Why human waste should be used for fertilizer

[ At John Jeavons Biointensive workshop back in 2003, I learned that phosphorous is limited and mostly being lost to oceans and other waterways after exiting sewage treatment plants.  He said that it’s dangerous if done incorrectly and wasn’t going to cover this at the workshop, but to keep it in mind for the future.

Modern fertilizers made with the Nobel-prizing winning method of using natural gas as feedstock and energy source can increase crop production up to 5 times, but at a tremendous cost of poor soil health and pollution (see Peak soil).  Fossil fuels will inevitably decline some day, and force us back to organic agriculture and using human manure again.

To give you an idea of how essential fertilizer is, here are a few paragraphs from Yeonmi Park’s recent book “In order to live: A North Korean girl’s journey to freedom”:

“One of the big problems in North Korea was a fertilizer shortage. When the economy collapsed in the 1990s, the Soviet Union stopped sending fertilizer to us and our own factories stopped producing it. Whatever was donated from other countries couldn’t get to the farms because the transportation system had also broken down. this led to crop failures that made the famine even worse. So the government came up with a campaign to fill the fertilizer gap with a local and renewable source: human and animal waste. Every worker and schoolchild had a quota to fill.  Every member of the household had a daily assignment, so when we got up in the morning, it was like a war. My aunts were the most competitive.

“Remember not to poop in school! Wait to do it here!” my aunt in Kowon told me every day.

Whenever my aunt in Songnam-ri traveled away from home and had to pop somewhere else, she loudly complained that she didn’t have a plastic bag with her to save it.

The big effort to collect waste peaked in January so it could be ready for growing season. Our bathrooms were usually far from the house, so you had to be carefu lneighbors didn’t steal from you at night. Some people would lock up their outhouses to keep the poop thieves away. At school the teachers would send us out into the streets to find poop and carry it back to class.  If we saw a dog pooping in the street, it was like gold. My uncle in Kowon had a big dog who made a big poop—and everyone in the family would fight over it.

Our problems could not be fixed with tears and sweat, and the economy went into total collapse after torrential rains caused terrible flooding that wiped out most of the rice harvest…as many as a million North Koreans died from starvation or disease during the worst years of the famine.

When foreign food aid finally started pouring into the country to help famine victims, the government diverted most of it to the military, whose needs always came first. What food did get through to local authorities for distribution quickly ended up being sold on the black market”

Despite this, North Korea is a barren, destroyed landscape that can grow little food and is yet another example of a nation that is collapsing in part from degraded topsoil, as Montgomery wrote about in his book “Dirt: the erosion of civilization”.

Below is a review of The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the planet, one flush at a time, by Mark Nelson, Synergetic Press.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Barnett, A. August 2, 2014. Excellent excrement. Why do we waste human waste? We don’t have to. NewScientist.

Would you dine in an artificial wetland laced with human waste? In The Wastewater Gardener, Marc Nelson makes an inspiring case for a new ecology of water

Rainforest destruction, melting glaciers, acid oceans, the fate of polar bears, whales and pandas. You can understand why we get worked up about them ecologically. But wastewater?

The problem is excrement. Psychologically, we seem to be deeply averse to the stuff and want to avoid contact whenever possible – we don’t even want to think about it, we just want it out of the way.

The solution, a universal pipe-based waste network, works well until domestic and industrial chemicals and other non-biological waste are mixed in. Treating the resulting toxic soup, as Mark Nelson explains in The Wastewater Gardener, is not only a major technological challenge, but also uses enormous amounts of one of the planet’s most limited resources: fresh water.

Each adult produces between 7 and 18 ounces of faeces per day. With our current population, that’s a yearly 500 million tonnes. Centralized sewage systems use between 1000 and 2000 tons of water to move each ton of faeces, and another 6000 to 8000 tons to process it.

Even then, this processed waste often ends up in waterways, affecting wildlife and communities downstream, and it eventually finds its way to the ocean. There it contributes to the process of eutrophication, which creates dead zones, killing coral reefs and other sea creatures.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. As head of Wastewater Gardens International, Nelson has traveled the world, developing and promoting artificial wetlands as the most logical way to use what we otherwise flush away.

