The Humanure Handbook: Do More With Mess

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Editor's Note: Joseph Jenkins is a world-renowned expert on the process of composting human manure --
that is, recycling our shit into our gardens. His book,
The Humanure Handbook: A Guide To Composting Human Manure provides historical, cultural
and environmental histories of human waste to compliment detailed instructions on how to safely
convert your droppings into garden soil.

If civilization were to end tomorrow, we'd find ourselves overflowing with shit two weeks later. In this excerpt, Mr. Jenkins discusses that, and introduces us to the idea of human manure composting.

As I was writing the second edition of Humanure, I got a phone call from a fellow who
was working on a national Community Disaster Preparedness Manual, a project with a
federal mandate and federal funding. This project was precipitated by the concerns
surrounding the "Y2K" (Year 2000) scenario, which was supposed to be

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins

fraught with the
wholesale collapse of civilization due to pervasive computer design flaws. Computers
would not be able to recognize the beginning of the new century and would just crash.
This could result in wide-ranging and possibly prolonged disruptions of electrical,
water, food, and fuel supplies, among other things. Or so we were warned.

The authors of this manual had to assume these disruptions could occur for two days,
two weeks, or even two months, and the manual had to include instructions for all three
of these contingencies.

The people working on this problem seemed to be able to come up with stop-gap solutions
for every potential obstacle: food shortages (food can be stored), fuel shortages (wood
or kerosene stoves can be used as backup heaters), or no lights (candles would work).
There was one problem, however, for which no solution could be found. In fact, the
fellow on the phone confided that they were considering abandoning the project
altogether, because, in the words of many experts in the field, "it can't be done."

What exactly was this impossible problem, you may wonder? In a word -- sewage. What do
you do when the toilets won't flush? What happens when the water doesn't pump and the
drains don't drain? Conveniences like flush toilets are totally dependent upon the
electrical grid and completely reliant on a constant water supply. When the electricity
is out and water is unavailable, how do you flush a toilet? Answer -- you don't.

When this question was posed to the professionals in the field -- wastewater treatment
managers, waste management people, and sewage experts, they all drew a blank. One
suggested that gravity drains would still work; sewage could be dumped down those
drains, eventually reaching a wastewater treatment plant. It could then be heavily
chlorinated before being discharged directly into the environment. He admitted this
would only work for about two weeks until the chlorine supply ran out, after which the
sewage would be released directly into surface waters, totally untreated. He also
admitted that wastewater treatment plants only keep about a two week supply of chlorine
because it is such a dangerous chemical. After two weeks, in a disaster scenario, raw
sewage would be dumped into the environment -- a situation that usually precedes the
spread of deadly epidemic diseases.

Two things came to mind when I talked to the disaster-manual fellow. First, people need
to realize that life as we know it won't continue forever. The environmental
repercussions of our consumptive, throw-away lifestyles may catch up to us sooner than
we think. Computers crashing may look like a Girl Scout picnic compared to global
climate changes, cancer, new epidemics, and other calamities that can now be directly
linked to our excesses. People also need to realize how fragile their lifestyles are,
hanging by a thinner thread than they can imagine. Some power outages and food/fuel
shortages could be a wake-up call for many.

Second, I never cease to be amazed at how thoroughly our society has ignored any
constructive alternatives to sewage. We've put all our eggs in the flush toilet basket,
and when the toilets won't flush, we're clueless. Ironically, it's this squeamish
refusal to look at our own excrement that makes it such a threat to our health and
safety. If we can't flush it, since we've developed few alternatives, we just dump it.
This is a big mistake, not only because we're discarding valuable organic resource
materials, but also because we're polluting our environment in the process, perhaps
dangerously so.

So I told the disaster-manual fellow that two five gallon buckets and a large bag of
peat moss or sawdust will make an emergency toilet for one person for two weeks. If a
compost bin and a steady supply of sawdust or peat is available, that toilet could last
indefinitely. With proper oversight and management, that person could be in a Chicago
high-rise or in a Boston suburb. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The point is that we don't know how to deal with human excrement because we don't see
it for what it is. It's not a waste material, it's a resource material. When we see it
as a resource, we can understand how to recycle it. When we adamantly insist upon
seeing it only as a waste material, we're painting ourselves into a corner. By
believing we have to dispose of that waste, we burden ourselves with an increasingly
impossible challenge.

