The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Conventional methods of sewage disposal

Outhouse pollutionBefore we dive into composting humanure, it's worth understanding what happens to your crap if you are plugged into a conventional system.  Your waste is commonly known as sewage, but in the industry, it's generally referred to as wastewater (or possibly blackwater if you're making a distinction between the output of your toilet and sink).  Wastewater disposal methods range from the simple to the complex, and Jenkins does a good job of pointing out the pros and cons of each system.

The cheapest way to dispose of human waste is the pit latrine, which is basically our system at the moment.  The worst problem with a pit latrine is its tendency to leak pollutants into the groundwater, which is why an outhouse should always be more than fifty feet away from any well or stream.  Assuming you work around that issue, other problems include disease-transmission, annoying flies, and smell, all of which can be avoided by keeping the humanure covered with a high carbon material after each use.

If your outhouse isn't grandfathered in like ours, you'll be forced to install a septic system in most parts of the United States.  Septic system owners use a conventional toilet inside the house, then the wastewater flows to a septic tank for solids to settle out.  The liquid continues on to a leach field, which is simply a series of buried pipes that let water drain out into the subsoil.

The biggest disadvantage of septic systems, in my opinion, is cost, since even the cheapest onces will set you back at least $2,000.  In addition, you have to Septic systempump the solids out of the septic tank at intervals, and that material ends up being sent to a wastewater treatment plant, which has its own problems.  Finally, Jenkins notes that concentrations of more than 40 septic systems per square mile lead to subsurface contamination, which means that if you and your neighbors have lots smaller than about 16 acres, septic systems are a bad choice.  (I suspect this same issue would come into play with pit latrines/outhouses.)

In the city, wastewater is pumped to a central treatment facility, which can use any of several methods to treat the human waste.  I won't go into wastewater treatment plants much here since I doubt any of you are thinking of installing one in your backyard, but Jenkins explains in great depth why the facilities are problematic.  In addition to the puzzle of disposing of organic matter laced with toxins (due to treatment) and the chlorinated effluent harming receiving streams, we waste energy by treating water and then using it to flush our toilets.

The Humanure Handbook
asks us to step back and change our view of humanure.  If we consider our effluent to be a valuable form of organic matter rather than something to dispose of, we can create systems that recycle humanure into apples.  Yes, humanure composting systems require a little more time, but they also use less money and create less pollution, so they fit the homesteading ethic to a T.

The Weekend Homesteader covers easier projects like rain barrels that can still lower your ecological footprint.

This post is part of our The Humanure Handbook lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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How interesting. Have you researched the composting toilets? We are considering getting one in our new home when we move.
Comment by Angela England Thu Sep 6 12:56:23 2012
Angela --- That's what this lunchtime series is all about. So stay tuned for more information on the various options.
Comment by anna Thu Sep 6 14:16:35 2012
So I have to ask, how does utilizing humanure differ from outhouses in worrying about contamination of ground water or land.
Comment by Anonymous Thu Sep 6 14:59:18 2012
Anonymous --- That's an excellent question. If you manage a composting toilet operation currently (by starting with a deep layer of high carbon material and adding more high carbon materials after each use), you don't see any leachate, so you should have no pollution. I still wouldn't put one within 50 feet of a well or stream for safety's sake, though, and if you manage them wrong, they basically turn into outhouses.
Comment by anna Thu Sep 6 15:11:43 2012
Great minds think alike : ) I just finished reading the Humanure Handbook just a couple days ago. Even though I have a septic system for my house I am going to put a composting toilet in one of my outlying buildings on the farm for when nature calls and you are out in the middle of a field moments. Should save a few long walks back to the house. Since I have 3 ongoing compost stations anyway it just seemed logical.
Comment by Canned Quilter Thu Sep 6 16:35:25 2012
Canned Quilter --- You may even discover you prefer the outdoor version. We definitely find our outhouse more fun than toilets indoors nowadays!
Comment by anna Thu Sep 6 17:15:08 2012

If you think about it, a septic system is really no different than a simple pit facility. The tank is equivalent to the pit and the pipe system merely distributes the outflow evenly in small amounts to a larger space rather than flowing down a decreasing gradient from the pit. Surrounding the pit is a relatively small space with high contamination, tapering off to infinitesimal with distance. The septic system field has a lower maximum concentration, but is probably larger.

