Compost and Pharmaceuticals

happypills

We get this question a lot–will pharmaceuticals end up in my compost if I use human urine or animal manure? This is really three questions:

  • Does composting break down pharmaceuticals?
  • Are some pharmaceuticals worse than others in terms of their ability to survive the composting process?
  • If pharmaceuticals persist after composting do edible plants uptake them in sufficient quantities to effect humans?

A look at what science has to say
We really need a Root Simple research department! I was able to find a few studies that, at least partially, address these questions. If you know of more please leave a link in the comments.

A 2010 study looked at the degradation of salinomycin, used on chickens to prevent coccidiosis. The study concluded,

On the basis of the results obtained in this study, it appears that the composting technique is effective in reducing salinomycin in manure.

Another 2010 study looked at the composting of sewage sludge containing fluoroquinolones (broad spectrum antibiotics),

The concentrations of pharmaceutical residues in compost were significantly lower, if compared to the relevant concentrations in sewage sludge . . . It is concluded that before using the sewage sludge compost as a fertilizer it should be carefully tested against the content of different pharmaceuticals. The content of pharmaceuticals in the compost made from sewage sludge may easily lead to the elevated concentrations in food plants, if the compost is used as a fertilizer.

A slightly contradictory Estonian study concluded:

In the current study, uptake of ciprofloxacin, norfloxacin, ofloxacin, sulfadimethoxine and sulfamethoxazole was demonstrated in lettuce. The uptake of fluoroquinolones and sulfonamides by plants like lettuce does not seem to be a major human health risk, as the detected levels of the studied pharmaceuticals were relatively low, if compared to their soil concentrations. Further studies are needed to determine the uptake of different types of pharmaceuticals and other organic pollutants by various crop plants.

What about hormones? A paper in the Journal of Environmental Quality concludes,

composting may be an environmentally friendly technology suitable for reducing, but not eliminating, the concentrations of these endocrine disrupting hormones at concentrated animal operation facilities.

But we’ve got a lot of hormones making their way into the environment due to agriculture, according to a study done by Temple University,

Animal manures (poultry manure and cow manure) contribute to a significant load of estrogen hormones in the natural environment.

Conclusions
Clearly we may have some big societal problems caused by the overuse of pharmaceuticals and waste generated by industrial livestock operations. Those issues are beyond the scope of this blog.

But what about home composting? Should I pee on my compost pile if I’m on lots of pills? Maybe not. But I think there are a few common sense guidelines we can follow when working with human and animal urine or manure at home:

  • Don’t use municipal compost that is made with sewage sludge, though I’m more worried about heavy metals in that compost more than I am about pharmaceuticals.
  • Since I’m not on any pharmaceuticals, I’m not worried about my own urine in the compost pile.
  • Joel, who commented on an earlier Root Simple post about using urine in compost, had this to say, “The main thing I’d worry about is radionuclide therapy, such as treatment with radioactive iodine vs. thyroid cancer. I guess I’d also worry a little about people who are on chelation therapy to flush toxic heavy metals from their system. If it’s not concentrated enough to harm your kidneys, though, I’m thinking it’s not enough to worry about in soil…perhaps that is me being naive.”
  • If I were collecting pee soaked straw bales at a French heavy metal concert (unlikely!),  I might have the resulting compost tested if I were going to use it on vegetables. But composting those bales would be better than flushing all that urine down the sewer system.

As to the bigger environmental issues, the good news is that some of the research shows that composting can help reduce pollution. And, since some of us have the space to compost at home, we can all contribute to a cleaner planet.

What do you think? Leave a comment . . .

A Straw Bale Urinal

straw bale urinal

L’Uritonnoir, a plug-in straw-bale urinal. Photograph: Faltazi

At the risk of becoming a blog entirely about urine and straw bales, Anne Hars alerted me to an article in the Guardian, “L’Uritonnoir: the straw bale urinal that makes compost from ‘liquid gold’” about French design studio Faltazi’s plug-in straw bale urinal.

The device comes as a flat polypropylene sheet, which is folded into shape and slotted together, then threaded on a looping band around the bale, its funnel wedged deep into the centre of the straw to channel the fluid to the composting core. A deluxe version is also available in stainless steel – presumably for the VIP bale urinal area.

L'uritonnoir by faltazi

According to the article, Faltazi’s straw bale urinal will debut this summer at the French heavy metal festival Hellfest.

Ladies will have to pack their funnels.

Ladies of Manure 2013 Calendar

Just when our Kickstarter fatigue has reached terminal limits, this crazy pitch shows up in our mailbox to make our day. Two words: Humanure Cheesecake.

