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GEORGE: How necessity led to composting of humanure in a rural environment

September 04, 2018 - 12:00 PM

In the comments on last weeks column, it was pointed out that I had neglected to mention the vast stream of human waste that flows out of our cities. It was a serious oversight but in my defence water is a pretty big subject.

There are many different levels of treatment for this "waste" water. Some of it enters the ocean or river raw. The raw amount has dropped by 2/3 since 1983 as Canadian municipalities continue to improve their systems with secondary treatment becoming commonplace. Yet all of our wastewater is loaded with nutrients, prescription drug residues, toxins, biological waste, grit and debris, and a soup of chemicals. There is a better way.

Ten years ago we moved to a small acreage in Tappen. We came to raise children. Along the way we have grown food, husbanded animals, gotten to know the land, and learned how to get over our fetish for pooping in clean water and flushing the results "away". The first summer we were here was hot and dry. Our well pond became isolated from the stream that feeds it and our well dried up for a couple of weeks. There is nothing like packing in all of the water that a busy household uses to teach you how much water you use and for what things. Flushing the toilet uses a lot of water.

Digging an outhouse was an option. Paying for it at that time wasn't. So I picked up a copy of Joseph Jenkins seminal work, "The Humanure Handbook" and got creative. I built a frame for a five-gallon bucket with a seat and a lid and rounded up some wood shavings for cover. We still use it today in the summer as there are many times with a teenager and a nine-year-old that our one bathroom finds itself oversubscribed. It also takes the pressure off our septic tank and well pump, saving us money.

It takes a bit of effort to work the system. I use two compost piles; one I am filling up and one I am digging down. The digging down pile has been sitting for five years untouched and what is coming out is getting spread on the tree line to feed the forest. Although many places in the world use human compost to feed food plants I don't feel comfortable with the idea. Buckets need to be cleaned and the cover bin needs refilling now and then so the effort isn't that great.

Pretty much any organic material can be used as cover. We have used wood shavings, wood pellets, grass clippings, and straw. Recently we discovered that municipal compost makes a fantastic and inexpensive cover and kitty litter. Where we are it costs $10 a cubic yard and is available at our local transfer station.

The bucket system is a cheap and effective way of diverting waste out of the water. It is the most primitive of options and only works well in a rural environment where you can compost the results. There are many other options for composting toilet systems though. People with yards could easily utilize these systems in an urban environment. Apartment buildings could be built to accommodate this technology, reducing the cost of construction and the strain on the municipal wastewater system.

Don't get me wrong, I still fully appreciate the convenience of indoor plumbing and a flush toilet, especially in the winter. I keep looking at all of the different options for a year-round, indoor composting system but have yet to come to a conclusion. In the meantime, I will keep rolling out the bucket system when we need it.

Human waste, properly handled, can be used to build soils. Our current method of reintroducing solids into the environment leaves a lot to be desired. It is expensive and still the toxins in the chemical soup we call wastewater ends up in the soils, the plants, and ultimately the animals. Composting it properly and applying it to appropriate areas is better than our current system.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.

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