Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Humanure Handbook

There was a major water main break in our town leaving 28,000 residents without water. Most of those residents had their water restored after about 2 days. We just received a letter from the city that our section of the city wouldn't get our water back until Thursday! There are water buffalos (a big tank of water-but what a great name for them) set up in various places around town, so people have been going a couple times a day to fill up every jug and bucket they have. As I don't have a car, I have to be even more careful to conserve the water I get.

Let me tell you, it makes you very conscious of how much water you use. For instance I used about 6 gallons last night to wash all my dishes that I'd been holding off washing in hopes we'd get our water back on. We drank 2 gallons of water between Friday and Sunday. I used the rinse water for watering the plants.

I've been without water before: when we first moved in here, when our pipes have frozen (about 3-4 times the past winter), when we lived in the van. And all these experiences led me to concluded that while we use far more water than we need to, I believe running water is the most important improvement in sanitation since germ theory. I'm telling you, you put up with a lot more dirt and a lot less washing when you have to haul your water a couple gallons at a time.

The one thing we don't have to worry about getting water for is that thirsty beast, the toilet. Typically, toilets take about 3 gallons every flush, and most people flush the toilet every time they use it. So one person can use around 20 gallons every day. Of course low flow toilets exist (and get backed up a lot more), but most people don't have them.

I have a no-flow toilet: a composting toilet. When I first heard of the idea, I thought: "Interesting, but what about...." I asked people, and they told me to read the Humanure Handbook, and that would answer all my questions. And it did.

The Humanure Handbook is about composting your poop (and urine). Normally your bodily waste is wasted. In fact, it is worse than just wasted, it creates huge problems. Where does it all go? How is the water cleaned? How much water is wasted? Do you know the answer to these questions? I didn't, but I do now.

The book has gotten high praise from people that have to deal with the disaster that is our sewage system. People that don't know, think there aren't any problems, people that work in the business know that the system is flawed.

In the book, John Jenkins outlines the science behind composting and the basic how-to's of composting human-manure. This isn't the same as dumping your waste raw onto the fields. When manure has been composted, it's no longer manure, it has become clean dirt.

The system is easy to set up, and requires no special skills. The system Jenkins recommends (that he has been using for 20+ years) is a bucket system. You go into the bucket, then cover it with a clean cover material like sawdust or peat moss. The cover material keeps the flies out and keeps it from smelling. When the bucket is full, you dump it into your compost bin, and cover it with another cover material like straw, leaf mould, or dry grass clippings. When the bun is full, you just leave it there for a year (or two if you are very afraid of your poop or you happen to have typhoid or something). After the year, you have clean, rich, dark compost to use for your garden or your trees or whatever.


  1. awesome post. especially that last line. :) i am all about the humanure handbook. it's flipping funny, on top of everything else. does your composting toilet easily give you the composted nice dirt? from reading the book, it seemed to me that the bucket system made it the easiest to make sure it was really heat-composting (vs just moldering). i will always post comments whenever anyone posts anything about this topic- for goodness sake, let's all stop shitting in our drinking water. couldn't have said it better. :) another good read on this topic- the ghost map. it's ostensibly about cholera in the 1800s in london, but there is a good amount on just this: the absurdity of defecating in drinking water.

  2. Well, this is my first year in my house, so I will have to let you know how the finished compost turns out. :) I'll have to check out The Ghost Map.