(Err…two words you really don’t want to see together, ever,  now that I think about it. Sorry.)

As teachers, we spend a lot of our time trying to convince people to mulch and compost. Return it all to the earth, people!

We’re particularly fond of throwing down the humanure* gauntlet, partially because it really is a very important subject,  and partially for the shock factor and the giggles. Some audiences are primed for this challenge. For others, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of the concept, and by the look on some faces, I imagine them thinking:

  • “Nope. Not even if civilization is burning down around my ears.”
  • “Note to self: Never visit these people at home.”
  • “They want me to keep poop around the house. Poop. Around my house.”
  • “Hmm, I’m sensing some sort of potty-training trauma here. Definitely an unhealthy anal obsession.”
  • “Funny, they don’t look like hippies.”

It’s an hard nut to crack, the poop nut. This environmental non-profit called The Fertile Earth Foundation is going about in a bold way, by trying to make manure sexy and fun. To be fair, the calendar isn’t all about humanure. (Then it would have to be called Jenkins Girls Gone Wild or something.) It’s about composting of all sorts, but humanure certainly gets much more play in it than it does in your average cheesecake calendar.

Take a look. They’re doing a Kickstarter to raise printing funds. What do you think? Think it will turn people on to the wonders of decomposition? What do you think it will take to make even basic composting a more commonplace activity? Do you humanure? If not, what keeps you from doing so?

*If humanure is new to you, check out the Humanure Headquarters for everything you could possibly want to know.

Disconnect to Reconnect: Ditching the “Flushie” for a Composting Toilet

Image from the Wikimedia Commons

We’re lucky to have another guest post by Nancy Klehm (see a nice interview with her on foraging here). Nancy visits us at the Root Simple compound at least once a year. What follows is an account of a plumbing misadventure she had on her last visit. 

To give you some context, ever since we’ve remodeled our bathroom and switched to a low-flow toilet we’ve had periodic backups. We think there is a low spot just within reach of our turlet snake. The toilet flushes OK most of the time, but at least once a week I’ve got to deploy that damn snake.

Here’s Nancy:

I don’t use a flushie often, I made the decision to ‘go dry’ years ago, adopting the bucket toilet + sawdust system as it pairs nicely with my composting obsession and food growing habit.

I stayed at Erik and Kelly’s back in February. Their low flush toilet and antique piping can’t seem to handle even the most modest bodily donation. Once a flushing attempt proves unsuccessful, and immediately following the ‘oh no…’ guilty grimace, a light-hearted blame game plays out and then according to homestead rules, Erik snakes the toilet. The closet augur is kept on the front porch (to greet visitors?). Erik augers for a few minutes, flushes successfully, marches the tool back outside to air out and we settle back into our routines relieved that our burdens are flowing into the larger mystery of pipes and their soupy contents to the municipal waste treatment plant miles away.

But with Erik and Kelly out of town on one of the weekends during my stay, the daily chores of feeding the kittens, letting out the single hen to roam the yard and snaking, if so needed, fell on me. And yes, the toilet clogged and no, I did not assume the blame. I am regular enough (2-3x/day) as are Erik and Kelly for the record [editor's note: the editors demur from either acknowledging or disavowing the hypothetical frequency of their natural propensities.] to avoid creating such monsters and yet, the flushie needs snaking every day soon after the post-caffeine effect.

Continue reading…

Emergency Toilet Sanitation

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionI was asked by our local neighborhood council to talk about emergency turlets for their public safety committee. Doing some preliminary research about what our government suggests concerns me.

FEMA and, it seems, all the state and local agencies I looked into rely on a poop in a bag, throw in some enzymes or bleach and throw it into a pit approach. In a short term emergency, a day or two let’s say, this might work fine. But if the emergency stretched out longer I can see some potential problems. And the cynic in me sees an opportunity for a contractor to sell toilet and enzyme kits to government agencies.

So what’s wrong with pooping in a bag? First off, it’s disgusting, something I know from backpacking. I have a feeling people might avoid latrines set up with “poop bags” and go do their business behind a bush. And I have a feeling that the government experts suggesting this approach have never tried it themselves.

Secondly, those pits full of bags could become a serious biohazard should rats, let’s say, start pulling the bags apart or should the pit get flooded.

As an alternative to the “poop bag” I was impressed with Joseph Jenkin’s humanure approach that he explains in a series of videos he shot in Haiti after the earthquake. You can see those videos here. Essentially what Jenkins did in Haiti was to forage carbon material (“bagasse” or sugar cane waste) and use that as a cover material in the latrines. This eliminates smells and maggots. He also set up a large humanure compost pile in a refugee camp using the same bagasse material as the carbon source. The hot temperatures in the compost pile kill hazardous microorganisms in human poo. As long as you’ve got a carbon source you can keep Jenkins’ sanitation system going indefinitely. With the FEMA approach you’ve got a problem when you run out of those bags and proprietary enzyme mixtures.

