Want to reduce waste and pollution and create a more sustainable world? Consider composting your own poop…
Although most Americans today find the idea of composting human excrement distasteful and even absurd, in fact, there are a number of benefits to collecting and composting your own poop – a practice that was common for thousands of years before the flush toilet came along.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why we flush our organic waste away into our waterways (along with millions of gallons of fresh, drinkable water), rather than using the nutrients to support life on earth? When you really think about it, it seems pretty absurd.
This is why independent citizens and community groups throughout the U.S. are beginning to consider alternative ways of dealing with this waste stream.
If you are concerned about this issue, there are ways to start composting your own poop safely and legally in your own home. Here are a few considerations:
Poop Collection Options
Options for collecting humanure in your bathroom range from rustic, such as a 5-gallon bucket with a snap-on toilet seat (available at hunting and camping stores), to turnkey, such as the Sun-Mar line of self-contained composting toilets (available online and from home improvement stores). The latter can set you back a couple thousand dollars or more, but are close enough in user experience to a conventional commode that any less-than-enthused family members will hardly notice the difference.
What about Urine?
Urine provides extra nitrogen for the composting process and does not have to be kept separate from the poop. However, you may wish to capture some or all of your urine in its own bucket and use it as a liquid fertilizer. As long as you dump it within a few hours, it doesn’t smell. First dilute it with at least five parts water to one part urine, as urine is so high in nitrogen and will damage your plants if used straight.
Using Your Humanure Toilet
Prefabricated composting toilets vary in design and operation; just follow the instructions. If you are using a 5-gallon bucket or similar collection method, you’ll need to have sawdust or some other absorbent, biodegradable material on hand at all times to cover your droppings each time you use it — for number one or two. This is essential to reduce odor, and also provides a carbon-rich material to aid the composting process.
Lumber mills often give away sawdust for free, just make sure it’s not from pressure-treated wood. Rice hulls, coco fiber, and shredded peat moss are also suitable composting materials, all of which may be found at farm and garden suppliers. Before using an empty bucket, fill the bottom with an inch or two of the composting material.
From Toilet to Garden
Once the container is full, the contents may be emptied into an outdoor compost pile. A classic three-bin composting system is ideal. Spread six to eight inches of leaves, straw, or other composting materials on the bottom before adding your first batch of humanure to ensure good drainage. Each time you add a batch of humanure, cover the contents with several inches of composting materials…
Once the compost bin is full, let it sit for at least one year for the final stages of decomposition to take place, and start a new pile. After the first pile has “matured,” use it in your garden beds as you would any compost product.
Is it Safe?
Compost piles made in this fashion reach temperatures of over 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which is high enough to kill any harmful pathogens that are present in the humanure. Letting the compost sit for a year is extra insurance against pathogens, as they cannot survive for an indefinite period without a human host. Jenkins has summarized much of the scientific research on the subject here.
There are several common sense precautions to keep in mind, however. Don’t touch the humanure as you transfer it from the collection bin to the compost pile; you can always wear gloves for this part as a safeguard….
Also, don’t build the compost pile on boggy ground or in an area prone to flooding. A well-drained site is essential to prevent water contamination, and for maintaining anaerobic conditions in the pile.
While properly composted humanure is completely safe, as a final precaution you may wish to apply it only around fruit trees, berry bushes, and ornamental plants where there is no chance of it coming to contact with something you’re going to eat.
Is it Legal?
In a typical residential home with modern plumbing, it is not illegal to add a self-contained composting toilet. And as long as your compost pile is neat and reasonably odor-free, you shouldn’t be subject to any municipal nuisance laws, either. However, selling your humanure compost is definitely illegal, so don’t do that. Here is a more comprehensive review of the legal ramifications of humanure.