The big problem with contamination from human waste is that human pathogens cause human disease. Animal bacteria are usually not human pathogens. It's ok to splash around in your own toilet: you've already got those germs. They can't make you sick ;-)

Comment by doc Thu Sep 6 17:16:13 2012
I wonder how common reedland purification is in the US. That's what's often used around here for areas too remote to be hooked up to the sewerage system.
Comment by Mark Van den Borre Thu Sep 6 18:30:52 2012

doc --- That's actually one of The Humanure Handbook's author's main points --- if you're running a composting system for just your family's waste, you should know if there are any diseases to be especially careful of.

Your comparison of septic systems vs. outhouses is why I think it's so odd that outhouses are usually illegal and septic tanks are usually mandatory in rural areas....

Mark Van den Borre --- Some towns do use ponds to treat wastewater, but those are usually more like lagoons --- the wastewater flows through two or three areas of open water so that the final product is relatively clean. Folks do use constructed wetlands for greywater (or more commonly for stormwater in the mainstream.) But I don't think I'd heard of many (any?) people using it for black water.

Comment by anna Thu Sep 6 18:47:31 2012
Composting toilets aren't cheap but they work extremely well. No smells or nothing and a nice dry compost draw to empty when they are full. Even though it maybe safe I still would rather use that compost for other things than fruits and veggie plants. Even if you ended up mixing it with other types of compost.
Comment by Marco Thu Sep 6 21:48:39 2012

Marco --- Homemade versions can be very cheap, but I agree that the premade ones are often just as expensive as a septic system. And unfortunately those premade ones are the type that generally pass code.

If we do get into humanure, I doubt we'd use the compost on the vegetable garden. We have so many fruit trees that need to be fertilized every year that there's no need to risk it. I figure if you apply humanure in late winter and cover it with mulch, by the time fruit could fall on it, any pathogens would be long gone.

Comment by anna Fri Sep 7 08:04:01 2012
While bacteria and viruses may be gone, Parasites can last much longer. Parasitic worms for instance can last for years. This is why a lot of the regulation came into being in the first place. People used to pick up whip worms from using the same area to go to the bathroom while barefoot. (the worms can travel quite a distance and are microscopic) I will see if I can dig up the paper I read, it was a fun historical bit.
Comment by Anonymous Fri Sep 7 10:16:31 2012
Composting toilets can be VERY cheap. Ours cost us some scrap lumber, a cheap toilet seat, two buckets and some free saw dust. It works way better than any commercial composting toilet I've ever used. When it comes to composting toilets, IMO simpler is better.
Comment by Everett Fri Sep 7 12:48:49 2012

Anonymous --- You're right that worms, especially, can last a long time in the soil. The author of The Humanure Handbook writes about them a lot, explaining that roundworm eggs can last for up to ten years in the soil, but that hot composting (which is what he does) will kill the eggs. However, he also makes the same point doc does above --- if no one in your household has parasitic worms and you're just working with your own humanure, you're not going to get worms from it.

Everett --- I didn't realize you had a composting toilet at your place. I hope you'll post about it!

Comment by anna Fri Sep 7 14:21:05 2012

There is a relatively new system on the market that is basically a waste water plant for your home. It is extremely efficient in that it processes the waste for 23.75 hours per day then disposes of the purified (98%)water through an irrigation system into the landscape where nature takes care of the rest. While it is not cheap it doesn't cost much more than a traditional septic system with much less ground disturbance. I would think that someone could build their own system if they had a mind to. The reason they have not become more popular yet is the municipalities are to eager to make money in the poop business. One day they will be part of every new home built.

Comment by Johnny Sat Sep 8 10:08:28 2012
Johnny --- Hmm, I'm not sure if that's all that enticing. Wastewater plants tend to use a lot of energy and chemicals --- not sure it wouldn't be better to regress to an outhouse instead.
Comment by anna Sat Sep 8 13:03:21 2012

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