Composting Human Waste: A Personal Experience

A Canadian homesteader composts human waste to fertilize an orchard. This method, while creative, is not highly recommended.
By Charles Long
January/February 1979
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This unhappy gopher just had an introduction to the process of composting human waste.
ILLUSTRATION: JACK VAUGHAN
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Composting Human Waste Becomes One Family's Alternative to Frostbitten Bums  . . .

My wife has a sensitive bottom. The mere mention of an outdoor privy for our new Canadian homestead set off a case of the quakin' shivers that lasted a week.

When the old girl's attack subsided a bit, I tried to reason with her. Seat warmers, insulation, portable heaters, even the beautiful view ... I invoked them all (with appropriate flourishes) in a vain attempt to persuade my partner that a frosty privy can be survived.

Still patient, I discussed (and dismissed) all of our alternatives. Septic tanks were wasteful and difficult to install in the thin soil that covers – here and there – our bedrock farm. Chemical toilets were difficult to empty without poisoning the ground. An indoor composting toilet was just fine (and would likely be a part of our long-range plans), but we needed something for the first few "dig in" winters. We needed, I argued with some eloquence, a privy.

My wife is not easily daunted, however. She countered that [a] it would be difficult to toilet-train the children in winter . . . that, in fact, she would revert to diapers rather than sit outside when it's 30 below, and [b] the porcupine found lurking under the seat of the property's original outhouse made the thought of even warm-weather visits a prickly proposition, and finally, [c] she would gladly agree to reconsider privies if I would compromise by homesteading in, say, Fiji. That was that.

And so the summer went by. In the absence of a mutually satisfactory solution we obtained an overgrown chamber pot. It was toilet-sized and made of plastic . . . with a tight lid, a seat, and a handle. Since the thing was designed to use heavy doses of chemicals that neither of us wanted to employ, it stank. I mean STANK! In self-defense we got into the habit of emptying the contents every day. This lessened the odor problem somewhat and did make the chemicals unnecessary . . . but dumpin' the contraption was a wearisome chore.

Not that the thing was very difficult to carry . . . the problem was finding a place to unload it. Time after time I trudged out with spade and potty to locate enough soil for a decent burial of the vile sludge. Since I had to use a spot devoid of roots and rocks (which was also well away from our water supply and gardens), the choices were limited. The damp masses of luxuriant growth that resulted became denser and denser.
One day – in a fit of pique at one of our vegie-robbin' groundhogs — I dumped the load down his hole. Eureka! Ready-made disposal pits. And the groundhogs, who had smugly resisted shotguns, floods, and curses, moved out in disgust and dug new holes for me.

Unfortunately, the first big snow of winter cut off my access to this synergetic solution. In despair I started filling 55-gallon drums with the pot's human waste contents . . . while the white flakes gradually filled the countryside. My hikes to those drums – through the shifting four-foot drifts – are events that I still can't remember without trembling.

And those hikes, of course, weren't our only snow-related problems. The fact that we were well upwind of the barn and 200 yards from the road had seemed like brilliant planning in the summer . . . when peace and scenery had been the main criteria. After the first major dig-out, though, we had to leave the truck by the gate and take up skis to get around the homestead.

Sadly enough, I was a novice skier . . . at best. Both poles were necessary if I even wanted to stand still with some security. For me to attempt a one-poled run with five gallons of sloshin' crud in my free hand was an act of raw courage ... to say the least.

However, by spring thaw I was a master skier with seven full barrels to my credit. Seven heavy, full, 55-gallon drums-ripe in the April sun-directly in the path of our favorite view. It seemed simple enough to roll them away ... until barrel number one split and spilled its ankle, deep flood. Yecch. The next one did likewise. All seven huge containers did the same. Luckily, we had a nearby pile of dirt from another job. We spread it over the mess, throw in some sunflower seeds, and resumed our argument. My wife still firmly opposed a privy. I, on the other hand, swore that I would gag her if she ever sang "Roll Out the Barrel" again.

Then, like gravity to Newton, the answer came to us. On a hot summer day we sat In the shade of our (by then) towerin' sunflower forest . . . planning new additions to the orchard. As usual — torn between ambition and resources – we found ourselves steadily scratching the less essential trees from our list because there was little time for hole diggin' and less compost available to fIII them.

I had a vague notion that an Idea was about to get Itself thought, so I leaned back and looked at the sky . . . to wait for inspiration to come. Huge yellow blooms swayed in the breeze a good 12 feet above my nose.
Egads! What "it" does for sunflowers, "it" might also do for cherries, apples, and even shade trees!

And so we have pits for composting human waste. . . three or four feet deep and three across. I dug them in the summer and covered 'em with scrap metal to keep out kids and, later, snow. Now – in the depth of winter – I take pot in hand and ski (still masterfully) down to the pit. It's a simple matter to lift the lid and dump. When things begin to look damp, I throw In a pail of chaff or sawdust. If the hole starts to smell, I empty the ash bucket into it . . . or throw some of the original soil back in. Come spring I top the depressions off with more dirt, wait for the decomposition process to slow down, and stick in a tree. It works.

I'd still rather have a privy, but my wife is holding out for Fiji . . . and our human waste compost program has proven to be a workable compromise.


EDITOR'S NOTE. Although we admire Mr. Long's ingenuity-and were plumb tickled by his lighthearted description of his tribulations – our experiences (coupled with the opinions of authorities in the waste-disposal field) make us feet that his composting human waste methods leave something to be desired. 

Anyone who plans to compost human waste should research the subject thoroughly. Though this material can produce a safe (and effective) compost ... there are health hazards if  the sludge is not correctly treated.

The "bare-bones" procedure for safe anaerobic decomposition of feces is as follows:
[A] Dig your pit (at a lower level than, and at least 50 feet from, any well or water supply) in such a way that the floor of the hole is above the ground water level. The size of your hole will depend upon your needs. Remember that the proportion of excrement that can be added to other materials for satisfactory composting should be about one-to-five by volume. Plan your pit accordingly.

[B] Line your pit (if there is the smallest chance of cave-in) . . . and fill the bottom 20 inches with grass cuttings, fine leaves, and/or organic garbage matter.

[C] In addition to the deposited human waste, throw your daily supply of organic refuse into the pit . . . along with any animal droppings and urine-soaked straw or earth. (The latter are important, as urine is rich in nitrogen: an essential plant nutrient.)

[D] About once a week throw in approximately five pounds of grass clippings, finely textured leaves, etc.
[E] When the contents of the hole reach a level of 20 inches below the surface . . . add about six inches of grass or the like and fill the remaining 14 inches with well-tamped earth.

[F] Allow at least six months (to insure complete decomposition) before disturbing the pit.

Resources on Composting Human Waste

The following list of resource materials will have additional information on composting and privy construction:
1. Privies, Old and New
2. A Proposed Sanitation and Methane Production System
3. Cloudburst. A Handbook of Rural Skills and Technology, edited by Vic Marks (Cloudburst Press, 1973). Large paperback. $4.95.


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