Using manure for fertilizer in the future – it won’t be easy

Animals produce 44 times more manure than humans in the U.S.

Preface. 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 it can be dangerous to use human manure without proper handling, 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 crop wastes, animal and human manure again.

Below are excerpts from three sources.

The first is about North Korea. Despite tremendous efforts to use all manure, this country is a barren, destroyed landscape that can grow little food, which McKenna describes here: Inside North Korea’s Environmental Collapse.

The second section describes what it was like to live over a century ago when human and animal manure was routinely collected.

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

Alice Friedemann  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]

Park, Y. 2015. In order to live: A North Korean girl’s journey to freedom. Penguin.

“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 poop 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”

Vaclav Smil. 2015. Energy and Civilization A History. MIT Press. 

“In Chinese cities, high shares of human waste (70–80%) were recycled. Similarly, by the 1650s virtually all of Edo’s (today’s Tokyo) human wastes were recycled. But the usefulness of this practice is limited by the availability of such wastes and their low nutrient content, and the practice entails much repetitive, heavy labor. Even before storage and handling losses, the annual yield of human wastes averaged only about 3.3 kg N/capita. The collection, storage, and delivery of these wastes from cities to the surrounding countryside created large-scale malodorous industries, which even in Europe persisted for most of the 19th century before canalization was completed. By 1869, Paris was generating annually about 4.2 Mt N, about 40% from horse manure and about 25% from human wastes…

The recycling of much more copious animal wastes—which involved cleaning of stalls and sties, liquid fermentation or composting of mixed wastes before field applications, and the transfer of wastes to fields—was even more time-consuming. And because most manures have only about 0.5% N, and pre-application and field losses of the nutrient had commonly added up to 60% of the initial content, massive applications of organic wastes were required to produce higher yields.  Every conceivable organic waste was used as a fertilizer in traditional farming: pigeon, goat, sheep, cattle, all other dung, composts made of straw, lupines, chaff, bean stalks, husks, and oak leaves.

Any theoretical estimates of nitrogen in recycled wastes are far removed from its eventual contribution. This is because of very high losses (mainly through ammonia volatilization and leaching into groundwater) between voiding, collection, composting, application, and eventual nitrogen uptake by crops. These losses, commonly of more than two-thirds of the initial nitrogen, further increased the need to apply enormous quantities of organic wastes. Consequently, in all intensive traditional agricultures, large shares of farm labor had to be devoted to the unappealing and heavy tasks of collecting, fermenting, transporting, and applying organic wastes.

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

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

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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8 Responses to Using manure for fertilizer in the future – it won’t be easy

  1. 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. 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…

      • Jeorge says:

        It only takes about a year. As to other contaminates such as pharmaceuticals, I’m inclined to think that will be a diminishing issue as the rest of this massive clusterfuck we call global industrial civilization falls in on itself. Obviously a post-collapse world isn’t going to support but a fraction of the current human population which means many of these problems of scale will also diminish.

  3. 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.

  4. steve c says:

    I use the humanure system, with three year compost bin rotation. Solids, kitchen scraps, etc. go in the bins. I also use a Separett privy seat, which separates the urine from the poop. Most of the phosphorus and nitrogen in human waste is in the urine, so I can spot apply the urine at fruit trees, or garden rows before tilling, maximizing the N2 getting to the food crops.

    Not sure if I can do any more to minimize volatilization, but that will be my next area of reading.

    It’s really no big deal to set up, and the humanure handbook is an excellent resource for how to do it, and to explain the mitigation of pathogen concerns.

    Everyone who can, should be doing this.

  5. Enigma says:

    I know it’s grim but that line “we had to lock our outhouses to keep the poop thieves away” made me laugh so hard.