A review of The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure by Joe Jenkins
with a “Fatwa on the Flush Toilet” by Shaykh Imran Hosein
[Buy the book or read a free online version here]
When Obama recently called Netanyahu “chickenshit” most folks understood an insult was intended. But in some cultures, where nitrogen-rich poultry poop makes great fertilizer, somebody may have thought the president was depicting Bibi as a precious ally and a source of growth and nourishment.
Believe it or not, the same misunderstanding is possible when the insult concerns human excrement. Thirty years ago, if you told a Chinese peasant he was full of shit, he might have replied:
“Sank you. Velly nice compriment. Shit velly variable RE-source.”
If you think that was meant as an ethnic joke at the expense of the Chinese peasant, the joke’s on you. Unlike you, the Chinese peasant’s smart enough not to defecate into drinking water.
Today, more and more Chinese people – 64% at last count – are gaining access to “improved” sanitation. Though polluting five gallons of purified drinking water with every flush may be an improvement over spreading raw human excrement a.k.a. “night soil” directly on the fields – though even that is disputable – there is definitely a better way to go. If you really want to improve your sanitation, don’t pony up billions of dollars for porcelain thrones, pipes, septic tanks and sewage treatment facilities. Instead, spend $25 per household building a compost collection toilet. You can find the plans in Joe Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook.
How does it work? The basic scheme is beautifully simple: Deposit human waste (including toilet paper) in a five gallon bucket. Cover with coarse organic material such as sawmill sawdust or leaf mulch after each use. When the bucket is getting full, empty it onto a compost pile and cover that with more organic material such as hay, straw, weeds, leaves, or pine needles.
The cover material serves two functions. First, it stops odors dead in their tracks. A bucket of roses and a bucket of shit smell exactly the same with a one-inch layer of coarse organic material sitting on top.
Secondly, the cover material provides much-needed carbon and oxygen to the compost pile. Human excrement is mainly liquid – and far too nitrogen-rich to compost well on its own. The key to composting is getting a good carbon-nitrogen ratio and then making sure oxygen can get into the pile. Coarse cover materials not only add the right amount of carbon, but also let oxygen enter. Then the aerobic thermophilic bacteria take over, heat up the pile, kill off any human pathogens that could conceivably be in there, and effect a miraculous transformation of human excrement into something clean, sweet-smelling, and extremely useful.
Jenkins’ humanure composting system is cheap, simple, odor and disease free, low-maintenance, and best of all, it turns shit into gold. Black gold, that is: Not oil, but high-quality compost – the single most essential ingredient, besides sunlight and water, in any organic garden.
So why isn’t everybody doing it? (In a compost toilet, that is.) The probable answer is that we’re just too damn dumb. A species that shits in the water hole deserves a collective Darwin Award.
A nicer way of putting it would be to say that most people are victims of inherited cultural prejudices. The West – which techno-colonized the planet during the past few centuries – has a horror of everything natural, especially the human body and the various excretions it emits. We Westerners like to flush our shit out of sight, out of mind. Best let somebody else deal with it.
American culture sometimes takes this to extremes. Several decades ago an Italian man came to Pewaukee, Wisconsin to work at North Sails, Inc. Shortly after his arrival, the police caught him peeing in a park. Not understanding why he was being berated and handcuffed, the Italian – who pees outdoors in appropriate places in Italy like everyone else – “resisted.” The result was a lot of unpleasantness. Long story short, the guy skipped bail and caught the next plane back to Italy. It was obvious to him that the USA is a nation of ultra-authoritarian neurotic psychos.
Good thing he hasn’t been here to see what’s happened since 9/11.
Of course, if he’d been shitting in the park the police would have had every right to beat the crap out of him as it were. Not because defecating is shameful, but because hot raw fresh stinking turds in public parks are unsightly, unhealthy, and distinctly malodorous.
Though they are very good for the grass, flowers and bushes.
