Guest Rants

Humanure?

Here's a guest rant from Farmer Jade.

Mutt
Eliz's photo of a Duchamp multiple at Ravello.

I have a confession to make. I have a soft spot in my heart
for those crazy people who compost their own poop. They seem to be everywhere,
nowadays, at least in the "alternative gardener" circles I run in in
Portland, Oregon. It's like the new cult in town. They even have their own
Bible, called the Humanure
Handbook
. I call them the "humanure-farians", with
apologies to Rastafarians. Terrible, aren't I?

The term reminds me of a stinky outhouse but I have a soft
spot for these people. Not enough that I wouldn't think a neighbor was weird if
they were doing it. But I understand where they are coming from, and I can
respect the decision. After all, we're all crazy about our plants—that's why
we're gardeners. They're just willing to cross a line than many of us are too
squeamish about crossing.

And who knows, they're probably right. It is wasteful to
throw all those nutrients down the drain. But it violates so many of our
taboos, I can't help but finding it a wee bit distasteful, even if it will save
the world.

We all do crazy things in our garden. I have a good
friend who even considered installing a urinal in his garden—in order to collect
urine to spread around the yard. After all, urea is often the top ingredient in
most commercial fertilizers, so it's pretty hypocritical to criticize the
practice. But I haven't gotten to the point where I want to a urinal to be the
sculptural centerpiece of my garden. Although a toilet could make a great
birdbath.

When this topic comes up, my friend often tells me about
ancient Japan. There is a long practice of using "night soil" in
farms in Japan. Apparently, the farmers kept well-maintained facilities all
along the ancient highways in Japan. Can you imagine that happening here in the
U.S.—in each McDonald's?

My wife thinks this whole topic is gross. I'm with her on
humanure, but maybe there is a gender difference in attitudes towards "liquid
gold"? Men seem to like the practice, and engage in it whenever nobody is
looking, whether they are gardeners or not. 

So I have a suggestion for the Humanure-farians: work on
your marketing. Here are some ideas to get you started: Bring back some old terms, like nightsoil. Now that's a
decent term, something you can stick your hand into!

Get some fancy advertisements—maybe if you can get someone
famous to do it, the lemmings will follow in their wake?

Call it something else. How about Moreganic gardening?
Everyone likes organic.

Jade Rubick is the founder of Plantworking.com, a social networking site for gardeners. He
writes a blog called 
Farmer Jade,
where he writes about topics ranging from 
converting a
lawn to garden
 to pruning and
trellising tomatoes
. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Posted by on September 12, 2010 at 5:00 am, in the category Guest Rants.
Comments are off for this post

38 Responses to “Humanure?”

  1. Lisa says:

    You’re nicer than I am, I may be flayed, but I think it’s gross, gross, gross. Part of the reason we live longer is because we’re not exposed to some of the pathogens found in human waste. Not to offend, and definitely not to try to sway a humanure practitioner, I believe they feel if compost is hot enough it will kill anything, but consider the fact that 25% of people in America are living with an std. Could you picture being that home gardener “Well I never told you but I have (insert name of std), anyway there’s this cool thing called humanure where I can recycle my own waste and use it in my garden, hey want a tomato?”

  2. Jenny says:

    I struggle with the contradiction that I can’t give blood due to a semester abroad in the early 90s but hot compost will kill any diseases or germs I might spread to food.

    Raw veggies are one area where I’d rather be safe than sorry.

    Ewww.

  3. I can’t go there either, though I am a pretty big fan of ‘liquid gold’ in the compost. One carries all kinds of nasty bacteria, and the other is a clean source of nitrogen… unless, interestingly enough, you are on certain kidney meds.
    I’m also a proud promoter of ‘Pee On Earth Day’, which is the first day of Summer in the Northern hemisphere, and the first day of (our) Winter in the Southern hemisphere.

  4. Patrick says:

    I am usually pretty open minded, but this is just wrong. I’m with Lisa on this. read a little history. Human Fecal material= not good…

  5. Hannah says:

    Humanure and Night Soil are different things, so mixing the terms would be giving incorrect information and lead to confusion and fear. Humanure is composted human waste that is let to sit for minimum one year to kill all pathogens. Night Soil is raw sewage, full of pathogens. If you read the Humanure Handbook you will learn about taking precautions as to not spread disease. Humanure maintains a nutrient cycle unlike the linear system of food production and sewage treatment that is in place today.

