THE TAO OF COMPOST
"Aspire to simple living? That means, aspire to fulfill the highest human destiny."
Organic material should be recycled by every person on the planet, and recycling should be as normal and integral to daily life as brushing teeth or bathing. Organic materials can be collected by municipalities and composted at central composting facilities. This is now done in many parts of the world where food scraps are composted for urban communities. Toilet materials are not yet being collected and centrally composted in very many places, although such collection will undoubtedly increase as time passes.
However, people can compost their own organic material in their own personal compost bins, in their own backyards. This is already becoming commonplace, and compost bins are now popping up in backyards everywhere like mushrooms after a rain. Composting need not cost money, and it can be practiced by anyone in the world at probably any location where plants can grow. Therefore, it is important that people everywhere learn to understand what compost is and how it can be made.
It is also important that we understand how to compost our toilet materials in a safe and simple manner. A low-cost composting toilet system can be very useful as a back-up toilet in an emergency situation when electrical or water services are disrupted, or when the water supply is diminished as during a drought, when flushing drinking water down toilets becomes especially ridiculous. It can also be very useful in any area where water or electricity is scarce or non-existent, as well as in developing countries where there may be many people with little or no money to buy commercial composting toilets. Finally, a simple, low-cost composting toilet system is attractive to anyone seeking a low-impact lifestyle, and who is willing to make the minimal effort to compost their organic materials. This chapter details how to compost toilet materials by using a simple, easy, low or no-cost method (a sawdust toilet) which my family and I have used for twenty years at the time of this writing.
The organic materials our bodies excrete can be composted much the same as any apple core or potato peel - by being added to a compost pile. There are essentially two ways to do this. The first is to construct or purchase a toilet which deposits directly into a composting chamber. This is discussed and illustrated in Chapter 6. Such toilets must be properly managed if thermophilic conditions are desired; most commercial composting toilets do not achieve such conditions, and are not meant to.
The second, less expensive, and simpler method is to use one's toilet as a collection device, much the same as any compost bucket, and then compost the contents in a separate compost pile on a regular basis. This simple technique can be done without unpleasant odors, and the toilet can be quite comfortably situated inside one's home. Moving toilet material to a compost bin, however, is an activity that many individuals have no interest in doing, usually not because it is a burdensome task (for a family of four it would involve a twenty minute trip to a compost bin about every three days), but because it's shit, for god's sake.
A friend of mine who wanted to use a compost toilet once told me she could never carry "a shit bucket" to a compost bin. She just could not do it, she said, shaking her head. I asked her how often she fed her dog, which was chained about a hundred yards from her house. "Every day," was her reply.
"How is it that you can carry a container of dog food out to your dog, every day, and not a container of soil nutrients to a compost pile once a week?" (A single person only needs to make a trip to a compost bin once a week.) No reply. "If the ‘shit bucket,' as you call it, were full of roses, would you be able to carry it to a compost pile once a week?"
"Then why wouldn't you be able to carry a bucket of other organic material?"
Again, no reply. And none needed. The problem is not practical, it is psychological. I understand perfectly that many people consider the idea of composting their own excrement to be beneath them. In India, such a task was relegated to the "untouchables," the lowest caste of society. The act of carrying a container of one's own excrement to a recycling bin is an act of humility, and humility is sometimes in short supply. Eventually, toilets in general will be redesigned as collection devices and their contents will be collected and composted as a service by municipal workers. Until then, however, those of us who want to make compost rather than sewage must do it by our own humble selves.
I will never forget the day I introduced a close relative to my composting system. She came to visit me at my newly established homestead one spring day and I gave her a tour of my garden, which was already quite vibrant. A fresh pile of aged compost had been dumped from a wheelbarrow onto one of the raised garden beds and, as we passed, I reached down and scooped up a big handful, thrusting it toward her face. "Smell this," I said. So she put her nose right up to the black earth I held out before me and took a deep breath.
"Boy, that smells good!" she said, inhaling the rich, sweet-smelling aroma of fertile soil, and smiling.
"This is my alternative to a septic system," I proudly informed her, still holding the compost out in front of me as I watched her smile freeze. I will always remember that shocked look on her face, cloaked behind a huge smile. My friend, although very open-minded, had not, prior to that moment, had the experience of so intimately communing with composted humanure. The compost did smell and look wonderful, if I have to say so myself, just like a rich soil from the woods, and I was proud of it.
People ask me when I'm going to install a septic system, as if composting is a phase you go through until you become mature and civilized enough to use a flush toilet. Others take one look at my compost toilet and say things like "I respect the way you're living, but I could never do it." Well, I could install a septic system, as I have running water and electricity (when I started using a composting toilet system I lived "off the grid," without electricity, and did so for a period of twelve years). However, a septic system would create environmental pollution and threaten the quality of my ground water, which I drink. It is a waste disposal system, collecting and storing waste and allowing the waste to slowly seep into the environment. I'd much rather engage in resource recovery instead of waste disposal, however unfashionable. My compost is my reward - it helps me to grow my food, and that's too valuable for me to be willing to sacrifice.
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing,
PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.