That’s the poop paradox: The stuff is both bad and good. The trick is figuring out how to deal with it wisely and productively, minimizing the bad and maximizing the good. A lot of things in life are like that.
Joe Jenkins makes a very good case that humanure composting is the wisest and most productive way to deal with our excrement. He points out that even in the best case scenario, the effluent returned from sewage treatment plants into our streams, lakes, and drinking water is likely to be tainted with carcinogenic chlorine AND to still contain a substantial number of potentially problematic pathogens. And that’s when everything’s working perfectly. When it isn’t, we get the massive sewage spills that still occur on a fairly regular basis. And don’t get me started talking about what septic tanks put into the water table. Like 9/11 and JFK, the truth about what happens after you flush your toilet may be something you “just don’t want to know.”
Sure, flush toilets and indoor plumbing saved a lot of lives when they first came in. That’s because in the West, before the flush toilet, people in cities tended to just throw their crap into the street; while country folk dug holes in the ground for pit latrines. Streets full of raw sewage, and pit latrines leaking into water tables, gave human excrement a bad name, health-wise.
Other parts of the pre-technological world did better. Asians have been collecting humanure and applying it directly to their fields for millennia. Though there were plenty of drawbacks, including bad odors and occasional epidemics of sewage-born diseases, the overall effect on human health, nutrition and fecundity was such that the Asian population-per-square mile greatly outpaced that of the West.
The poster-child-culture for poop-recyclers is the “healthy Hunzas” of Pakistan. These people traditionally didn’t let a drop of urine or a speck of fecal matter – or any other organic matter for that matter – go to waste. Everything got recycled into fields and gardens, with an eye to maintaining super-healthy, ultra-rich soil. The Hunzas are said to routinely live to age 120. Jenkins cites researchers who claim the Hunzas keep “singing, dancing, and making love all the way to the grave.” And recycling their poop, no doubt.
The Hunzas live at altitudes and in population densities such that they don’t have to worry too much about sewage-born disease. Lowland folks in crowded areas, however, need to find ways to ensure their excretions don’t spread pathogens. Excreting into water is the absolute worst way to do that, because a great many human pathogens including the dread cholera spend part of their life cycle in water: They go from feces to water and then back into the intestinal tract when somebody takes a drink.
Purifying water polluted by human sewage is a ridiculously expensive, elaborate, failure-prone, always-imperfect and inevitably-toxic process. It is so much simpler and safer to just refrain from excreting into water in the first place. Thanks to Jenkins and the Humanure Handbook, it’s now possible to do so in a safe, simple and sensible way.
The Humanure Handbook is full of fascinating scientific facts such as how many pounds of feces Americans excrete each year (over 30 billion), how many bacteria each gram of those feces contain (about one trillion), the optimal temperature range for thermophilic bacteria to kill any potential human pathogens in composting humanure (about 130 degrees F plus or minus a few dozen depending on how long it’s heated), how many septic systems are in the US posing a huge threat to natural water systems (over 22 million), how many gallons of contaminated water septic systems discharge into our shallowest aquifers each year (between 800 and 1500 billion), how much “treated” but still nasty water is being released into our drinking, bathing and swimming water from sewage treatment plants in America (31 billion gallons per day), how much toxic chlorine is being applied to wastewater and drinking water (over a billion pounds per year) and more fun facts with which to regale your family at the dinner table to help them lose weight.
Alongside its scientific seriousness and practical usefulness, the Humanure Handbook wins points for laugh-out-loud humor, acerbic philosophical asides, and occasional poetic whimsy. It might even be called a deeply spiritual tract, which is a funny way of describing a book on human excrement.
And speaking of the spiritual side of humanure composting, did you know that one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars – Imran Hosein, the number one expert on eschatology (not scatology, eschatology) – recently put out a fatwa on the flush toilet? Not only Muslims, but anyone with an ounce of spiritual discernment, ought to contemplate Shayk Imran’s words of wisdom.