    What really is gross is the amount of clean drinkable water that we westerners shit in then chemically process to return to be clean drinking water, and at the same time millions/billions of people on earth don’t have access to safe drinking water. Imagine how much water would not be polluted and would be conserved if everyone composted their waste!

  6. naomi says:

    An older friend worked with a couple who had an amazing vegetable garden, and every year they’d have a feast of their produce, inviting all their co-workers. The husband died, yet the wife continued gardening, and announced the usual feast. Everyone attended, of course, both to support her and honor her husband. The food was especially good. As they commented on this, the widow said her husband had helped, and when they all looked at her wonderingly, she said she’d spread his ashes on the garden. My friend said the supper just seemed different after that.

  7. anne says:

    I love this post! It gets to the heart of the life cycle that we all depend on, and touches on subjects we first-worlders sometimes have a hard time talking about….waste and death (will we have a “gardening and taxes” post next?). You can’t have beautiful growth without gross, messy decay.

    But a couple of things come to my mind. One is that we think nothing of using compost waste from other animal sources, including horses, cows and chickens, all of which can have bad bacteria and pathogens in them (not to mention drugs) prior to processing. But I think there is an ancient “don’t shit in your own den” mentality that keeps us from wanting to process our own waste.

    Another thought is that there is more than just bacteria and biological pathogens in our waste, if we live in 21st century America, and not all of it is processed by heat and time. This includes the medicines we know we are ingesting, as well as other less obvious things, like cleaners we are exposed to, etc. Google “triclosan”, for example, and read about what happens in the waste stream to this most common ingredient in everyday soaps, cleansers, and materials. You may be very clean and organic in your own private world, but we are all exposed to things in the public world we have no control over.

    Last thing: I have yet to meet a man farmer who doesn’t “fertigate” his crop, or the soil around it, on a regular basis!

  8. Donna says:

    I have friends with a composting toilet in their home and they use the humanure for ornamentals and trees. I don’t think that’s a bad solution if people are grossed out by putting it on veggies.

  9. Kirsten says:

    I certainly struggle with social taboos ingrained about dealing with human waste. I also share concern that if it is not done properly human pathogens will be re-introduced(think California’s green onions a few years ago). However, I do think that if it can be done safely and effectively, this is an alternative to consider. I personally think I would have to start with non-edible plants.

  10. Ginger says:

    I am contemplating installing a Humanure system for our farm so this post is timely for me. There is a cultural taboo on this subject for Americans but not for many other cultures. As for myself I plan to let the compost break down in a separate pile for a year and use it for my flower beds, berry plants and orchard trees- there is no need to use it on leafy greens. Although I do use lots of horse and cow manure in my garden, I always let them break down for a season as well before putting plants into soil mixed with them. Urine is sterile and full of N so a separate system for mixing that with water, compost tea or other fertilizers and using that in drip irrigation makes total sense. I agree that it is much grosser to use clean drinking water in a toilet and flush it to some huge chemical treatment plant than taking responsibility for your own waste. Close the waste loop- figure out a way to use it that doesn’t gross you out!

  11. Kirsten says:

    I used to laugh at the idea of people composting their own poop until a few years ago, when I read Liquid Gold and started experimenting with using urine as fertilizer. Then I spoke to some people and read the Humanure Handbook. I was ready to try it. Everything the author said was true. The compost pile doesn’t smell. It composts down just as well as cow or horse manure would. I eat organic foods, so it’s quality in, quality out. But I know it’s hard to get used to the idea at first, because I was there once.

    The person who warns about catching an std from humanure? Now THAT’s funny. There’s a reason they’re called std’s, they’re transmitted SEXUALLY.

    Austin, TX repackages its ‘sludge’ as topsoil – probably that super cheap, super black stuff you can buy at Home Depot. It probably is tainted with cleansers and other toxic waste that people have dumped down their drains. But my humanure pile just has my contributions and organic veggie scraps.
    Some cities recycle the water from their waste treatment plant as drinking water. I call it poop water.

