Making Waste Into Something Clean


Poop.  Its not something we like to think about.  We drop it. We flush it.  We never think of it again.

Joseph Jenkins thinks about it a lot.  He’s written a detailed book about what happens to our waste in the system, how our waste is damaging the planet, and how to fix this problem.

Jenkins is the author of The Humanure Handbook.  He believes we are wasting our waste and that it can be used to enhance the soil for the production of food.  I can see noses everywhere crinkling into that ewww face.  The production of FOOD!?  “But human waste contains germs!” we exclaim.

Jenkins knows we don’t want to talk about it.  He says, “Fecophobia is alive and well and running rampant.  One common misconception is that fecal material, when composted, remains fecal material.  It does not.  Humanure comes from the earth, and through the miraculous process of composting, is converted back into earth.  When the composting process is finished, the end product is humus, not crap, and it is useful in growing food”.

After years of research and trial and error, Jenkins discovered that his “thermophilic (hot) microbiological” method of composting, when done properly, yields a pathogen-free compost.  His process turns something disgusting into something clean.  So how is this done?

I’ll summarize his method here.  For details about how to put it into practice check out The Humanure Handbook or visit his website . You could also check out this entertaining video.

The method requires a composting toilet, a compost bin, and cover material for the compost.  It would also help to have a compost thermometer so you can make sure the temperatures are what they should be to deactivate the harmful pathogens: temperatures between approximately 110-140 F.  Its the combination of the heat and the activity of beneficial microbes (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) that kill off the bad bacteria, harmful worms and their eggs, and viruses.

In essence, the heat and the beneficial microorganisms sanitize the poop.

In the book, Jenkins goes into alot of detail about pathogens, temperatures required to kill them, and how the beneficial microbes are encouraged.

He uses two wooden composting bins that are open on the top.   When one bin is full it is left to ‘age’ for about a year.  The other continues to have fresh waste added.

To add new toilet materials (everything from the toilet is included), a hole is dug in the middle of the compost pile where temperatures are hottest.  Then the cover material is spread back over the waste.

Cover materials include:  greens (grass, weeds, leaves, etc); dried hay, straw, or leaves.  These prevent odor from escaping, keep the flies off, and hold the heat in.  Other compostable materials such as kitchen scraps are also added to the same bin.  Once its aged, the humanure is mixed into the garden soil like regular compost.

The result is a product that is free of harmful pathogens and full of beneficial microbial activity, earthworms, and enriched organic material for the garden.

Because I moved into a rural place with a septic system, I was especially interested in his comments about septic systems.  Anyone who lives in the country knows there is no convenient urban water system to wash it away, out of sight, out of mind.  Country dwellers need to deal with their own waste, one way or the other, whether its through a septic system, a grey water system, an old-fashioned outhouse, or composting toilets.


“Septic systems are not designed to destroy human pathogens that may be in the human waste that enters the septic tank”.  Hmm, then what good are they?

He explains that septic systems transmit disease causing bacteria and other uglies into our lovely earth.  He quotes an EPA study listing the many toxic household chemicals found in septic tanks.  We dump some nasty stuff down our drains.  Not a pretty picture.

This book made me think twice about not only what gets flushed but what gets washed down the sink.  I’m now even more committed to making and using eco-friendly cleaning products and personal care products.

This is a compelling book for people who care about the planet, not just for those who live in the country.  Higher ideals are involved here.

Humanure composters can stand under the stars at night gazing at the heavens, and know that, when nature calls, their excretions will not foul the planet.  Instead, those excretions are humbly collected, fed to micoorganisms and returned to the Earth as healing medicine for the soil.