Book Review | The Scoop On Poop
The Dr. Pooper Papers, Issue #4:
If you know of the name Dan Chiras, then you've probably heard it in reference to the multitude of books he's written on alternative energy sources, alternative building methods, and more. But as important as his previous works have been, his latest book, on an alternative food source, is probably his most important yet. Yes, for those who already know what his latest book is about (and/or just saw the cover shot accompanying this post), I did just say "alternative food source." For Chiras' indispensable latest book is called The Scoop on Poop: Safely Capturing and Recycling the Nutrients in Greywater, Humanure and Urine.
As Chiras states in the book's first few pages,
As I remind my ecology students, all life is built on the dead remains of the past... It's for this reason that in this book I don't refer to urine and feces as "waste" without using quotation marks, signaling to you what "waste" really is – nutrient-rich material we must recycle in order to ensure the continuation of life on planet Earth. The only time that calling human excretions "waste" is appropriate... is when it refers to the fact that we waste so much of it.
That I would call our urine and feces an "alternative food source" is due to the simple fact that what is one organism's "waste" is another organism's food. And since, as Chiras points out, our "waste" is currently wasted, that means that something out there isn't getting its just deserts. And that something is our soils.
Since the vast majority of our food is grown in the monocultures of industrial agriculture (which has the wonky description of being called "conventional agriculture"), this means that what gets applied to our soils isn't nutrient-dense organic materials, but rather petrochemical fertilizers. Moreover, since these petrochemical-based fertilizers are now what plants most often directly feed upon (which is akin to us humans living off of diets of vitamin pills), this relegates the soil to being nothing but a medium to hold plant roots in place. That this is a problem is a massive understatement. This isn't however the post to expound on soil ecology, but suffice to say, what's going on within our soils might just as well be called the seventh mass extinction.
This quasi-extinction going on is partially the result of the brilliant (from the engineer's perspective) linear thinking that has brought us the modern sewage system. The nutrients that enter our mouths and then a few hours later make their slightly less classy exits aren't returned to the land to feed the soil of which then helps grow another round of edibles to continue the cycle. No. What generally happens is that said nutrients are flushed away with (chlorinated) drinking water to centralized sewage treatment plants. Once there, the organic solids are separated and then dumped in landfills, sometimes even incinerated (!). The liquid portion, including our urines, is then doused with chlorine and a slew of other chemicals, then ditched into nearby bodies of water – lakes, rivers, oceans... the places where our kids swim (or perhaps used to).
And it's not as if rural areas are some bucolic refuge from the veritable shit-show playing out in our cities. In the country, the inability for economies of scale comparable to those in towns and cities means that septic tanks are installed in place of connections to centralized sewage systems. These collect the not-quite-bucolic effluent in large underground tanks, leach some of the liquids out into leach fields, then periodically have the solids emptied out by special pump trucks that then drop said solids off at the same sewage plants that the more sophisticated systems of the ruralite's more sophisticated urban and suburban cousins pipe their unmentionables off to.
This is all, as Chiras correctly describes it, "the greatest misallocation of natural resources on the planet." For what's supposed to happen, and what does happen in nature when our human cleverness doesn't get in the way, is that "wastes" provide the nutrients – become the food – for organisms like bacteria, worms and insects. What they then excrete into the soil is the food which plants then feed upon. Since everything is used by something else, there is actually no such thing as waste.
This whole problem with our wastes pretty much emerged with our transition from nomadic ways of life to settlement in towns and cities 10,000 or so years ago. Our effluents began to pile up, and although a few – a very few – societies recognized their value and put them to good and proper use, most saw them as something to be discarded as quickly and as easily as possible. While the modern sewage system has certainly made our cities a lot more hygienic and smell a bit better (although don't tell that to the town of Werribee, the residents of whom currently have to put up with the smell of my dung), it is, for all intents and purposes, a grandiose sham. As I've explained earlier, the modern sewage system is based on, and dependent upon, limitless supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Not only that, but the more industrialized we are, the worse the situation becomes. As Chiras puts it, "The most affluent have become the most effluent." Or as Dr. Pooper rather crudely puts it, "you humans have big brains, but you've got even bigger arseholes."
Thanks to the hype-mongers, swirly light bulbs and cars running on souped-up rechargeable triple-A batteries get pretty much all the attention when it comes to sustainability issues. But as Chiras again correctly puts it, "True sustainability can only be achieved by ensuring that your excretions make it back to their rightful place in nature." In short, we have to compost our humanure.
By no means though does this have anything to do with those horridly smelling latrines/long-drops found at conservation areas (which leach their nutrients and pollute groundwater), port a potties, or even handling raw sewage, but is rather the process of breaking down our excretions into sweet smelling humus (fluffy organic materials) via methods that are virtually odourless and absolutely unyucky.
There's all sorts of methods and contraptions for properly processing these alternative food sources of ours, ranging from commercial composting toilets costing in the thousands of dollars (but which Chiras and others say are actually challenging to work correctly), all the way down to sawdust toilets (which technically aren't compost toilets since their deposits do their breaking down in compost piles where they get periodically emptied out onto) that can set you back as little as $20. (Chiras also recommends checking out Joe Jenkins' book The Humanure Handbook for much more about sawdust toilets.)
Although care should be taken when handling human excretions (which can harbour pathogens, but which is actually a rarity), there's no need to let our inherited Victorian priggishness turn us off the whole thing. With proper design and maintenance, compost toilets (and attendant compost piles to "cure" the materials further) aid rapid decomposition, through which potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites are destroyed. A properly operated system, conducive to microbial decomposition, results in organic materials that can be applied under trees, to flower beds, and as some do, even dug into vegetable beds.
Yes, when poorly designed and maintained, compost toilets can smell somewhere in the range between awful and downright putrid, and if one didn't know any better, coming across one of these would be a fair reason to write off compost toilets in toto. Although I've come across one of these before, I was fortunate enough that my first introduction to compost toilets came via the one built into my mate's rammed-earth house in New Zealand. If you had of blindfolded me and brought me into the house and then onward to the loo five seconds after someone had done a number two, then told me that I was in the kitchen, I'd of had no reason to disbelieve you. Don't try that in a washroom with a flush toilet. (For the curious, my mate's compost toilet always has the lid closed when not in use, as is general practice with these things. As well, it has intake and outtake ventilation pipes which utilize a small computer fan to vent out any unpleasant smells. This set-up can lead to a few issues in cold climates, but Chiras covers all that in his book.)
Properly designed and maintained, compost toilets can not only smell completely non-offensive, but by reducing the amount of sewage we produce, they reduce the amount of energy required to pump, purify and process all the raw sewage, they help reduce groundwater and surface water pollution, and they help us build top-quality soil to grow healthy food with. To go along with growing a bit (or even a lot) of our own food, dealing with our own wastes is one of the most ecological actions we can partake in in order to usher in a more sustainable future.
So if after reading all this you feel the urge to pick up a copy of The Scoop on Poop, don't feel shy to also run out to your doorstep, and with fist waving angrily in the air, let everyone know that "stuff this, I'm ta–"
– wait a second. I think I'd better save that for the next post.
p.s. In describing sewage treatment plants, Chiras states that "In these facilities, the organic solids are precipitated out, dried, and typically dumped in landfills, alongside diapers, old TV sets, and back issues of The National Enquirer." Kind of sounds like he's already gone from couch potato to potato cultivator if you ask me.