    What’s disgusting is soiling pure water with waste. Before water closets, people had dirt closets – they were essentially humanure toilets with dirt added on top rather than sawdust.

    I don’t think I’d be ready to add anyone else’s manure to my compost. I guess I still hold onto that bit of a taboo. The compost pile will be ready to use next spring. My guess is that it will just look like dirt. Nature works miracles that way, turning a pile of refuse into pure, clean soil.

  12. Anne says:

    I am cautious about humanure but need to learn more. Here in Portland raw sewage has gone straight to the rivers during storm overflows for over one hundred years due to our sewage system. They are trying to build a bigger pipe to prevent that, but I find the concept of humanure much less troubling than that.

    I think humanure advocates are not just thinking it’s better for their gardens. They are looking at whole systems, trying to be truly sustainable. Are giant centralized sewage systems really healthy?

  13. Matthew says:

    The disposable culture of the western world where our refuse gets buried in a landfill or processed by chemicals is far more disgusting to me than he idea of using our waste to continue the natural cycle of life. The only concern is pathogens; however, that can be dealt with and should not be a reason to dismiss the idea of recycling nutrients. Solar radiation is an effective and free solution to killing pathogens. This planet is big enough that we often forget that the resources here are finite and should be cherished and respected. Living “green” is not just a hippy fad, but our salvation from the ignorant and greedy way humans have been living for the past couple centuries. The past few decades are ridiculously embarrassing. I can imagine aliens hovering above our planet betting with each other about whether we figure it out before it’s too late. Hopefully we do.

  14. Norris says:

    In Portland, and in many other major cities through the US, sewer and stormwater flows are combined. In Portland, pretty much every time it rains, the sewage treatment system has too much water to process, and raw sewage overflows into the Willamette River. That alone gives me reason enough to keep a humanure system here. (Or I could try holding my poop in, only using the toilet between rainfalls? Could make for a long painful winter, though.) Our water savings and fertilizer are great bonuses.

    I definitely felt icky the first few times I dumped our 5-gallon bucket of poop into our compost pile, but the squeamishness wore off quickly. Now it’s just another chore to carry out every week and a half or so. Not a big deal for all the benefits to ourselves and our landbase.

    Norris Thomlinson
    Portland, OR
    http://farmerscrub.blogspot.com
    http://discountpermaculture.com

  15. Many municipal compost programs use sewage as nitrogen source. I don’t add this to my veg garden because of pharmaceutical carry overs. If it was my own, I would only add it if I and the others contributing waste weren’t on any medication. Even still, this is a bit extreme. This is the sort of thing that will turn the general populus off composting rather than encouraging them to try it or to use it.

  16. Lisa says:

    Ginger, don’t worry I’m not that naive I know you can’t catch an STD from compost, at least if you could, that would be pretty amazing, just that that would likely be the most awkward conversation, two taboos in one. I compost, most gardeners probably do, and even toyed with the idea of humanure or liquid gold, but I couldn’t convince my son to pee on my compost pile. My concern has more to do with what if it’s not done correctly. Check out this article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1308608/Gardeners-alert-man-catches-Legionnaires-disease-compost.html I’m not worried about catching that from my compost, just that things can survive in improperly cured compost. My reaction is 98% taboo.

  17. I think it should definitely be a home garden practice…although like any composting you have to set up a system the works well. Admittedly, I love the idea of composting, but have been a failure at it for one reason or another. I think the reason this isn’t discussed more is not only the taboo, but there is no financial gain for promotion. Thanks Farmer Jade for talking about it!