To learn more about humanure composting, and to read more of The Humanure Handbook, visit the humanure website.

11 Comments on "The Humanure Handbook: Do More With Mess"

Tyidirium's picture

I recently read that if the US switched to using the new biodegradable potato-based plastic plates, the composting facilities around the country would be completely overwhelmed. Would something similar happen if everyone started composting their shit?

joe jenkins (humanure author)'s picture

New composting facilities will pop up like mushrooms after a rain. We need them, too. The US society is way behind in composting compared to some other countries. It's only a matter of time before we start composting our excrement (and thereby become a fully potty trained species).

Joe Febbierns's picture


slim jim junkie's picture

shit in the sewer plants eventually becomes fertilizer

Poopshipdestroyer's picture
m 1+ points - Newb

Joe, since it was a long time ago that you posted this article--or since Dave posted an excerpt from your book--I'm not sure if you're still hanging around the site to answer my question. But if you are, I'm interested in the process by which our current centralized, state-run sewer system is phased out in favor of compost-based one that allows for more community and local control. If we recognize the value and necessity of moving from a water-based to an earth-based system, what do we do with all the stuff in the sewers in the process of making this shift?

Poopshipdestroyer's picture
m 1+ points - Newb

ok, so i'm being anal in the worst way, but just so that my question makes more sense, "system is phased out" above should read "system might be phased out".

poopy mcpoopbum's picture

missing the point here i think. no power? no food. no food? no poop. problem solved.

healthy 1's picture
j 1000+ points

I am all for humanure. I however, have developed my own way of dealing with excrement, flushing it, but still reusing it as plant food. What I did was I dug a hole 4ft square and simply piped the toilets to the hole. Grass, kitchen scraps, leaves, hay, personal documents, the occasional bag of 1/2 decomposed cow manure, and my humanure are all mixed together in this hole. The hole is reinforced with steel tubes and plywood. The bottom most 2.5 feet of the hole are screened in to allow earthworms. I have also installed a digital thermometer, to insure that the core of the pile reaches the critical 131F to 170F. The whole thing cost me $800.00 plus my labor.

My city treats human excrement strictly as waste. Our sewage treatment plant incinerates all of our sewage, then burries in in a landfill where it is eventually sealed in. Since the sewage plant went in, there have been many fish kills in the stream adjacent to the plant. Whole species of fish have vanished since the plant went in during the mid 70's.

So in effect, my city pollutes the air, ground, and water with the cities sewage.

It is time that society looks at organic waste in a different light. I have reduced my waste water by 99% with the above mentioned system, coupled with a greywater system. I have reduced household solid waste by 81% (8 bags of trash per month, to 1.5 bags a month).

In the end, composting is not only good for the environment, it is also economic.
Born to clog your bog, with a giant log.

"Two percent of the population think; three percent of the population think they think, and 95 percent of the population would rather die than think."

Anonymous Coward's picture

When your homegrown, human poop compost fertilized vegetables are served and someone says "it tastes just like chicken", be afraid. Very afraid.

Anonymous Coward's picture

i like it! my idea is that humanure can be used to avert peak oil too -- instead of smog days we'll have big ol' fart days -- but damn will we all be self sufficient -- all eco-exxons in miniature.....

Pit Critic's picture

I wonder how the four-foot-hole guy is doing with his slurry pit. Unless a LOT of nasty leachate is going straight into the ground water, I can't see how one could possibly pipe a flush toilet to a four-foot pit and not be awash in anaerobic sewage after a few days. You'd have to be excessively anal retentive to the point of "laying a cable" only about once a week. Besides, how do you ever EMPTY the pit? With new sewage washing in all the time, the pile could never be turned, cured, or emptied. Bleah! I wouldn't want to try that in my suburban backyard.

However, I did build a composting toilet like the kind Joe Jenkins recommends. I keep it in my shed and use it when I'm working outdoors in the summer. My biggest trouble is finding good cover material. There is no locally available sawdust. Peat moss is too dry to be a good biofilter and is so powdery that the dust gets everywhere. I've also tried chaff from the local grain elevator, but it too was dry and dusty. The best thing I have used is dirt (or compost) mixed with shredded leaves. It's moist, aromatic, and plentiful. I have used it as bedding for my four hens too and it completely absorbs all odor in their small coop.

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