3rd Edition: a guide to composting human manure by Joseph Jenkins - Chelsea Green Publishing
An edited excerpt taken from chapter two, Waste Not, Want Not...
“WASTE: …Spoil or destruction, done or permitted, to lands, houses, gardens, trees, or other corporeal hereditaments, by the tenant thereof…Any unlawful act or omission of duty on the part of the tenant which results in permanent injury to the inheritance…” Black’s Law Dictionary
America is not only a land of industry and commerce, it’s also a land of consumption and waste, producing between 12 and 14 billion tons of waste annually. Much of our waste consists of organic material including food residues, municipal leaves, yard materials, agricultural residues, and human and livestock manures, all of which should be returned to the soil from which they originated. These organic materials are very valuable agriculturally, a fact well known among organic gardeners and farmers.
Feces and urine are examples of natural, beneficial, organic materials excreted by the bodies of animals after completing their digestive processes. They are only “waste” when we discard them. When recycled, they are resources, and are often referred to as manures, but never as waste, by the people who do the recycling.
We do not recycle waste. It’s a common semantic error to say that waste is, can be, or should be recycled. Resource materials are recycled, but waste is never recycled. That’s why it’s called “waste.” Waste is any material that is discarded and has no further use. We humans have been so wasteful for so long that the concept of waste elimination is foreign to us. Yet, it is an important concept.
When a potato is peeled, the peels aren’t kitchen waste – they’re still potato peels. When they’re collected for composting, they are being recycled and no waste is produced. Composting professionals sometimes refer to recycled materials as “waste.” Many of the people who are developing municipal composting programs came from the waste management field, a field in which refuse has always been termed “waste.” Today, however, the use of the term “waste” to describe recycled materials is an unpleasant semantic habit that must be abandoned. Otherwise, one could refer to leaves in the autumn as “tree waste,” because they are no longer needed by the tree and are discarded. Yet, when one walks into the forest, where does one see waste? The answer is “nowhere,” because the forest’s organic material is recycled naturally, and no waste is created. Ironically, leaves and grass clippings are referred to as “yard waste” by some compost professionals, another example of the persistent waste mentality plaguing our culture.
One organism’s excrement is another’s food. Everything is recycled in natural systems, thereby eliminating waste. Humans create waste because we insist on ignoring the natural systems upon which we depend. We are so adept at doing so that we take waste for granted and have given the word a prominent place in our vocabulary. We have kitchen “waste,” garden “waste,” agricultural “waste,” human “waste,” municipal “waste,” “biowaste,” and on and on. Yet, our long-term survival requires us to learn to live in harmony with our planet. This also requires that we understand natural cycles and incorporate them into our day-to-day lives. In essence, this means that we humans must attempt to eliminate waste altogether. As we progressively eliminate waste from our living habits, we can also progressively eliminate the word “waste” from our vocabulary.
“Human waste” is a term that has traditionally been used to refer to human excrements, particularly fecal material and urine, which are by-products of the human digestive system. When discarded, as they usually are, these materials are colloquially known as human waste, but when recycled for agricultural purposes, they’re known by various names, including night soil when applied raw to fields in Asia.
Humanure, unlike human waste, is not waste at all – it is an organic resource material rich in soil nutrients. Humanure originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil, especially if converted to humus through the composting process.
Human waste (discarded feces and urine), on the other hand, creates significant environmental problems, provides a route of transmission for disease, and deprives humanity of valuable soil fertility. It’s also one of the primary ingredients in sewage, and is largely responsible for much of the world’s water pollution.
A clear distinction must be drawn between humanure and sewage because they are two very different things. Sewage can include waste from many sources – industries, hospitals and garages, for example. Sewage can also contain a host of contaminants such as industrial chemicals, heavy metals, oil and grease, among others. Humanure, on the other hand, is strictly human fecal material and urine.
What, in truth, is human waste? Human waste is garbage, cigarette butts, plastic six-pack rings, Styrofoam clamshell burger boxes, deodorant cans, disposable diapers, worn out appliances, unrecycled pop bottles, wasted newspapers, junk car tires, spent batteries, junk mail, nuclear contamination, food packaging, shrink wrap, toxic chemical dumps, exhaust emissions, discarded plastic CD disks, the five billion gallons of drinking water we flush down our toilets every day, and the millions of tons of organic material discarded into the environment year after year after year.
The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in their drinking water supplies and those who don't. We in the western world are in the former class. We defecate into water, usually purified drinking water. After polluting the water with our excrements, we flush the polluted water "away," meaning we probably don't know where it goes, nor do we care. Every time we flush a toilet, we launch five or six gallons of polluted water out into the world.12 That would be like defecating into a five-gallon office water jug and then dumping it out before anyone could drink any of it. Then doing the same thing when urinating. Then doing it everyday, numerous times, and then multiplying that by about 290 million people in the United States alone.
