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Adventures in Composting Human Waste into 'Humanure' Fertilizer

One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food. — Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King, published in 1926

Recently I came across a spate of comments about “humanure,” or the composting of human waste. I thought I would share the experiences of our friend, Gus, in California who has been creating humanure compost for over 5 years.

But first, we have to recommend Joe Jenkins’ classic, The Humanure Handbook for anyone looking to pursue this wise practice. It is the seminal resource on the topic and available for free online (also available in print for purchase in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store).

Why Make ‘Humanure’?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already on board with humanure. But here are a few obvious reasons: clean water savings, infrastructure savings, and the transformation of waste into a resource. If you’d like more details on benefits of creating humanure, check out Joe’s book.

The house Gus bought 5 years ago was a super fixer-upper. Plumbing and toilet issues were one of the things he had to tackle right away. He decided early on that he wanted to make humanure, so in a sense, this streamlined his remodeling process.

How to Make a Humanure Toilet

Instead of new pipes and toilet in one of his bathrooms, he built an open-bottomed box with a plywood lid with a hole in it that just fits around a 5-gallon bucket.

On top of the lid, he mounted a toilet bowl lid with hinges. A little paint and voila! This is simple carpentry that just about anyone can do.

 So, the toilet is in the same spot as the original but is just a box and bucket now. He did keep a functioning toilet in his other bathroom, because it already worked and it’s nice to have the option for guests.

It takes his family of four about 3 to 4 days to fill the bucket. After each use, he adds a scoop (16 ounces) or two of “duff” — a mixture of about 16 parts sawdust and 1 part ashes. He’s learned that the ashes do a great job at mitigating any smells, of which there is surprisingly little.

When considering composting and the ratios of browns (carbon-rich materials) to greens (nitrogen-rich), the mix of human waste and duff is at a good ratio. And, he added, he also tends to pee outside and his kids are happy to do the same, so there is generally less urine in the mix.  He thinks this also keeps odors to a minimum.

How to Compost Human Waste into Humanure Fertilizer

When it comes time to empty the bucket, he brings it out to one of his compost bins specially reserved for humanure. His bins are about 4 by 4 by 4 feet in size, and he has five of them. He digs a small hole in the existing pile (and rotates where that hole is) and dumps the contents in. He covers with straw, any weeds nearby that can be easily pulled, and a shovelful of earth. He rinses the bucket, pours that liquid into the same pile and sets that bucket aside to dry and disinfect in the sun. It takes him about 6 months to fill a bin up to height.

He has just two buckets for the one toilet that he trades out each time. So, with five bins in rotation, the humanure composts for about two-and-a-half years — more than enough time to transform into amazing compost.

How to Fertilize Plants with Humanure

Gus uses the finished product — which is black and rich and has that wonderful earthy smell that tells you that you have a bit of gold in your hand — on his perennial crops, including trees, berry bushes, grapes, and so on with great success.

Permaculture Principle Number 6 is: “Produce No Waste.” With a bit of effort and a change in habit, he has transformed his waste into a valuable resource just like the Chinese who did the same for 1,000 generations.

A final note: Gus recently had his garden soil analyzed and assessed by a local professional composter and the compost master wondered whether Gus had even been using humanure, because the results were so comparable to gardens he manages.

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen is a tinkerer, natural builder, and community organizer in Reno, Nevada. He and his family run the Be the Change Project, a fossil fuel-, car-, and electricity-free urban homestead and learning space dedicated to service and simplicity and inspired by the principles of Gandhian Integral Nonviolence. They were honored as one of MOTHER’s Homesteaders of the Year in 2013. Read all of Kyle’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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