Imran Hosein on Disrespecting Water
(From an interview recorded in Tehran October 1st 2014)
When we study Islam at our institutions of Islamic learning, in the class of law (fiqh) the first thing a student learns is the laws pertaining to wudu (ritual purification before prayer that involves washing hands, forearms, face, feet, and so on). And when we study the laws pertaining to wudu we have to study how to recognize that water that is pure for the purposes of performing wudu. That if a dead dog were to be thrown into a pool of water, the books of fiqh tell us you cannot use that water for wudu because that water has now been corrupted. Whoever corrupted that water could pay a price for it. And so we have to be careful to show respect for water.
And we have to be careful not to disrespect water. We disrespect water when we open the tap and use an excessive amount of water, wasting it. But we also disrespect water when we urinate into the water, and then we defecate into it. And they have trapped us into this with their sewage system in which the convenience now that you have a toilet inside of the house, and you don’t have to go out to an outhouse, you don’t have to go out to the open air to urinate and to defecate…but the price is that you will be trapped into disrespecting water in a monumentally disgraceful way. It is something that causes the hair on my body to stand up straight with fear in my heart, that when I urinate into water what is the price that I will have to pay for that act of monumental disrespect for water?
And we do it every day in our flush toilets; we do it every day without even the consciousness in our hearts that we are disrespecting water. It’s not only the disrespect for water – urinating and defecating into water. It is that the stool cannot decompose in the water. The water flushes it down to the sewage system and it is pumped out into lakes, into rivers, into coastal waters. And so you now become an accomplice in the corruption, the destruction, of pure water, in your lakes, your rivers, and your coastal waters. And when the fish drink that water, drinking those feces, and then the fish are caught and sold in the market, and people eat that, you will now have to share in the blame for it.
The Qur’an tells us “fa man ya’mal miqala dharatin sharran yara”: If your participation in an evil deed is as microscopic as the weight of an ant, even that, you will have to answer for it. We are in terrible trouble today in our use of the modern flush toilet.
When I was a child we had an outhouse. And even if it was late in the night you would have to take a lamp and go out to the outhouse. And there you would pass water or pass stool. And then when it had reached a certain amount people would come – you would pay them – to take it away, and dump it where it could be useful for fertilizer. But now, as I grow older, we no longer have the outhouse. In my native island of Trinidad, they use a French latrine. Now we have the toilet inside of the house. And we pay the price of disrespect for water. It’s time for us to wake up!
We also perform our wudu in the toilet! We perform our wudu in the toilet! We know that we have to enter the toilet with the left foot. We can’t change that. Even if we use disinfectant and all kind of perfume and you make the toilet smell nice and sparkling clean, you still have to enter with your left foot. And by entering with your left foot you are indicating your recognition of it as an impure place. And wudu is supposed to purify. So how can an act of wudu, which is meant to purify you, be acceptable in a place which is impure? And yet we have this trap that has been laid for us, that all around the world, increasingly we have no option except to perform the wudu inside the toilet.
Sometimes we have some intelligence in our heads and we separate the toilet from the washbaisin, and keep the toilet in a separate space from the washbaisin and the bathroom itself. But even when we do that, we still have the problem of disrespect, of urinating in good water and defecating in good water.
And finally, the method of decomposition of the stool, which would take place when you do what they did in Medina: They would go out in the early morning and dig a hole and defecate and they would cover it. The wives of the Prophet SAAS would go out in the early morning before it was light enough…even the women would go out. And the stool would decompose and become fertilizer for the soil. The topsoil would have sufficient oxygen for the microbes to be able to decompose the stool.
When you pass stool into water, oxygen is now defied and the process of decomposition cannot take place. So toxic material is now going into the lakes and rivers and coastal waters. And you are cutting off your nose to spite your face, because the process of fertilizing (the soil) – you are robbing yourself of this fertilizer.”