WebLife Home | Library | Humanure Handbook | Chapter 8: Legalities

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This is an interesting topic. It seems that some people believe that if you do anything differently from the mainstream, if must be illegal. Certainly composting humanure must be illegal. Afterall, humanure is a dangerous pollutant and must be immediately disposed of in a professional and approved manner. Recycling it is foolish and hazardous to your health and to the health of your community and your environment. At least that’s what the fecophobes think. Therefore, recycling humanure can not be an activity that is within the law, can it? Well, yes actually, the backyard composting of humanure is probably quite within the letter of the laws to which you are subjected.

Waste disposal is regulated, and it should be. Waste disposal is potentially very dangerous to the environment. Sewage disposal and recycling are also regulated, and they should be, too. Sewage includes a host of hazardous substances deposited into a waterborne waste stream. People who compost their humanure are neither disposing of waste, nor producing sewage — they are recycling. Furthermore, regarding the regulating of composting itself, both backyard composting and farm composting are exempt from regulations unless the compost is being sold, or unless the farm compost operation is unusually large.

To quote one source, “The US Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has established detailed regulations for the production and use of compost created from [organic material]. These regulations exclude compost obtained from backyard composting and normal farming operations. Compost from these activities is exempt from regulation only if it is used on the property where it was composted, as part of the farming operation. Any compost which is sold must meet the requirements of the regulations.” 6

Composting toilets are also regulated in some states. However, composting toilets are usually defined as toilets inside which composting takes place. A sawdust toilet, by definition, is not a composting toilet because no composting occurs in the toilet itself. The composting occurs in the “backyard” and therefore is not regulated by composting toilet laws. Portable toilet laws may apply instead, although the backyard compost exemption will probably allow sawdust toilet users to continue their recycling undisturbed.

A review of composting toilet laws is both interesting and disconcerting. For example, in Maine, it is apparently illegal to put kitchen food scraps down the toilet chute in a commercial composting toilet, even though the food scraps and toilet materials must go to the exact same place in the composting chamber. Such a regulation makes no sense whatsoever. In Massachusetts, finished compost from composting toilets must be buried under six inches of soil, or hauled away and disposed of by a septage hauler. These laws are apparently written by people who are either lacking in knowledge and understanding, or are fecophobic, or, most likely, all of the above. Such laws can discourage the necessary and important recycling of humanure.

Ideally, laws are made to protect society. Laws requiring septic, waste, and sewage disposal systems are supposedly designed to protect the environment, the health of the citizens, and the water table. This is all to be commended, and conscientiously carried out by those who produce sewage, a waste material. If you don’t produce sewage, you have no need for a sewage disposal system; laws pertaining to sewage disposal are not your concern. The number of people who produce backyard compost instead of sewage is so minimal, that few, if any, laws have been enacted to regulate the practice. The thermophilic composting of humanure is not a threat to society, it produces no pollution, does not threaten the health of humans, nor contaminate the groundwater or environment. Unfortunately, because this fact is not understood by many people, ignorance remains a problem.

It would be hard to intelligently argue that a person who produces no sewage must have a costly sewage treatment system. What would they do with it? That would be like requiring someone who doesn't own a car to have a garage. And it would be very difficult to prove that composting humanure is threatening to society, especially given the facts as presented in this book. It is much easier to prove that composting humanure is a benefit to society. On the other hand, Galileo, the astronomer, was arrested as a heretic and forced to renounce his theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. Yes, that was three hundred years ago, but sometimes it seems like the consciousness of our society as it relates to human manure is still back in the dark ages.

If you’re concerned about your local laws, go to the library and see what you can find about regulations concerning backyard compost. Or inquire at your county seat or state agency as statutes, ordinances, and regulations vary from locality to locality. Where I live, septic system permits aren’t required for new home construction, but the next county is two properties over and people there are required to have septic system permits before they can build a new dwelling. This is largely due to the fact that the water table tends to be high in my area, and septic systems don’t always work, so sand mounds are required by law for sewage disposal. If you don’t want to dispose of your manure but want to compost it instead (which will certainly keep it out of the water table, not to mention raise a few eyebrows at the local municipal office), you may have to stand up for your rights.

A reader called from a small state in New England to tell me his story. It seems the man had a sawdust toilet in his house, but the local municipal authorities decided he could only use an “approved” waterless toilet, meaning, in this case, an incinerating toilet. The man did not want an incinerating toilet because the sawdust toilet was working well for him and he liked making and using the compost. So he complained to the authorities, attended township meetings, and put up a fuss. To no avail. After months of “fighting city hall,” he gave up and bought a very expensive and “approved” incinerating toilet. When it was delivered to his house, he had the delivery people set it in a back storage room. And that’s where it remained, still in the packing box, never opened. The man continued to use his sawdust toilet for years after that. The authorities knew that he had bought the “approved” toilet, and thereafter left him alone. He never did use it, but the authorities didn’t care. He bought the damn thing and had it in his house, and that’s what they wanted. Those local authorities obviously weren’t rocket scientists.

Another interesting story comes from a fellow in Tennessee. It seems that he bought a house which had a rather crude sewage system — the toilet flushed directly into a creek behind the house. The fellow was smart enough to know this was not good, so he installed a sawdust toilet. However, an unfriendly neighbor assumed he was still using the direct waste dump system, and the neighbor reported him to the authorities. But let him tell it in his own words:

Greetings from rural Tennessee.

