Category Archives: Compost

Isn’t It Ironic…Don’t You Think?

Unlike the Alanis Morisette hit, “Ironic”, which was in fact not at all ironic, I have come across some ironies in my work that strike me as worth mentioning and perhaps exploring more in depth. The world we live in seems full of these strange paradoxes, but they come in to stark relief in development work where all of my “developed” cultural assumptions, privileges and background come into contact with those of the “developing” world.

Compost vs. Flush Toilet
The first one relates to the beautiful wicker throne of which I am so proud. I’m very happy to no longer be flushing and instead turning my own excrement into an agricultural resource. It takes hands-on management to empty buckets and manage the compost pile, but for me the trade off is well worth it in my mind. When I built this system, my co-worker had to laugh when he imagined what the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) would say if they ever saw my toilet. “We left that way of life back in Russia. What are you thinking?” People in Guarani villages like Caipepe have not had flushing toilets in their homes or villages. Their vision of development, similar to the LGMs, is one that brings many of the modern infrastructure to their homes. Why would I choose to go backward by pooping in a bucket and piling it up in the backyard? (For the answer you can read Humanure: Waste or Resource?)

Off vs. On the Grid
We have friends back home who have lived or aspire to live “off the grid”, meaning not connected to the electricity infrastructure. For some this might mean using renewable forms of energy instead, but continuing to consume electricity. For others this means getting rid of the need to use electricity as much as possible. For most it’s a combination of the two. We also aspire to this kind of lifestyle and have started a Sabbath practice with no electricity Sundays, which is easier there is only one breaker for the entire house.
In contrast our friends in Caipepe just got electricity in their village within the last year. Their experience of the world has been one without electricity in their home for most of their lives. What would they say to my friends, or me, about wanting to live without electricity or at least “off the grid”?

Sustainable vs. Industrial Agriculture
The irony I find most disturbing is that I, the white, North American, male development worker am the one advocating sustainable agriculture to indigenous people (LGMs are another story). The Guarani lived on the land as hunter-gatherers and perhaps farmers long before the chemical and seed companies that now dominate the market and dictate the type of agriculture practiced. They have a long history of knowledge of local flora and fauna. There are still lots of people that know about what plants are edible or useful for medicinal purposes, but this kind of knowledge and intimacy with the landscape has been marginalized in favor of the cash crop system of industrial agriculture. So, the farmers we talk to use chemicals to manage weeds, insects and fertility. They lack the knowledge of the ancestors about better ways to live on the land, which may be because they were hunter-gatherers who were forced to settle in to sedentary villages.
Other people, like the Quechua and Aymaras, who practiced agriculture before even the Incan Empire have probably retained more of their traditional knowledge than those who remained hunter-gatherers right up to the colonization by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century.

These are the ironies of development work, particularly with an emphasis on sustainability. It’s important to remember that the North American obsession with a “green” lifestyle is a privileged position. Some of it may be the right thing to do, but any attempt to simply import it to “developing” countries and/or indigenous peoples would simply be another form of colonization. Part of the reason those of us in the privileged “developed” world are able to choose lifestyles that contradict and challenge the status quo of industrial agriculture, consumerism and the growth economy is because our lives have been so saturated by these realities. Those in the “developing” world have experienced these realities from a completely different perspective and advertising continues to sell them a dream that is beyond their reach. So, once again we must find a way to bring these worlds together and find better solutions over a guampa of yerba maté.

Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.

Humanure: Waste or Resource?

CAUTION: I use many different words in this post to refer to human feces, most of which just make my four-year-old son laugh (OK.. me too), but some of which are slang and might be considered offensive by some. You have been warned.

The Humanure Handbook quickly and easily catapulted itself to one of my favorite books of all time. The plot is pretty simple. The human turd has been looked down on for much of Western history as a villain, a bearer of death and disease and something to be got rid of as quickly and cleanly as possible (at least for those of us who don’t work in wastewater management). But wait… Could it be that this much maligned malefactor is really only a misunderstood and much underutilized natural resource in disguise? It turns out that while there are lots of plot twists (pathogens, night soil, etc.), the reprobate pile of human excrement is actually a very smelly Boy Scout waiting to waltz with thermophilic microbial lifeforms until he turns your dung into the most delicious and nutritious tomatoes you’ve ever eaten. Only the topics of poop or compost can inspire me to wax so poetic. The Humanure Handbook combines both in a glorious tome destined to inspire generations to come and probably save the planet.

Stop Pooping in the Water Cooler

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 (15).

This seems to be the motto and rallying cry of the book. Author Joseph Jenkins reminds us that “Less than one percent of the Earth’s water is available as drinking water. Why shit in it?” (117). This is really what happens when we use modern, western toilets. We pull that innocent-looking handle and wave goodbye to our waste as gallons of water swirl around carrying our excrement off to unforeseen lands that we then promptly ignore. The truth is that the water in our waste systems is for no other purpose than carrying away our waste. If it weren’t for us using it to get rid of our excrement, then it would be perfectly acceptable water for our own consumption.

People around the world are trying to keep feces and contaminants out of what water supply they have, while we abuse our abundance by happily turning our water into an environmental hazard that is ridiculously expensive to dispose of properly, if indeed, it is even possible. In a world where “one out of four people in developing countries still lack clean water, and two out of three lack adequate sanitation” (Source: State of the World 1999, p. 137), it’s at least silly, if not criminal, for us to be using our own water resources this way.