One problem with Jenkins’ approach could be finding a carbon source in an urban area, but I think that’s solvable (suggestions invited!). You also need water for the compost pile but it need not be potable.

I’m no sanitation expert and am interested in opinions on this topic, particularly those who have worked in emergency situations or in impoverished communities. What I like about Jenkins’ approach is that it relies more on knowledge (how to compost, set up a latrine) than equipment. The job then is to spread that knowledge. Learning how to compost should be a skill everyone knows how to do.

Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook: for purchase or free pdf download.

Learn How to Compost Via the Humanure Handbook

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionComposting ain’t rocket science but it does require some finesse. Following up on an earlier post which contained a comparison of different composters, I thought I’d mention my favorite written resource on how to compost. In my opinion, the best writing on the subject comes from a surprising source, the Humanure Handbook by Joeseph Jenkins. Best of all, an edition of this book is available online for free. Even if you have no intention of composting human waste, The Humanure Handbook contains excellent directions on how to easily maintain a hot n’ healthy compost pile. You can access the free edition here. Jenkins also has a bunch of great how-to videos here.

On the subject of humanure, news coverage of the terrible cholera outbreak in Haiti only gets half of the story. I keep hearing the press refer to the problem as one of a “lack of access to clean water.” True, but the other half of the problem is what Jenkin’s Humanure book is about, keeping human waste out of waterways in the first place and turning it into a resource rather than a disposal problem.

Nance Klehm at Farmlab Tomorrow

If you’re in So Cal tomorrow Nance Klehm will be doing a talk at Farmlab:

Metabolic Studio Public Salon
Nance Klehm
Friday, December 11, 2009, Noon
Free Admission

There are three fundamentals that guide this time of descent into northern-hemisphere darkness. The winter season is one of decline and decomposition, activity below ground and general shadowiness. The fundamentals that guide us are:

Everything comes into this world hungry.

Everything wants to be digested.

Everything flows towards soil.

This salon will discuss various methods of transforming what is perceived as waste and turning it into soil or building/healing existing soil.

Nance Klehm is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Her solo and collaborative work focuses on creating participatory social ecologies in response to a direct experience of a place. She grows and forages much of her own food in a densely urban area. She actively composts food, landscape and human waste. She only uses a flush toilet when no other option is available. She designed and currently manages a large scale, closed-loop vermicompost project at a downtown homeless shelter where cafeteria food waste becomes 4 tons of worm castings a year which in turn is used as the soil that grows food to return to the cafeteria.

She works with Simparch to create and integrate soil and water systems at their Clean Livin’ at C.L.U.I.’s Wendover, UT site. She uses decomposition, filtration and fermentation to transform post-consumer materials generated onsite (solid and liquid human waste, grey water from sinks and shower, food, cardboard and paper) as well as waste materials gathered offsite (casino food waste and grass clippings, horse manure from stables, spent coffee grounds) into biologically rich soil. The resulting waste-sponge systems sustain or aid: a habitat of native species of plants, digestion of the high salinity of the indigenous soils and the capturing, storing and using of precipitation.

She has shown and taught in Mexico, Australia, England, Scandinavia, Canada, the Caribbean, and the United States. Her regular column WEEDEATER appears in ARTHUR magazine.

Directions to Farmlab are here.

Also, Klehm and Mr. Homegrown are in Time magazine this week talking about humanure.

Klehm’s Website: www.spontaneousvegetation.net

Humanure Happens

Simparch’s dry toilet located in Wendover Utah

From the 1806 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac,

“Four loads of earth mixed with one load of privy soil, will be equal to five loads of barnyard dung. Let it lie for several months and occasionally turn it over with a shovel, and it will be of use as manure.”

The editors of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2010,where I found that quote, deemed it necessary to tack on a disclaimer, “Human waste, as well as that of dogs and cats, is not recommended as manure for fertilizer today.” But after fielding a couple of calls from journalists interested in the subject of composting human waste, I’m thinking that humanure is about to get serious consideration again. After all, why waste a good source of nitrogen in the middle of a recession?

Simparch’s striking Clean Livin’ compound

All this is a long winded intro to get you all to check out two fine examples of dry sawdust-based toilets. First is the one at the top of this post, designed by a collective known as Simparch, and located on the historic Wendover Air Force Base on the Nevada-Utah border. The facilities are simple: a toilet seat sits atop a 55 gallon drum. Each time you use it you add some sawdust. After composting, you’ve got rich soil. But what makes the Simparch crapper so amazing is the view. From the throne you look out on a landscape so flat you can see the curvature of the earth, punctuated by munitions bunkers dating back to World War II. The toilet facilities are part of a self-sufficient living project they call “Clean Livin‘”.

