Humanure part 1: Why should we give a crap?
Permaculture is not just about garden design. Even if you don’t have land or access to land, looking at life from a permaculture perspective can help you to make life decisions and take actions towards upholding the ethics of permaculture in your daily practices. This article series will take a look specifically at one of these practices which we all share, examine the benefits of changing our habits from a scientific perspective, and offer some practical ideas of what to do next.
That which cannot be named
It’s something which everyone engages in, sometimes as often as once or even twice a day. It can often be the first sign of illness if it is uncomfortable, and if it’s comfortable can help us to feel healthy and of course relieved. We do it almost as often as we eat and yet many people only feel comfortable talking about it with their closest friends or doctor. This could be seen as unbalanced, but probably even more unbalanced (especially from a permaculture perspective) is how we deal with our faeces. The most popular way of treating faeces globally is still by using water, either to flush to a public sewage treatment facility or to an onsite septic tank, or, in many places, by flushing it directly into the sea or a river (1). There are many reasons why using water to treat poo is environmentally detrimental, and most readers may well be familiar with these already. However, below I will briefly go into a few. Likewise with reasons why you may wish to change your pooing habits (if you haven’t already) to that of non-water treatment.
Why do we do what we do with poo?
Most permaculture practitioners are aware that human manure, or ‘humanure’ to use the phrase made popular by Joseph Jenkins (2), “makes a fine agricultural resource suitable for food crops.” (2)
Jenkins reported in 1999 that “We in the United States each waste about a thousand pounds of humanure every year, which is discarded into sewers and septic systems throughout the land.
Much of the discarded humanure finds its final resting place in a landfill, along with the other solid waste we Americans discard, which, coincidentally, also amounts to about a thousand pounds per person per year.” (2) It is possible that since this report the figure has decreased.
One of the main logistical problems of dealing with human waste is that the vast majority of ‘solutions’ throughout the globe to the collection of this valuable resource is to flush it away with water and then to treat it with chemicals and/or dump it in a body of water, preferably one that is as far away as possible from the toilet in question. As Jenkins points out, humanure is part of the human nutrient cycle, and in order for soils to be replenished and regenerated once crops have been grown, it is essential to return the digested nutrients (i.e. humaure and other discarded organic matter) to the soil (2). So why do we, instead of putting it it the ground where it can help our food to grow, throw our faeces into the sea or rivers?
The link between monoculture and water sewage
Water-based sewage systems are not a new invention; some sources say they have been around since the Mesopotamian empire (3). Evidence of water-based sewers has been found in many ancient cultures (4). One thing appears to link them all: all sewage systems were developed in city-states, which in turn were developed after the discovery of large-scale grain agriculture. So they make a kind of logical sense: once monoculture grain agriculture was developed, people instead of being more or less self-sufficient in their food needs or gathering food from the wild had to be organised together in one place so that they could all share the grain (see for example 5). Since cities and monocultural fields have been historically and still are designed to be placed over the existing landscape, rather than finding a place within it, they often left no open earthen spaces for humanure to be dealt with. Plus the fact that many people were suddenly living together would probably put a strain on whichever place was chosen to store the humanure. People may try to deal with their own crap even in cities, both in the past and now; but this points to another very important factor in humanure: that of pathogens. Human poo can spread diseases if it is not treated in an effective way, and so, especially in cities where there is so much human activity, a solution had to be found which does not endanger the human population. Thus flushing it away makes (some) logical sense.
Water is sky-fruit…we can harvest it rather than flushing.
The inefficiency of water-based sewage as a solution for taking away human poo has been well explored (see for example 2, 6). Sewers in many places do not treat the faeces in any way before disposing of it in the nearest water body (1), thus endagering whoever swims there (human or animal) with the spread of pathogens. Even if the pathogens are neutralised, this is standardly done with toxic chemicals which also cause harm when released into the general water supply (2).
The need to change this way of dealing with our crap has never been greater. Of all the fresh water on the planet, 99% is stored in ice or in aquifers. With the rising popularity in boreholes, groundwater is now being used up faster than it can be replenished (6). So to further contaminate our freshwater with sewage seems ill-designed, to say the least.
The ‘white gold’ in your poo.
Along with the fact that recycling poo into the soil is completing the human nutrient cycle, and that now more than ever we need to be replenishing our aquifers and saving our fresh water, there is one more factor to consider in why you might want to use your poo as humanure: that of phosphorous.