  18. Ole Ersson says:

    My family and I have been living in Portland and using a bucket toilet for years. With fantastic results. We’d never go back to pooping in drinking water. We’ve never had a single complaint from neighbors. On the contrary, compliments galore on our great gardens.
    We shared our story with KBOO radio a few years back:
    http://kboo.fm/node/3348
    and have given presentations on the subject:
    https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0BzfzZ9sbmJ-DNGVjNTMyZDMtMWVhYy00Yjk0LTkxNDUtYjg4MWE1ZWM3OTg5&hl=en
    My suggestion to someone with an open mind: start with saving your pee. It’s much easier and the pathogen issue is less relevant. Once you have this going you can take the next step.
    Here’s another thing to consider: wean yourself off toilet paper. Once you’ve taken this step, you’ll never go back. What an absurd concept that one can properly clean oneself with dry paper!
    We humans are eminently flexible in our behavior. What may at first seem like a radical practice eventually becomes a day to day routine, with enhanced health for one’s living landscape, local water ecosystems, one’s pocketbook, and the planet as a whole. Try it and see!

  19. Caleb says:

    The reason that animal waste is used as compost is that there are much fewer kinds of diseases that transfer from species to species. However the kinds of diseases that can be transferred by human waste include but are not limited to salmonella and e-coli. All more that I’m going to say is that there was a reason why civilizations began to segregate their waste away from where we live. We don’t shit where we eat, it can just get us sick.

  20. Ole Ersson says:

    Here is a particularly apt discussion of this subject for those willing to explore the issue:
    http://www.feralscholar.org/blog/index.php/2008/04/29/humanure-composting/

  21. hampshires says:

    Ole, you lost me at “wean yourself off toilet paper.” I think everyone here can personally attest that there are more than a few times when you absolutely need toilet paper. I’m also sure that many women would argue that there is definitely a need for toilet paper.

  22. Justice says:

    Honestly I haven’t heard much about this, and maybe that’s why I’m not comfortable with the idea of humanure. It seems to me that it would be hard for someone who is growing on a smaller scale to have the means to properly test if the waste is “clean”. If it’s in the ground it could be in the plant and it is definitely ON the vegetable! Now that being said, if research can prove that it is with out a doubt safe, I would consider it… briefly :)
    I also think the grower should be required to inform the consumer if humanure was used, so we can make a choice.

  23. Incredible caution should be the watchword for such endeavors, as fecal contamination can spread all kinds of disease. It’s possible to do safely. It’s also possible to start a cholera outbreak. As far as the pros and cons go, for the most part, the cons win here.

  24. zach says:

    i’m not surprised that the negative comments don’t make arguments, but rather are based in platitudes like “don’t shit where you eat” and “human fecal material = not good”. nor am i surprised that none of the detractors offer an alternative solution.

    i’ve been humanure composting since reading jenkins’ book three years ago, and i’ve had great results.

    anybody know of a real case of someone getting sick because of humanure composting?

    the article about a gardener getting sick from his “regular” compost (no human excrement) makes it clear that the infection was the result of the compost coming into contact with an open wound. composting poo and pee is no more dangerous than changing a baby’s diaper. washing your hands wiht soap and water after handling any compost (or changing a diaper or using the bathroom) is a good idea.

  25. Demeter says:

    Those of you who think composting Humanure is gross need to read the Humanure Handbook. If one follows the directions, no pathogens will be present in the finished product. I have been composting Humanure for three years now in a nice suburban neighborhood. The finished compost has an earthy smell like the finest topsoil. I have lovely vegetables.

    Correction about E. coli for Ole Ersson: 99% plus of E.coli is harmless. It is the variety (O157:H7) that is found in feedlots where cattle have been given antibiotics that has caused the recent serious outbreaks.

  26. Demeter says:

    Excuse me, the correction is for Caleb. Apologies to Ole.

  27. Kate Rubick says:

    I think that, particularly in an urban environment, and in areas where children and pets roam, this practice could lead to some nasty problems. Sewage treatment is a vital component of city life for a reason.

  28. Sean says:

    I would post along your story, but you clearly didn’t do your research and imply erroneous conclusions. Night soil? Defecating on your food is about as gross as defecating into your drinking water.

    People die servicing septic and sewer system. It’s that gross and dangerous. Less than an inch of rain causes the NYC sewers to flow directly into the Hudson. All sorts of food once thrived in the Hudson from Oysters to Shad (huge piles of shells are a testament to this time in Inwood Hill Park). The story doesn’t get much better around the country. Composting your manure is the responsible thing for us to do; avoiding STDs included.