I'm a big fan of your book & our primitive outhouse employs a rotating 5-gallon bucket sawdust shitter that sits inside a ‘throne.’ Our system is simple & based largely on your book. We transport the poop to a compost pile where we mix the mess with straw & other organic materials. The resident in our cabin before we bought the farm used a flush toilet that sent all sewage directly to a creekbed. An un-informed neighbor complained to the state in 1998, assuming that we used the same system. The state people have visited us several times. We were forced to file a $100 application for a septic system but the experts agree that our hilly, rocky house site is not suitable for a traditional septic system even if we wanted one. They were concerned about our grey water as well as our composting outhouse. My rudimentary understanding of the law is that the state approves several alternative systems that are very complicated and at least as expensive as a traditional septic. The simple sawdust toilet is not included & the state does not seem to want any civilian to actually transport his own shit from the elimination site to a different decomposition site. The bureaucrats tentatively approved an experimental system where our sewage could feed a person-made aquatic wetlands type thingie & they agreed to help us design & implement that system. Currently, we cannot afford to do that on our own & continue to use our sawdust bucket latrine. The officials seem to want to leave us alone as long as our neighbors don't complain anymore. So, that's a summary of our situation here in Tennessee. I've read most of the state laws on the topic; like most legal texts, they are virtually unreadable. As far as I can tell, our system is not explicitly banned but it is not included in the list of "approved" alternative systems that run the gamut from high-tech, low volume, factory-produced composting gizmos to the old fashioned pit latrine. For a while now, I've wanted to write an article on our experience and your book. Unfortunately, grad school in English has seriously slowed down my freelance writing.”

Cheers, A.S. in Tennessee

Other than the above two situations, I have heard no details from other readers who may have had problems with authorities in relation to their sawdust toilets. Nevertheless, as part of the research for this second edition, I have undertaken a review of US state regulations pertaining to composting toilets, and that information is included in Appendix 3.

In Pennsylvania, the state legislature has enacted legislation “encouraging the development of resources recovery as a means of managing solid waste, conserving resources, and supplying energy.” Under such legislation the term “disposal” is defined as “the incineration, dumping, spilling, leaking, or placing of solid waste into or on the land or water in a manner that the solid waste or a constituent of the solid waste enters the environment, is emitted into the air or is discharged to the waters of the Commonwealth.” 7 Further legislation has been enacted in Pennsylvania stating that “waste reduction and recycling are preferable to the processing or disposal of municipal waste,” and further stating “pollution is the contamination of any air, water, land or other natural resources of this Commonwealth that will create or is likely to create a public nuisance or to render the air, water, land, or other natural resources harmful, detrimental or injurious to public health, safety or welfare. . .” 8 In view of the fact that the thermophilic composting of humanure involves recovering a resource, requires no disposal of waste, and creates no environmental pollution, it is unlikely that anyone who conscientiously engages in such an activity would be unduly bothered by anyone. Don’t be surprised if most people find such an activity commendable, because, in fact, it is.

If there aren’t any regulations concerning backyard compost in your area, then be sure that when you’re making your compost, you’re doing a good job of it. It’s not hard to do it right. The most likely problem you could have is an odor problem, and that would simply be due to not keeping your deposits adequately covered with clean, not-too-airy, organic “biofilter” material. If you keep it covered, it does not give off offensive odors. It’s that simple. Perhaps shit stinks so people will be naturally compelled to cover it with something. That makes sense when you think that thermophilic bacteria are already in the feces waiting for the manure to be layered into a compost pile so they can get to work. Sometimes the simple ways of nature are really profound.

Few people understand that the composting of humanure is a benign method of recycling what would otherwise be a toxic waste material. For that reason, this book is recommended reading for people involved in municipal, county, or township waste treatment or permitting, or resource recovery. So when you’re feeling especially benevolent, buy an extra copy of Humanure and give it to your local authority. Anonymously, if necessary.

What about flies — could they create a public nuisance or health hazard? I have never had problems with flies on my compost. Perhaps the compost heats up so fast that flies don’t have a chance to enjoy it. Of course, a clean cover material is kept over the compost pile at all times. Concerning flies, F. H. King, who traveled through China, Korea, and Japan in the early 1900s when organic material, especially humanure, was the only source of soil fertilizer, stated, “One fact which we do not fully understand is that, wherever we went, house flies were very few. We never spent a summer with so little annoyance from them as this one in China, Korea and Japan. If the scrupulous husbanding of [organic] refuse so universally practiced in these countries reduces the fly nuisance and this menace to health to the extent which our experience suggests, here is one great gain.” He added, “We have adverted to the very small number of flies observed anywhere in the course of our travel, but its significance we did not realize until near the end of our stay. Indeed, for some reason, flies were more in evidence during the first two days on the steamship out from Yokohama on our return trip to America, than at any time before on our journey.” 9

If an entire country the size of the United States, but with twice the population (at that time), could recycle all of its organic refuse without the benefit of electricity or automobiles and not have a fly problem, surely we in the United States can recycle a greater portion of our own organic refuse with similar success today.

Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.

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WebLife Home | Library | Humanure Handbook | Chapter 8: Legalities