Even after the contaminated water is treated in wastewater treatment plants, it may still be polluted with excessive levels of nitrates, chlorine, pharmaceutical drugs, industrial chemicals, detergents, and other pollutants. This "treated" water is discharged directly into the environment. The use of antibiotics is so widespread that many people are now breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria in their intestinal systems. These bacteria are excreted into toilets and make their way to wastewater treatment plants where the antibiotic resistance can be transferred to other bacteria. Wastewater plants can then become breeding grounds for resistant bacteria, which are discharged into the environment through effluent drains. Why not just chlorinate the water before discharging it? It usually is chlorinated beforehand, but research has shown that chlorine seems to increase bacterial resistance to some antibiotics.19
Here's something else to chew on: 50 to 90% of the pharmaceutical drugs people ingest can be excreted down the toilet and out into the waterways in their original or biologically active forms. Furthermore, drugs that have been partially degraded before excretion can be converted to their original active form by environmental chemical reactions. Pharmaceutical drugs such as chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, antiseptics, beta-blockers heart drugs, hormones, analgesics, cholesterol-lowering drugs and drugs for regulating blood lipids have turned up in such places as tap water, groundwater beneath sewage treatment plants, lake water, rivers, and in drinking water aquifers. Think about that the next time you fill your glass with water.20
Long Island Sound receives over a billion gallons of treated sewage every day - the waste of eight million people. So much nitrogen was being discharged into the Sound from the treated wastewater that it caused the aquatic oxygen to disappear, rendering the marine environment unsuitable for the fish that normally live there. The twelve treatment plants that were to be completed along the Sound by 1996 were expected to remove 5,000 pounds of nitrogen daily. Nitrogen is normally a soil nutrient and agricultural resource, but instead, when flushed, it becomes a dangerous water pollutant.21 On December 31, 1991, the disposal of U.S. sewage sludge into the ocean was banned. Before that, much of the sewage sludge along coastal cities in the United States had simply been dumped out to sea.
The discharging of sludge, sewage, or wastewater into nature's waterways invariably creates pollution. The impacts of polluted water are far-reaching, causing the deaths of 25 million people each year, three-fifths of them children.22 Half of all people in developing countries suffer from diseases associated with poor water supply and sanitation.23 Diarrhea, a disease associated with polluted water, kills six million children each year in developing countries, and contributes to the deaths of up to 18 million people.24 At the beginning of the 21st century, one out of four people in the developing countries still lacked clean water, and two out of three lacked adequate sanitation.25
Proper sanitation is defined by the World Health Organization as any excreta disposal facility that interrupts the transmission of fecal contaminants to humans.26 This definition should be expanded to included excreta recycling facilities. Compost toilet systems are now becoming internationally recognized as constituting "proper sanitation," and are becoming more and more attractive throughout the world due to their relatively low cost when compared to waterborne waste systems and centralized sewers. In fact, compost toilet systems yield a dividend - humus, which allows such a sanitation system to yield a net profit, rather than being a constant financial drain (non pun intended). The obsession with flush toilets throughout the world is causing the problems of international sanitation to remain unresolved. Many parts of the world cannot afford expensive and water consumptive waste disposal facilities.
We're also depleting our water supplies, and flushing toilets is one way it's being wasted. Of 143 countries ranked for per capita water usage by the World Resources Institute, America came in at #2 using 188 gallons per person per day (Bahrain was #1).27 By some estimates, it takes one to two thousand tons of water to flush one ton of human waste.30 Not surprisingly, the use of groundwater in the United States exceeds replacement rates by 21 billion gallons a day.31
WASTE VS. MANURE
By dumping soil nutrients down the toilet, we increase our need for synthetic chemical fertilizers. Today, pollution from agriculture, caused from siltation (erosion) and nutrient runoff due to excessive or incorrect use of fertilizers,32 is now the "largest diffuse source of water pollution" in our rivers, lakes, and streams.33 Chemical fertilizers provide a quick fix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium for impoverished soils. However, it's estimated that 25-85% of chemical nitrogen applied to soil and 15-20% of the phosphorous and potassium are lost to leaching, which pollutes groundwater.34
This pollution shows up in small ponds, which become choked with algae as a result of the unnatural influx of nutrients. From 1950 to 1990, the global consumption of artificial fertilizers rose by 1000%, from 14 million tons to 140 million tons.35 Nitrate pollution from excessive artificial fertilizer use is now one of the most serious water pollution problems in Europe and North America. Nitrate pollution can cause cancer and even brain damage or death in infants.36 All the while, hundreds of millions of tons of compostable organic materials are generated in the U.S. each year, and either buried in landfills, incinerated, or discharged into the environment as waste.
The squandering of our water resources, and pollution from sewage and synthetic fertilizers, results in part from the belief that humanure and food scraps are waste materials rather than recyclable natural resources. There is, however, an alternative. Humanure can undergo a process of bacterial digestion and then be returned to the soil. This process is usually known as composting. This is the missing link in the human nutrient recycling process.