  29. Caleb says:

    @ Zach, Here is a list of diseases that can be carried through human waste. Campylobacteriosis, the most common diarrheal illness in the United States; Cryptosporidiosis, another diarrheal disease; Escherichia coli Diarrhea, aka e-coli most commonly transmitted via fecal-oral route; Gastroenteritis aka the stomach flu; Giardiasis, aka giardia which can live outside the body for extended periods of time; Hepatitis A; Shigellosis, which is commonly known to many of us who grew up playing the Oregon trail as dysentery; Typhoid fever, which can be transmitted through fecal mater. My source is http://www.in.gov/isdh/22963.htm. I know that humanure can be done safely, however all it takes is one infected person and an improper composting process and there can be an outbreak. I have witnessed this while serving in the Navy, where one person can cause an entire ship to have an outbreak of a single disease. Also while doing relief work for Hurricane Katrina we witnessed many waterborne illnesses transmitted because of a lack of proper sewage. Now what does that have to do with Humanure? The human body excretes waste through fecal matter, the reason you get diarrhea when you get sick is because your body is trying very hard to get rid of the infection in your body. If this infected fecal matter is introduced to your compost pile and it is not properly composted an individual can introduce these infectious materials to not only themselves but to their family. While most of these diseases are harmless to a normal healthy individual, they can be deadly to children, the elderly and the immunocompromised. So I feel that for safety sake the possibility of doing harm outweighs the possibility of doing good if using humanure on items that an individual is growing for food.

  30. Jan says:

    I use an out house so I have no buckets to deal with but I have read the book.

    I can just plant a new tree every few years when I move the out house because it fills up.

    In general (unless you are a vegetarian )the “compost” should be used in your ortamental garden. So no ick factor. Though I do have a relative that is so squimish that she won’t use my outhouse. Guess it is good she wasn’t born 200 years ago.

  31. Lisa says:

    I have to come down on the side of “gross”. Not in theory…theoretically, if all practices are followed and the composting is done correctly and proper sanitation is observed, it’s a great practice. Commercially-produced composting toilets don’t gross me out at all, and I *love* the composting outhouses installed at many of my regional campgrounds (no smell!)

    However. I know enough about humans and humanity to know that the vast majority of people don’t read directions, and don’t follow through on anything more complex than opening a carton of orange juice. If you don’t think that’s true, go check out a recycle facility sometime. There are clear rules on what can and cannot be recycled, and yet people can’t even get that right, and include non-recyclables or non-allowed items, from “almost okay” things like the wrong kind of plastic to straight-up garbage. People throw away hazardous waste in the regular trash, knowing full well they shouldn’t, but “oh, what does it really hurt to cut this corner?” When playing with something potentially contaminated, like human waste, cutting corners is a huge concern.

    And while the majority of us probably don’t have any pathogens that would cause a problem to us or our neighbors, or that would survive even a half-hearted composting, some of us do. And I know where I live, we depend on well water for drinking, and the water table is very high with many streams and places the rain runoff goes, so one’s waste would likely not be contained solely by one’s own property. While I might have immunity to all the germs in my own household’s waste, I’m not so keen on having the neighbor’s waste filter into my drinking or ground water, thanks.

    And on the “no more dangerous than changing a diaper” theme: when I change the diapers of children in a daycare, we are mandated to wear rubber gloves, wash our hands thoroughly, and we have to get hepatitis shots, because human waste (along with blood) is considered by OSHA to be a hazardous material. Just something to think about.

  32. Joanhello says:

    An old Maine farmer once suggested this rule of thumb: use human poop to grow animal food, animal poop to grow human food.

    As for the possible replacement of our entire dysfunctional sewage system by composting toilets, the main risk, assuming that the tank is isolated from the groundwater until it’s composted enough to use, is illness carried by flies, which can be discouraged by pouring in a cup of sawdust or ashes after every use. Back before cities all over the world committed themselves to water-based systems, inventors were coming up with “earth closet” designs in which the flush mechanism dumped in the covering solid. This might be a good time to re-examine some of those old designs.

