any permitting agent or health authority, no questions asked, upon anyone’s request — just send a name and address to the publisher at the front of this book.
Well-informed health professionals and environmental authorities are aware that “human waste” presents an environmental dilemma that is not going away.
|“Just a note to thank you for sending the gratis copies of Humanure to our local supervisors and health director. A small but significant step forward is shown by the article on the reverse side and no doubt your book played a part [a newspaper article titled “Law Would Back Waterless Toilets” was copied on the back of the letter]. This victory may not seem like much but, believe me, getting these troglodytes to change their minds on anything is nothing less than a miracle! R.W. in CA|
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins
Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: