Making Modern-Day Night Soil

While the practice of collecting “night soil” from urban households in China to be repurposed as fertilizer in rural rice paddies might be somewhat outdated, the idea of using excrement to maintain soil fertility continues to be promoted by environmentalists around the world.

Over the last fifteen years, humanure has become a more mainstream topic – with community groups throughout the United States urging their neighbours and municipal governments to consider collecting waste and recycling it, instead of using clean drinking water to flush it through our sewer systems. Many eco-minded individuals are even beginning to embrace the concept in their own homes.

“Human waste is a perfectly good source of an important resource, nitrogen,” said Los Angeles-based blogger Erik Knutzen. “Water is a valuable resource, too. Why mix the two and turn all of it into a problem?”

Knutzen was inspired to incorporate a humanure system into his home after reading Joseph Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure. The book, currently in its third edition, has been translated into six languages to deliver the humanure message to ecologically-minded city dwellers around the world.

“When properly used and managed, a humanure toilet system requires virtually no water, produces no waste, creates no environmental pollution, attracts no flies, costs very little, requires no urine diversion, and produces no odor,” said Jenkins. “Instead of waste, the toilet produces humus, a valuable resource that can safely grow food for human beings.”

These toilets use organic materials like sawdust, coffee grounds, or peat moss to help eliminate smells, and collect excrement in a bucket that users can then transfer to a compost pile. With additional covering materials like hay, grass, leaves, or pine needles, you can eliminate odours and avoid attracting flies while encouraging microbial activity. Eventually, the compost can be spread throughout the garden as fertilizer.

“The purpose of thermophilic composting is to subject the toilet materials to robust microbial activity, which produces heat generated by thermophilic microorganisms,” Jenkins said. “This process has been scientifically proven to destroy human pathogens, rendering the toilet material hygienically safe and achieving the true essence of ‘sanitation.’”

In fact, the process is similar to the concept of “biosolids,” with some important differences. While biosolids are made up of everything that gets disposed of in sewer systems – including industrial waste like heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and other pollutants – humanure contains nothing but pure human excrement.

Still, the idea of collecting human waste and repurposing it remains an unattractive idea to many city dwellers. Jenkins hopes to change these attitudes through education and eventually, hopefully, the implementation of municipal humanure systems.

“Humanure toilets are not for everyone,” he said. “They are limited to situations where adequate and appropriate cover materials are available. They are a knowledge-based sanitation system and are sometimes referred to as the ‘thinking person’s toilet.’”

However, he added that when the system is properly executed and managed, users will benefit from a low-cost, hygienically safe, environmentally friendly, waste-free ,and pleasant sanitation alternative – and one that also produces a wealth of soil fertility.

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9 thoughts on “Making Modern-Day Night Soil

  1. Interesting article. I agree on the importance of NOT using biosolids as it has a heavy toxin burden – see this link for a great overview of the issues – [url removed – web team] by Dr. Thomas Maler – But even just human feces MAY have issues – Prions, Superbugs, and Pharmaceuticals, may all be passed to soils and composts via humanure. I think more research is needed in these areas.

  2. I have been using a composting toilet for 20 years now. (A bucket in a wooden box with a toilet seat). I live alone and do have visitors from time to time. I use peat moss, old saw dust and wood shavings. I live in middle Tennessee and there are plenty of saw mills around. I have two compost bins. It takes me a year to fill one. I let it rot for a year while I fill the other one. The great thing about having the toilet in the house is that it is so convenient to dump all kitchen scraps; coffee grounds, veg scraps and shreaded paper products. I even buy eggs in 2 1/2 doz paper flats and compost that. I do all raised bed gardening and produce more food than I can eat, can, and dry for the winter. I have been told that I am full of (it) I guess that I am. My garden sure produces well and is beautiful. Joe

    1. Joe in Middle Tennessee,

      I live in Nashville. I wonder if you would be willing to have a day when people could come and see what you have built/created and how ti works.
      There may (or may not) be a time when we will need very much to know how to dispose of waste and fertilize soil to grow our own food in Nashville. Gaining a little knowledge from you might motivate some people to prepare for that day or at least have the knowledge when that day comes.

  3. I would use my own as what comes out is as organic as what goes in. I do not do drugs or medications. I would also not want to use Uncle Bert’s or Aunt Bertha’s 20 bottles of pills humanure. So if we can just use our own that would be great. We are losing topsoil because we drain the soil with our crops and when we eat, the defication goes to the sewage plant at the EDGE OF THE WATER, WE ARE IN FACT DEPLETING THE LAND, JUST WITH THIS “SYSTEM”. In nature, the blackberry fertilizer goes directly back to where the bear is eating the blackberries. The sewage plant gets bacteria to eat human cells in the feces and then gets extra chlorine to kill all the bacteria before they release it all into water ways. The poor oceans…notice how the seafood does not taste as it did before…small wonder. Not cleaned or unpolluted in any way, except in aeration what gets oxidized and that is by total accident. Isn’t that comforting? Lack of non-sociopathic leadership, folks, pure and simple. We have to get Uncle and Auntie off the pills because we are losing top soil by the acres every year not only due to not putting human poo back in the woods and fields (organic and unpolluted aunt and uncle may not need those pills any more with clean food). Also if sea levels rise/keep rising, the sewage plants will be unusable; we have to face the FACT that we will be humanuring. I won’t be giving up my own-sorry and will not allow gmo, chemical, freak medicine to be in my humanure/yard. Keep the polluted goop to those who created it. I’d like to drop Uncle Bert’s and Aunt Bertha’s on Monsanto/Bayer’s doorstep. Send their “wonderful” product back to them.

    1. My dear Jeanette,

      How blessed you are not to need ‘pills’ at this time in your life. But you surely will need them or else you will die younger than you will want to. Believe me, when your body starts to go the way of all flesh, you will take medicine to slow it down.

  4. Love this idea and have been doing my own version of this with no problems. I also add cats litter tray waste for extra nitrogen and micro yummies. But you inspired me to buy the book. I wonder if the diet has a lot to do with it – vegan for me and raw for the cats.

  5. I use compost made with biosolids and yard waste that I get delivered. I fear we are sometimes so perfectionistic that we are willing to waste a wonderful resource like biosolids in the process of wanting to be perfect. I have been using this mulch for about 3 years now and the results are amazing. Everything rows like crazy. The mulch is tested for heavy metals and is very well broken down so I am not concerned about drugs. Nature has a way of healing itself and I would hate for people to avoid using these mulches when they are not doing their own night soil composting.

  6. Human excrement would work as a fertilizer on a mass scale if the food most people are consuming were not full of chemicals. The processed foods most people eat contaminates their feces, which in turn would contaminate the your soil and the plants you are growing.

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