Jenkins covers thoroughly all the systems used to dispose of our ordure (outhouses, septic systems, wastewater treatment, stabilization ponds, constructed wetlands and composting toilet systems), the structure and problems associated with them including handling of pathogens and toxins. In the end his beloved system of managed thermophilic compost (which is a fancy way of saying composting toilet systems) comes out smelling like roses, quite literally if that’s what you want to grow with it.

Wasting Away

The problem, however, is not just in the facts, which add up considerably in favor of humanure. The problem is really our understanding of what is waste. Jenkins points out that Asian countries did not develop western wastewater treatment systems and have used “night soil” (raw humanure) for millenia on agricultural lands. (He does point out that while this returns nutrients to the soil and destroys many of the pathogens through decomposition it can also be a vector for disease because the humanure is not composted.) They don’t even have swear words that refer to human excrement in many Asian languages, because it could never be an insult to call someone something so valuable. Think about that next time the hammer hits your thumb instead of the nail!

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… “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… Humanure, unlike human waste, is not waste at all – it is an organic resource 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 (7-8).

The challenge is a radical shift in our thinking, not just a matter of where or in what we put the end product of our digestive system. We have come to assume that certain things are “waste” and must be disposed of through expensive and dangerous chemical processes or storage. His comparison of “sanitary” landfills (which use waterproof liners carefully folded up around the edges) to gigantic disposable diapers really stuck with me.

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 (9).

We’ve done such a good job at removing our own waste from sight and therefore our awareness, that we can hardly fathom that we, North Americans, produce 1,000 pounds of humanure in a year and another 1,000 pounds of solid waste. That’s one ton of waste per person every year, half of which can be turned into an agricultural resource (12).

Jenkins also does a thorough job describing exactly how to create an agricultural resource from your own droppings. There are plans for many different permutations of sawdust toilets you can build yourself, in addition to diagrams of many of the commercial products and composting toilets that are out there. There is also a design for the Humanure Hacienda which is two compost bins with a covered third bin that collects rainwater.

The problem of waste that’s created by our consumption, both through the food we eat and the stuff we buy, must be dealt with in more sustainable ways. One of the best things we can do is turn our own waste into a resource.

No More Flushing!

The Humanure Handbook inspired me to create a composting toilet system for our house in Charagua, both to demonstrate to Bolivians and Low German Mennonites (LGM) how easy it is; and so we use less water and create a resource instead of waste. The Humanure Handbook made it easy and also gave me the confidence to make the system and manage it properly. There are three things that a composting toilet system needs: “1) the toilet receptacle; 2) cover materials; 3) a compost bin system” (172). I located a continuous supply of sawdust from a local carpenter for cover material. I’ve also been tearing up old newspaper into strips for additional cover material. I might also need to buy some straw at some point, but the sawdust and newspaper should be sufficient for now.

The biggest obstacle was building the actual toilet. The Humanure Handbook has some simple and cheap plans that I was going to use, but I didn’t have the building materials or buckets. First I found four identical buckets (with lids!!) at an old colony store for 40 bolivianos (almost $6). As I was making plans for how much wood I needed, my wife was hit by a stroke of genius. We have some old wicker chairs sitting around that we don’t use much and are falling apart some. Rather than spend money on brand new materials I could use what we already have around the house to make a frame for the bucket. We also had some scrap wood lying around to help support the frame and attach the seat.

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The toilet receptacle is very basic. It’s just a bucket with something to sit on. In order to make it more comfortable, enjoyable and pleasing to the eye, it’s nice to build some sort of box or chair around the bucket. You could also buy toilet seats that fit standard five-gallon buckets online or at a camping store. I simply cut the wicker seat out of the chair for the bucket. Then attached a piece of plywood to the back for support and a board across the back to attach the toilet seat.

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The finished toilet is both aesthetically pleasing, comfortable and highly functional. We keep a bucket of sawdust next to the toilet to cover after every use. Multiple buckets means we don’t have to empty the buckets into the compost bin system as often. Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook, claims that using two buckets for a family of four he only has to empty it once a week. Perhaps his family doesn’t go as much as we do or uses less sawdust, on the other hand maybe we go more than most (maybe I drink too much coffee). Either way we fill up one bucket in about a day and a half, which means using two buckets we will have to empty them at least twice a week. Regardless, this is not a lot of work, perhaps five minutes two to three times a week, for the reward of rich compost to grow some delicious vegetables and the satisfaction of knowing you are not pooping in your drinking water anymore.

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The third and final component, the compost bin system, I built in a field by our house a good distance away from our living space. It’s more inconvenient, but might keep the ubiquitous dogs here out of yard when adding our food scraps. Again, using scrap wood that we had lying around, I measured two 5′ X 5′ squares and buried the posts so they would all be 4′ high. Since concrete continues to be scarce and expensive in Bolivia, I simply packed the dirt into the holes to secure the posts. Then attached chicken wire around the posts, leaving the front panel of wire as a door that can be opened when the compost is ready to use. It will take a while to fill this bin and for it to settle (compost loses half its volume in the process of composting). In that time I will build a second bin to fill while the first bin ages for a year. My compost bin system is simpler than the “Humanure Hacienda” design in the book, but perfectly functional.

The thing I really learned from thinking about and building this system is that it’s a lot easier than you think. The Humanure Handbook debunks a lot of the myths about composting toilets and humanure. It also helps to see the things you have around your house as resources and materials, instead of first thinking of buying new materials. It’s amazing how hard it is to overcome this mentality since the consumer religion has taught this way of thinking to us since birth.