Take a peek inside the average American’s kitchen garbage, pail and you will probably see “food scraps” such as wilted lettuce, banana peels, and leftovers. These items consist of organic materials which would be valuable if given back to the Earth. Composting is nature’s recycling system and enables nutrients and organic matter from plants to return to the soil.
You don’t need a garden to deposit your compost! It can also be used to fertilize lawns, trees, bushes, flowers, and houseplants; or shared with a neighbor or friend who does garden.
There is another very important reason to compost. Our wasteful ways are rapidly filling existing landfills. In efforts to reduce waste, some communities in the United States are already switching to market-based systems in which citizens are charged per bag of garbage they create.
In Continuing the Good Life (1979), Helen and Scott Nearing wrote that “as knowledge and practice of ecology grows, and water becomes a scarcer commodity, earth closets (composting toilets) may take precedence over wasteful water closets (septic and sewer systems).” ‘Ioday, composting toilets are not uncommon in Scandinavia where residents may have a great view of a fjord, but lack soil needed for conventional septic systems. Even in other countries, composting toilets have been seen as preferable near lakesides where privies and poorly working septic systems leach into the lake.
Whoa! Are we talking about composting human waste? Yes, and the final product is known as humanure.
Humans deal with feces on a regular basis (no pun intended), changing diapers, scooping up dog doo, emptying liter boxes, and cleaning out stables. We think absolutely nothing of this exposure to excrement and yet, for some reason, most of us have a somewhat prissy attitude about humanure.
The manner in which Western society disposes of human feces is harmful to the environment and ultimately, therefore, our health. We pollute water (usually purified drinking water) by defecating in it, and then we flush it away. Energy is often used to “treat” this polluted water so that we can drink it – or excrete into it again. Flushed feces are one of the primary ingredients in sewage which is partly responsible for the world’s water pollution.
In The Humanure Handbook, author J. C. Jenkins describes the human nutrient cycle as
- growing food
- eating it
- collecting and processing the food refuse (feces, urine, food scraps, and agricultural residues)
- returning the processed refuse to the soil.
We break this cycle when we use sewers and septic systems, and water pollution results. Like-wise, disposing food scraps into the garbage wastes agricultural nutrients while using up landfill space. If we can keep the human nutrient cycle intact, then we will reduce pollution while maintaining the fertility of our soil.
Commercial composting toilets are very similar to conventional water toilets, but they have an “externally vented (composting chamber) with a diverse community of aerobic microbes that live inside and break down the waste materials.”1 This is not to be confused with the process that takes place in a smelly outhouse which works by anaerobic decomposition! The end result from a composting toilet is a dry, fluffy, odorless compost.
Anyone intrigued by the concept of humanure is encouraged to read The Humanure Handbook by J.C. Jenkins (1994). Write to: Jenkins Publishing, P.O. Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. Those interested in composting toilets can call Clivus Multrum, Inc. at 1-800-425-4887 or write to 15 Union St., Lawrence, MA 01840. 1Schaeffer, J. (ed) (1994) Real Goods Solar Living Souicebook (8th edition). Chelsea Green.