Phosphorous is a chemical which has been isolated as one of the most important ingredients in healthy soil and is produced for agricultural use on a mass scale (7). The source of phosphorous as an agricultural product is phosphate rock mines, the top four producing countries being the USA, China, Morocco and Russia (8). Since it is mined out of the earth without any thought of replenishment it is a finite product as an isolated chemical, and ‘peak phosphorous’ – the time when global production is thought to reach its maximum – has been estimated to be in the year 2030 (9).
Hopefully by that time agricultural production will have generally shifted away from chemical-input large-scale monoculture; but for those dinosaurs left in the industrial agriculture game there is the possibility of political unrest or even all-out war in an attempt to glean the last of the Earth’s naturally-occurring phosphate rock (10).
As I explored in my ‘Soil Mineralisation’ article series (11, 12, 13), however, if you can build up a natural ecosystem within your soil with a healthy balance of organic matter and micro-organisms, then a useful amount of phosphorous will naturally be present in your compost. And one of the best natural sources of the chemical? Why, human poo, of course.
…And the gold gold
Along with the huge amount of nutrient wealth we could be adding to the soil as a human species if we composted our poo, there are potentially millions of dollars worth of precious metals being flushed away each year, which could be recovered (14). Indeed, one sewage facility in Tokyo was reported to have recovered a higher yield of gold from human faeces than the world’s top gold mines (15).
Now you know some reasons why it could be useful to save your own faeces and recycle them as part of the human nutrient cycle. The next step is to decide what the best way to do this is. Though humanure composting could be argued as being needed on a global societal scale, then easiest way for you and I to start doing it is with our own bodies. If you have the space, building your own compost toilet can be relatively easy and cost-efficient. There are some things to consider when building one, though; the most important probably being that of ensuring that your humanure is pathogen-free. Part 2 of this article will explore some practical ideas for how to do this.
- Pappas, S, 2011. ‘With 7 Billion People, World Has a Poop Problem’. Live Science, 25/10/11. https://www.livescience.com/16713-7-billion-people-world-poop-problem.html– retrieved 22/11/18
- Jenkins, J, 1999. the Humanure Handbook. Joseph Jenkins: Grove City, USA
- Khan, Dr. S, (?) ‘Chapter 2 Sanitation and wastewater technologies in Harappa/Indus valley civilization (ca. 26001900 BC)’. Academia,2018. https://www.academia.edu/5937322/Chapter_2_Sanitation_and_wastewater_technologies_in_Harappa_Indus_valley_civilization_ca._26001900_BC– retrieved 22/11/18
- Wikipedia, 2018. ‘History of Water Supply and Sanitation’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_water_supply_and_sanitation– retrieved 22/11/18
- Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-earth-but-not-civilization/– retrieved 22/11/18
- Lancaster, B, 2013. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Volume 1, 2nd Edition. Rainsource Press: Tucson, USA (distributed by Chelsea Green: New York, USA)
- Jasinski, S.M, 2013. ‘Mineral Resource of the Month: Phosphate Rock’. Earth Magazine, 2013. https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/mineral-resource-month-phosphate-rock– retrieved 26/7/17
- Kay, A, 2018. ‘Top phosphate producing countries’. Investing News, 9/4/18. https://investingnews.com/daily/resource-investing/agriculture-investing/phosphate-investing/top-phosphate-producing-countries/– retrieved 22/11/18
- Cordell, Dana; Drangert, Jan-Olof; White, Stuart, 2009. “The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought”. Global Environmental Change.
- Elser, J; White, S, 2010. ‘Peak Phosphorous’. Foreign Policy, 20/4/2010. https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/04/20/peak-phosphorus/– retrieved 22/11/18
- Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Soil Mineralisation, part 1. Permaculture News, 11/8/17. https://permaculturenews.org/2017/08/11/soil-mineralisation-part-1-need-add-soils/– retrieved 22/11/18
- Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Soil Mineralisation, part 2. Permaculture News, 17/8/17. https://permaculturenews.org/2017/08/17/soil-mineralisation-part-2-major-soil-elements-can-source/– retrieved 22/11/18
- Ashwanden, C, 2017. ‘Soil Mineralisation, part 3. Permaculture News, 8/9/17. https://permaculturenews.org/2017/09/08/soil-mineralisation-part-3-remineralise-soil/– retrieved 22/11/18
- Devlin, H, 2015. ‘Gold in Faeces ‘is worth millions and could save the environment’’.Guardian, 23/3/15. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/23/gold-in-faeces-worth-millions-save-environment– retrieved 22/11/18
- Reuters, 2009. ‘Sewage Yields More than Top Gold Mines’. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-sewage-odd-idUSTRE50T56120090130– retrieved 22/11/18