  33. Chuck Nevitt says:

    I’ll read more on the topic thanks to this post, sure. I had to read a fair number of garden books before I came across even the idea that “urine from a healthy person” is OK for the compost pile. I dilute it, when I do add it.
    After many years of cold composting I’ve come up with a decent system for hot composting. For me anyway, the key to hot composting is hard labor (turning the pile) which I just count as part of my exercise routine. I can’t say that I am ready to turn my family’s poop with a garden fork. I do a fair amount of work raking my backyard to gather up chicken manure. The chickens are already stretching my neighbor-tolerance factor.
    Who here lives in a suburb and openly admits to the neighbors that they do humanure?

    Signed, A Sympathetic Semi-skeptic

  34. John S says:

    It’s amazing to me that most people do not use “liquid gold”. Free, sterile, and organic;why not? My only caution is to mix it with water during the dry months, so it is easier and non – burning for the plants and because plants need more water then anyway.

  35. Frank says:

    Disclosure: I am a municipal wastewater engineer who works with sewage sludge every day.
    I have not read Humanure Handbook but for the interest of my comment, I will assume that pathogen-free “biosolids” can be produced by following the books instructions.
    In this context I see 4 types of people: 1) folks who simply can not compost their feces (apt/condo dwellers, high density etc); 2) folks who refuse to compost; 3) folks who compost their human waste improperly (thinking they are doing properly); and 4) folks composting their human waste properly.
    It’s the #3 folks who can cause serious public health problems. Letting rain or irrigation runoff flow from one’s property and vectors are easy easy ways to quickly spread serious diseases.

  36. sara says:

    I do humanuring on a small scale.

    I do draw the line at the cats’ leavings. The recommendation for composting cat turds is to desiccate them before composting. And unfortunately I cannot keep up with them, they’re a bit prolific.

    It really saddens me that the Ew Gross taboo seems to by and large dictate where common sense ought to. Especially when most of the Ew Gross faction probably hasn’t googled ‘humanure’ and landed on the discussion boards that deal with it. There’s a ton of information there.

    The thing that led us over to the humanuring side of the force was the gross waste of perfectly potable water when the john gets flushed. Because we’ve not been able to rework all the plumbing to flush with reclaimed shower or laundry water yet, it made sense to work out a toilet composting system. I save $$ on my water bill as a result.

    At the end of all this, we are each of us sharing limited resources, and water is one of them. I would rather drink the potable water from my tap, than flush the toilet with it. Just like I would prefer to filter and reuse shower water for running the washing machine, but we’re not quite there yet. I do irrigate with reclaimed laundry water, though.

    Besides, I would far prefer to compost our leavings rather than trust the local sanitary district to do this. Sewage sludge and compost are entirely different beasts.

    We’re going to ‘family cloths’ in the new year. I shouldn’t have to contribute to deforestation with such a simple action as wiping my posterior. Yep, there’s a limited amount of tp on the market with recycled paper content in it, but it is not universally available.

    Anyway, this is one of those discussions that gets divisive in a hot minute, sort of like mentioning in a crowd of women how come there aren’t any advertisements for products like The Keeper or Diva Cup, yet we see adverts for tampons and pads constantly. Ew Gross usually stifles out what could have been an informative discussion. And the companies making these disposable products capitalize on that and laugh all the way to the bank.

  37. Jade Rubick says:

    I think Frank says it very well. It does look like something that works well when done properly. The issue is whether people will do it properly.

    In a lot of ways humanure makes a lot of sense. My intention when writing the article was to get people to think about it, and to consider the idea.

    I have seen high-tech composting toilets that look like they take a lot of the guesswork out of it, but I don’t know if they actually work as advertised.

    I do think that the term “humanure” is terrible. Even if it is a different thing that “night soil”, when you compare how they sound, it doesn’t do all that well.

  38. mark heath says:

    i compost about 20 cubic meters of restaurant residue, yard trimmings and human waste. it is all done by hand and we have never had anyone get sick. the effort to compost nightsoil will eliminate the bulk of the crowd who will mess it up. when you consider how much disease and pollution is created by septic tanks and improper disposal methods, composting of nightsoil can only make things better.

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