Except that, as Nelson points out, with 7 billion-plus people, there really is no “away”. Besides, what the public purse pays to detox and dump can be put to profitable work, fertilising greenery for urban spaces and fruits and vegetables for domestic and commercial use, for example.

Less than 3% of Earth’s water is fresh, and only a tiny portion of that is easily available to us. Most of the water that standard sewage systems use to move human waste is drinkable. Diminishing water resources mean alternatives are pressingly needed. Wastewater gardens, where marsh plants are used to filter lavatory output and allow cleaned water to enter natural watercourses, are very much part of that solution.

Nelson clearly understands the yuck factor and goes to great lengths to show that having a shallow vat of human-waste-laced water nearby is far less vile than we might imagine, especially when it is covered by gravel and interlaced with plant roots. Restaurants with tables dotted between ponds containing the ever-filtering artificial wetlands provide convincing proof.

Constructed wetlands can take on big jobs, too: a mixture of papyrus, lotus and other plants have successfully and beautifully detoxified water from Indonesian batik-dying factories. This water had killed cows downstream and caused running battles between farmers and factory workers.

The Wastewater Gardener is not a “how to” story, but more a “how it was done” account. Nelson tells how these wetlands started to become mainstream in less than 30 years. With humility and humour, he recounts how, as a boy from New York City, he acquired hands-on ranching knowledge in New Mexico, then studied under American ecology guru, Howard Thomas Odum.

And stories of his experiences everywhere from urban Bali and the Australian outback to Morocco’s Atlas mountains and Mexico’s Cancún coast illustrate the gravelly, muddy evolution of his big idea. An inspiring read, not just for the smallest room.

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6 Responses to Why human waste should be used for fertilizer

  1. Maura says:

    The yuck factor,the very real risks of doing it wrong,and the fact that many local village ordinances flat out forbid without any consideration for the benefits mean that for this idea to gain any momentum it will take advocacy and technical support public and private on a large scale.how can this happen

    • energyskeptic says:

      At some point people will be desperate enough to use human waste. For example, in North Korea, after it collapsed due to a large, sudden drop in oil imports, the government insisted households contribute a certain weight of fecal matter every day (based on the number of members of the household) as a way of curbing starvation which was killing millions of people. Families told their children to come home from school if they needed to defecate so they’d meet their quota.

      Of course in America, the capitalist brainwashing of hatred of the government rather than the businesses that outsourced jobs and promoted immigration to pay lower wages won’t do this… so after collapse, evolution will favor those who understand pre-industrial farming techniques and how to implement them (including how long human waste needs to compost so as not to spread disease).

  2. Maura benton says:

    Yes but using North Korea as an example is not going to get any traction with everyday Americans unfamiliar with these topics however true it may be Americans simply will not under any circumstances come around on that basis certainly you can make the argument that later on their will do it out of despair my question is how can we do it while there is still some chance of doing it while we have some resources to do it well I don’tknow….better?

  3. Terry says:

    I love the idea of getting over our apparently natural aversion to you-know-what 🙂 And then doing something useful with it (the you-know-what, not the aversion)!

    A potential pitfall, IMO, is the pharmaceuticals that some of us – myself included – depend on to function well. I’ve read that such chemicals we flush “away” are already affecting living things in our lakes and streams. Might they not affect food crops, too? Does the author address this?

    • energyskeptic says:

      Using human manure is illegal because of health concerns. It takes years of composting to make it safe. Meanwhile finite phosphorous is getting washed out to sea, every bit as essential for crop production as nitrogen. There are individuals experimenting with this, but I don’t expect it to become common until starvation strikes, and most people won’t know it should be composted for many years and spread/catch diseases…

  4. Art says:

    I live in a beautiful valley in Vermont. Across the road from me is fields of corn, all fertilized by a local septic company, less than 50 feet from a major river. On my side of the road it is all organic farming, including my own. The real problem, as I told the owner of the septic company, is the other things people put down their drain.