Pooping for the planet: Part III
“A young English couple was visiting with me one summer after I had been composting humanure for about six years. One evening, as dinner was being prepared, the couple suddenly understood the horrible reality of their situation: the food they were about to eat was recycled human shit. When this fact abruptly dawned upon them, it seemed to set off an instinctive alarm, possibly inherited directly from Queen Victoria. “We don’t want to eat shit!” they informed me, rather distressed (that’s an exact quote), as if in preparing dinner I had simply set a steaming turd on a plate in front of them with a knife, fork and napkin.” ― Joseph Jenkins, The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure
This is where (literal) shit gets serious, but first off, a musical interlude.
No, there’s no such thing as waste, including animal waste. That includes humans because, y’know, we’re animals too: four legs good, two legs not necessarily better, with apologies to George Orwell. While any organic matter, from grass clippings to deceased household pets (well, deceased anything for that matter) will contribute to the health of the soil, the point of this series of blog articles is to focus on manure: the ultimate renewable resource.
It goes something like this: cow eats grass, grass nourishes cow, cow’s digestive system processes grass, cow excretes waste, waste nourishes soil, soil grows grass … and so forth, until, ultimately cow dies (if it’s lucky and not sold for slaughter first) and then cow decomposes and nourishes soil for more grass and more cows. The process is cyclical and here’s the thing, all natural processes are cyclical. That’s what makes them work. Natural processes of growth, death and decay ensure that resources are maintained through absorption and utilisation of what we call ‘waste’.
Our artificial processes are not cyclical; they are linear. Human waste is whisked away with the push of a button and we don’t think about it again. Household waste goes out in the bin and is collected once a week in a truck. It vanishes. We don’t care where it goes, just so long as it does so quickly and without noise or inconvenience. Modern society has decreed that waste is dirty, smelly and a health hazard – and it is, but only because of the volume in which it’s generated and the method in which it is treated. Or not treated.
The term ‘waste management’ is actually a euphemism for ‘waste mismanagement’. ‘Landfill’ is simply a technical term for digging a hole in the ground and filling it with garbage. It is not sustainable, it is not clean or efficient and it is not effective.
The only thing landfills will be useful for in the future is as archaeological sites where the historians of the future can study and wonder at 20th and 21st century society. Surely in a world as technologically developed as ours, we could think of a better method of waste disposal than shoving it in a hole in the ground? Well, yes, of course we could, but ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is the philosophy behind waste disposal. But I digress …
In the 1970s and 80s the sewerage treatment systems of Sydney, built for a smaller city, were unable to cope with the burgeoning population and increased waste load, and sewage outfall was polluting the famed beaches along the Sydney coast. In the late 1980s, green activist and later Greens MLC in in the New South Wales Parliament, Ian Cohen, travelled along the coast of NSW, including in Sydney, towing an 8-metre long turd to protest the government’s inaction on sewage outfall at beaches.
Cohen’s focus was water pollution, which had reached critical proportions in some places (the term ‘Bondi cigar’ just one colourful example) and eventually the situation was improved at an infrastructural level. The basic problem remained, however, and persists to this day. Our waste disposal system is one-way. Food is grown in the soil, transported to urban areas, eaten, and the waste flushed out to sea. Meanwhile, farmers are spending millions of dollars on fertilizers to keep the soil viable for production of more food. Chemical fertilizers are entering our food stream and thus, our bodies.
How important is manure? Important enough to be partly responsible for revolution. In 1787–88, France was in the grip of a severe drought. Farmers, with little fodder for livestock, killed most of their cows and sheep. This led to a manure crisis. Without precious manure to nourish their soils, grain crops failed and the price of bread, the commodity on which the lower classes of society were dependent for food, skyrocketed as supplies became sparser.
This led to Marie Antoinette’s oft-(and incorrectly) quoted line, “let them eat cake”, when she was told the peasants had no bread. A hungry populace is a dangerous populace and the rest is history, and while it might be a stretch to blame the French Revolution on a lack of manure, it was certainly one of the contributing factors.
Healthy human faeces is comprised of (percentages are approximate) 30 percent dead bacteria; 30 percent indigestible food matter such as cellulose; 10 to 20 percent cholesterol and other fats; 10 to 20 percent inorganic substances such as calcium phosphate and iron phosphate; and 2 to 3 percent protein.
All of which is discarded as waste by our bodies but to the soil it is manna from heaven. Healthy cow manure is essentially digested grass and grain. It is high in organic materials and rich in nutrients: about 3 percent nitrogen, 2 percent phosphorus, and 1 percent potassium (3-2-1 NPK).
In addition, cow manure contains high levels of ammonia and potentially dangerous pathogens. The common inorganic fertilizers used in agriculture include ammonia (82% nitrogen), NPK combinations, urea (46% nitrogen), superphosphate, mono and dibasic ammonium phosphates (containing nitrogen and phosphate), calcium ammonium nitrate, potassium chloride (muriate of potash) – all of which nutrients can be found in the material we consider unclean waste.
This is Part 3 of a series of blogs from Robin Tennant-Wood entitled Pooping for the Planet. The purpose is to show how organic waste — including biosolids and manures — can be the basis of ensuring productive soils and, by extension, sustainable agriculture and food security, into the future.