05 April 2007

The Humanure Handbook

Last month's seminar at the at the Long Now Foundation was by archeologist Brian Fagan, author of The Little Ice Age. He discussed how climate change has effected human civilization at different times in the past--spurring the rise of agriculture when the oak forests retreated in in the middle east, forcing the Norse out of North America and Greenland, or causing the collapse of the Moche and the Maya. One of the key problems in the coming years will be access to water, as the climate becomes more unpredictable and population pressures increase, especially on marginal land. Lately my somewhat haphazard reading on the web has been synchronizing in strange ways with the podcasts I listen to (try listening to Plato's Republic while reading The Botany of Desire and Oryx and Crake), and sure enough Joseph Jenkins, writer of The Humanure Handbook has the answer to eliminating 37-45% of our household water use. Stop crapping in drinking water. His suggestion, or rather, his admonition is that people stop flushing those valuable nutrients down the toilet, but compost them instead. His book, aside from repeating the same twenty or so nuggets of information ten times each, simplifies composting nicely, and gives a few simple rules for an efficient and sanitary collection and composting system, resulting in agriculturally safe humus. Some places, like Austin, Texas, already compost sludge, but waste a huge amount of water and money getting the sludge to the composting site. Think of how much water we could save and infrastructure we could forgo by processing poop on site, or picking it up with a weekly or biweekly poop truck? For the fecophobic Jenkins explains, and presents studies from real scientists (!), that urine and feces composted by thermophilic bacteria at temperatures exceeding 55˚ C for a couple of hours will kill any human pathogens. They either get burnt to a crisp, or out-competed, or eaten up by the earthworms and fungi that move in during the one year curing period once the compost has cooled down. And if you're healthy to begin with, there's not much chance of anything nasty getting in the pile. The toilets and compost don't smell either, since you cover each deposit with sawdust, rice hulls, peat, or leaf mold in the toilet, and straw, weeds, or leaves in the pile. If they do smell, then it's an indication that you're doing something wrong. The book is no great work of literature, but it's good for skimming, full of good information for anyone interested in dismantling one of the defining characteristics of western civilization, centralized plumbing.


  1. Has Jami volunteered to compost her crap as well?

  2. There's a place out here (earthsong) that uses composting toilets, and it works quite well. The smell is not overwhelming, but you wouldn't want to put your shower in the same room.

  3. Hey Dane! You may have seen a similar water-free/compost style public restroom if you've been out to Hamilton Pool in Austin (or to Walden Pond in Concord). It's called a Clivus Multrum (see www.clivusmultrum.com).

    The one near Hamilton Pool has a sign that reads: "This Clivus Multrum is an environmentally...", yet the lettering is laid out like this:
    "This Clivus Multrum

    is an environmentally friendly
    waste facility".

    The space between the first line and the following explanation (and the fact that Clivus Multrum sounds a persons name) led me to read the sign as an introduction: "This is Clivus Multrum." I giggled and thought to myself: "Hello Clivus, I'm Adam."

  4. Hello Adam, I have in fact seen both facilities, as well as the ones at Enchanted Rock and Lost Maples. I like to think that I left a little part of myself in each one.

    Megan, those sound like mouldering toilets (mesophilic decomposition), rather than collection toilets for a thermophilic compost pile. Hence the smell. That's my problem with the Clivus Multrums as well, slow mouldering, anaerobic decomposition. Smelly.