Humanure

After hearing an Earth Changes teaching from Ramtha in April 2007, my husband and I took it to heart and decided that we were going to move from the UK to higher, drier ground in rural Spain. I started reading everything I could about off-grid, off-the-beaten-track living. One of the things we knew we wanted to do was to save and recycle water and another thing was grow stuff. I came across information on EMs, effective microorganisms, which are microorganisms which are beneficial to the soil and plant growth. There were stories of pieces of land that were toxic from spilt diesel drums and other rubbish, transformed with any evidence of diesel gone through treatment of the earth with EMs. These effective microorganisms are present all over on forest floors and in healthy composting systems . How wonderful nature is that it can clean up our nastiest messes ! So I asked myself, if toxic land can regenerate itself given time and the right environmental conditions, then certainly it must be possible to safely compost your own poo. With this, the search for information began.

As with any search on the internet, my favourite library, it was fraught with contradictions. The first information I came across was telling me how dangerous it was to compost manure from humans. I took the warnings to heart, but undaunted, I continued looking. Surely there must be a safe way to compost human waste ! Finally I found the wonderful Joseph Jenkins. His book, The Humanure Handbook, is online for free for anyone to read on http://www.josephjenkins.com/books_humanure.html – what a wonderful gift to humanity ! If you are interested please read his book. He is a very humorous writer – it is a good read believe it or not !! We started reading the online, free version, but soon bought a printed copy because we liked the book so much and wanted to support the author.

Basically the humanure system works like this. You do all of your ‘business’ in a bucket (our bucket is inside a lovely wooden box with a loo seat !) and cover it with enough sawdust or any organic material (we use chopped up straw/weeds because sawdust is hard to get here) to absorb and cover what you have just done. Cover it with enough to stop any smells. Believe me if you use enough material it will stop smelling right away. Flies are not a problem either, as long as you follow the simple rule – cover it up and if there are still nasty niffs, cover it up some more. When the buckets are full, we like to empty 3 at a time, take them to your compost heap to dispose of them and start again. Joe Jenkins gives you the details on this ! Add your garden waste and your kitchen scraps and after one or two years you have compost !! He recommends to size the ‘bin so that it takes a year to fill, then leave it for another year before using. Here’s something we have noticed about two of our almond trees that are directly below two of our older, out-of-use compost heaps, they have had the most almonds, and on one tree, the biggest almonds !

One of the blessing of living in Nowheresville, Spain is that Spanish lawmakers don’t seem to be as anal (pun intended) as perhaps the US and don’t seem to have as many laws and regulations that would prevent this type of experiment. If you think that the Humanure system just wouldn’t be approved of where you live then you could consider a kind of half-way house. One of the reasons we opted for this system and not a pit latrine, is that not having to go outside to visit your outhouse/privy/pit latrine every time you need to do a doodoo, means that you can avoid some of the more violent weather we are predicted to be experiencing in the near future. What’s to stop you from using this system indoors, but depositing it into your pit latrine once a week ? You could probably time it so that you don’t need to go outside when it is dangerous to do so. This system would mean that you won’t get the benefits of the lovely compost though, and any humanure purist would cry out in dismay. I think though, that it would be so much better for the environment than using some chemical system.

If you are interested in the science, Joe Jenkins explains that urine is full of nitrogen. Nitrogen is great for growing plants but when it is too concentrated (as neat urine would be) it will burn the roots of plants. Sawdust is full of carbon, which is also necessary for plant growth but needs to be broken down before it goes on the land. Nitrogen breaks down carbon, making the sawdust into humus which is more useable for the plants. The nitrogen becomes less concentrated and therefore more user friendly as well ! The microorganisms work on the human waste and kitchen waste in the compost heap first, then the worms and wood lice etc enter the scene. In one year, or two after finishing a heap you have wonderful compost. IF you are still concerned about using humanure to enrich the land you grow your veggies on, then use it for your fruit trees OR to create a topsoil in the ground you have just dug out for your UG !!

Below are the 4 main motivators Joe Jenkins outlines in his book :

  • to prevent water pollution: (almost 4 trillion gallons of sewage effluent are dumped into our coastal waterways each year); (US)

  • to fertilize the soil: (rich in soil nutrients, humanure can be safely recycled by thermophilic composting);

  • to protect our dwindling drinking water supplies: (nearly 1/3 of all household drinking water is used to flush toilets); and

  • to enhance our health: Fertile soil not only grows great veggies, but nourishes our health and community's well-being.

Sawdust is free and so are the weeds/straw that we get from our land. The sawdust you use in your humanure system, and then on your land, would have been thrown away by the lumber company or carpentry company that produced it, thus adding to the size of the local dump ! We think sawdust is by far the best cover material – it is already prepared and a little goes a long way. Unfortunately we don’t live in an area with lots of wood growing or with many carpenters, so we use weeds/straw that my husband cuts with a scythe from our land in the spring. I chop them up with a machete into 1 to 2” pieces to make it into a more effective cover material, but this only takes 30 minutes, once a week. It’s more work but it does have the advantage of having 0 $ transport costs and it decomposes into compost quicker than sawdust.

Our first compost heap was started in June 2010 and ended in September 2010. It was made from 3 wooden pallets wired together and was full to the brim in September when we stopped filling it. By yesterday it had shrunk to half the volume! When I dug into it, I found lots of rich, black material (no smell) interspersed with some wood chips. Joe does warn that wood chips take a whole lot longer to decompose ! This lovely stuff is going to be used in our raised beds in the spring.

Really there is a whole lot that I haven’t told you and this article is far too short to explain the system properly. So if you want to know more, I recommend you read Joe Jenkins book. I encourage you to consider this wonderful, environmentally-safe, cheap alternative to chemical toilets and pit latrines – it smells better and turns toxic waste into lovely compost !

Our first compost heap begun May 2010, brim-full Sept 2010 (weeds: an unplanned extra) Examining the heap October 2011

This year’s heap started June 2011. One of the piles of cover-material in the background.

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