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!

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  1. There is a school of thought that believes that the single largest thing that we can do for the soil is to close the loop on poop. Think about it: if we go to all the trouble to grow more nutrients into our food and then use those nutrients in our bodies and then crap them into a sewer instead of into a composting toilet, where are they going to wind up? That’s right- the sea – not the soil where they can do us any good. I can’t for the life of me remember where I read about an experiment fashioned in England during the late 19th or early 20th century where a field of ‘swedes’, AKA rutabagas were fertilized with ‘night soil’ from the outhouse, and another with something else- I forget what, and the the night soil field yielded much better than the other. In Kellogg and Pettigrew’s ‘Toolbox For Sustainable City Living’, there descriptions of several composting toilet designs: the Five-Gallon Bucket-in-a-box Thermophilic method, the Straw Bale Vault, the Fifty-five Gallon Barrel, the Urban Camouflage Composting Toilet…. I live in the burbs where an out-in-the-yard composting toilet would be very frowned upon, so I have been thinking about this for a little while and am considering hiding a composting toilet in the greenhouse I’m planning to build. I haven’t mentioned this to my husband yet- he is more effectively ‘brought on board’ with subtle suggestions on which he can ruminate for a while. But I think a composting toilet would be an important part of returning as much as we can to the soil (especially in view of the fact that we can’t have a stable in the backyard) and saving money on water we don’t need to be flushing down the toilet.

  2. For those readers who wish to learn everything there is to know about humanure (and regular composting for that matter), they ought to read The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, freely available online and a surprisingly easy read; The guy has a sense of humour. Once you’ve read that, there won’t be a thing on Earth you won’t know how to compost.

  3. The problem with carnivore (and omnivore) waste is the possibility of passing viruses and bacteria into food. This is why such waste should be composted for a year, employing aerobic bacteria (which heats up). You don’t want e-coli or other things in your food. Of course, it can go right into the soil used for non-edible plants and your lawn.
    Urine is sterile, right out of the pipe, and contains ammonia (fixed nitrogen), so you can keep a jar in the bathroom and use that right away.

  4. I stayed in an ecco hotel in Mexico that had a nice feature on their sawdust toilets. They had a black plastic vent pipe that extended from the catch basin up above the roof of the building. The vent pipe had a small solar powered fan attached which gently draws air from the room down into the basin then up and out above the roof. This feature combined with the cedar chips prevents any odor from entering the room. Maybe it only works in warm sunny places but it was very effective.

  5. You CAN use urine to fertilize right out of the pipe, as it were, but you’re better off composting it with some kind of bulky medium, like sawdust, because the bacteria will convert the acidic nitrates in the urine to more usable forms, making it more effective as fertilizer. It takes much less time to do this than with feces though.

    I read somewhere that the average person pisses out nearly enough in terms of nitrates to grow food to feed the average person for a year. I’m not sure about the source, but it’s an interesting statement.

  6. I happened to sit next to a “biosolids enngineer” on a plane once from LAX to FRA. He was coming fron New Zealand to Munich basically to study poop drying techniques to get rid of all the bacteria and make it a viable source of fertilizer. All that is to say that there are countries that are using humanure on an industrial scale.
    He did mention that there was a problem with heavy metals and how, with the cycle of eating what you fertilized with your waste, you would get higher and higher concentrations of heavy metals in your body. Though, he said it rather blithely, as if it wasn’t enough of a problem to worry about, especially as it was already a technique employed on an industrial scale.

    Later in the same trip I was at an eco friendly hostel, where they didn’t have flush toilets. They seperated the fluids from the solids with seperate catches. the fluids ended up travelling far enough where odor was not a problem. As for the solids, two scoops of soil thrown in after you were done was enough to keep the bathrooms smelling fresh and clean. though i do think each cachet was cleared out every few days at most, and perhaps even more frequently.

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