It ain’t the moon but close: the view from the Simparch Clean Livin’ crapper

The second example, nicknamed the “crap-cedral”, is featured on Lloyd Kahn’s amazing blog. Built by someone with the improbable name of Birchbarkbobananda, the crap-cedral features intricate woodwork and an equally stunning location. What both of these dry toilet facilities prove is the siting possibilities that can happen when you can put your crapper wherever you damn well please. No sewer line means you can have a nice view!

Humanure Dry Toilet Made From a Milk Crate


Modern toilets take two valuable resources, water and nitrogen rich human waste, and combine the two to create a problem: sewage. In a dry or “humanure” toilet, you cover your deposits with a layer of non-toxic sawdust. Once the toilet is full you dump the contents into your outdoor humanure pile and compost the waste at high temperatures for at least a year. You can then use that compost as fertilizer for plants. The ubiquitous five gallon bucket is the most commonly used humanure receptacle. Most humanure toilet designs I’ve seen such as the ones on Joseph Jenkin’s website make use of wood which I’m not crazy about in the wet environment of a bathroom. Even with a coat of paint wood gets grungy. Alternatively, you can buy plastic camping toilet seats that will clamp on to a five gallon bucket but they have, in my opinion, an unacceptable wobble when you sit on them. For these reasons I designed a sturdy dry toilet making use of a scavenged milk crate. Even if the idea of humanure grosses you out (and it’s definitely the most controversial subject in our book), our milk crate toilet would be great for camping, emergencies or your remote cabin.

Putting this toilet together takes just a few minutes. First, find a milk or beer crate and a five gallon bucket. Make sure that the crate you use is large enough to accommodate the bucket. And note, I know of someone arrested for scavenging beer crates behind a strip club, of all places, so be discreet or ask for permission. Incidentally, when the police finished booking the beer crate scavenger the officer placed the paperwork in . . . a scavenged beer crate doubling as an in box!

Attaching the Toilet Seat to the Crate

Next, find a toilet seat. Forage one or pick up a cheap seat at your local hardware store. In an emergency situation, you could also use the one on your regular toilet and simply bolt it back on when the zombie threat has passed and the sewage pipes are flowing again. To attach the seat to the milk crate simply position the plastic bolts and nuts that come with the lid in the center and on the short end of the bottom of the crate. Don’t over tighten.

Cutting Out a Hole in the Crate

Place the bucket so that it will be appropriately positioned under the seat. Mark the outline of the bucket on the crate with a knife and cut out a circle with a jigsaw or keyhole saw so that the bucket will fit through the former bottom of the crate.

Attaching Legs to the Crate with Cable Ties

Cut four pieces of scrap wood (we found some old table legs for a more finished look), and attach them to each corner of the crate so that the bucket projects about a 1/2-inch above the level of the crate. The legs will be approximately 13 1/2-inches. Make sure that the toilet seat will fit snugly against the top of the bucket. We attached the legs with cable ties, but you could also use screws or bolts.

Moving the Spacer

The last step is to move the spacer on the bottom of the lid, so that it does not hit the top of the bucket. Pop it out with a knife or chisel, drill another hole, and reposition.

Your humanure toilet is now done and ready for use. Simply lift the crate off the bucket when it comes time to empty the contents. Follow the detailed instructions on Joseph Jenkin’s website to learn how to properly compost human waste.


This toilet is simple to make, easy to clean, and is made of readily available materials. I think this particular design will be useful in emergencies and, when combined with Jenkin’s excellent humanure methods, would prevent the dangerous raw sewage nightmares of the sort we saw in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. There is a creative commons licence on all the text and photos on this website so feel free to translate and disseminate this post widely. We’re “open source” here at Homegrown Evolution. If you make an improvement in the design please let us know.

Save the World–Poop in a Bucket


Learn about composting your own poo by checking out our new post, How to Save the World by Pooping in a Bucket, at the consciousness shifting blog Reality Sandwich, for which we write a regular column.

And should you want more potty talk you’re in luck due to a minor sewage synchronicity going on in the magazine/internet world. As we wrote our meditation on human waste, a number of other stories on the subject came out at the same time:

  • A Mother Earth News reader submitted a photo and description of a handsome sawdust privy made out of an old garden hose box. Very clever!
  • Science Daily reports on Converting Sewage to Drinking Water.
  • So take that laptop into your “meditation room” and get some reading done!

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