Raw humanure carries with it a significant potential for danger in the form of disease pathogens. These diseases, such as intestinal parasites, hepatitis, cholera and typhoid are destroyed by composting, either when the retention time is adequate in a low temperature compost pile, or when the composting process generates internal, biological heat, which can kill pathogens in a matter of minutes.
Raw applications of humanure to fields are not hygienically safe and can assist in the spread of various diseases. Americans who have traveled to Asia tell of the "horrible stench" of night soil that wafts through the air when it is applied to fields. For these reasons, it is imperative the humanure always be composted before agricultural application. Proper composting destroys possible pathogens and results in a pleasant-smelling material.
On the other hand, raw night soil applications to fields in Asia do return humanure to the land, thereby recovering a valuable resource, which is then used to produce food for humans. Cities in China, South Korea, and Japan recycle night soil around their perimeters in greenbelts where vegetables are grown. Shanghai, China, a city with a population of 14,2 million people in 2000,39 produces an exportable surplus of vegetables in this manner.
Humanure can be naturally recycled by feeding it to the organisms that crave it as food. These voracious creatures have been around for millions, and theoretically, billions of years. They've patiently waited for us humans to discover them. Mother Nature has seeded our excrements, as well as our garbage, with these "friends in small places," who will convert our organic discards into a soil-building material right before your eyes. Invisible helpers, these creatures are too small to be seen by the human eye and are therefore called microorganisms. The process of feeding organic material to these microorganisms in the presence of oxygen is called composting. Proper composting ensures the destruction of potential human pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) in humanure. Composting also converts the humanure into a new, benign, pleasant-smelling and beneficial substance called humus, which is then returned to the soil to enrich it and enhance plant growth.
Incidentally, all animal manures benefit from composting, as today's farmers are now discovering. Composted manures don't leach like raw manures do. Instead, compost helps hold nutrients in soil systems. Composted manures also reduce plant disease and insect damage and allow for better nutrient management on farms. In fact, two tons of compost will yield far more benefits than five tons of manure.42
Human manure can be mixed with other organic materials from human activity such as kitchen and food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, garden refuse, paper products and sawdust. This mix of materials is necessary for proper composting to take place, and it will yield a soil additive suitable for food gardens as well as for agriculture.
One reason we humans have not "fed" our excrement to the appropriate organisms is because we didn't know they existed. We've only learned to see and understand microscopic creatures in our recent past. We also haven't had such a rapidly growing human population in the past, nor have we been faced with the dire environmental problems that threaten our species today like buzzards circling a dying animal.
It all adds up to the fact that the human species must inevitably evolve. Evolution means change, and change is often resisted as old habits die hard. Flush toilets and bulging garbage cans represent well entrenched habits that must be rethought and reinvented. It we humans are half as intelligent as we thing we are, we'll eventually get our act together. In the meantime, we're realizing that nature holds many of the keys we need to unlock the door to a sustainable, harmonious existence on this planet. Composting is one of those keys, but it has only been relatively recently discovered by the human race. Its utilization is now beginning to mushroom worldwide.
To read the rest of this riveting and informative book, please check it out of our lending library!
12 – Golden, Jack, et. Al (1979) The Environmental Impact Data Book. Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Science Publishers, Inc., p. 495.
19 – Wastewater Microbiology, p. 86.
20 – Ralof, Janet. (1998 March 21). “Drugged Waters – Does it Matter that Pharmaceuticals are Turning Up in Water Supplies?” Science News, Vol. 153 (No. 12), p. 187-189.
21 – State of the New England Environment. (1996) Preserving New England Natural Resources. http://www.epa.gov/region01/soe/coastal.html.
22 – Toward Organic Security: Environmental Restoration or the Arms Race?. Peace and Environment Platform Project, c/o World Citizens Assembly, Suite 506, 312 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA 94018.
23 – Vital Signs 1998, p. 156.
24 – Courier. (1985, January). UNESCO. 7 Place de Fentenoy, 75700 Paris, France.
25 – State of the World 1999, p. 137.
26 – Vital Signs 1998, p. 156.
27 – Gever, John, et al. (1986). Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades. A Summary Report. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Co.
30 – The Waste of Nations, p. xxiv.
31 – 1993 Information Please Environmental Almanac, p. 340-341.
32 – Environmental Reporter. (1992 April 24) p. 2877-78.
33 – State of the World 1998, p. 100.
34 – Sides, S. (1991, August/September). “Compost.” Mother Earth News, Issue 127, p. 50.
35 – Brown, Lester R., et al. (1998). Vital Signs 1998. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., p. 44-45.
36 – Vital Signs, p. 44.
39 – State of the World 1999, p. 135.
42 – Cannon, Charles A. (1997 September 3-5). “Life Cycle Analysis and Sustainability Moving Beyond the Three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle – to P2R2 – Preserve, Purify, Restore and Remediate.” In E.I. Stentiford (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1997 Organic Recovery and Biological Treatment International Conference. Harrogate, UK, p. 252-253. Available from Stuart Brown, National Compost Development Association, PO Box 4, Grassington, North Yorkshire, BD23 5UR UK (