I'm standing in front of a series of small poo-soaked piles of used condoms, toilet paper, rags and tampon applicators accumulating in the massive headworks building of the Hyperion Treatment Plant, where the majority of Los Angeles' sewage is treated. In this building, giant rakes reach down into the muck and separate out some of the larger bits of solid waste which, on occasion, will include items such as cash, bodies, couches and even motorcycles.
From this point on in the plant a complex series of chemical, mechanical and biological processes further separates solids from liquids. Treated liquid waste ends up flowing out a pipe into the ocean, while the solid waste has a more interesting trajectory: much of it is trucked to what the Department of Public Works refers to euphemistically as "beneficial use sites." Chief among these sites is Green Acres Farm, 4,688-acres many miles to the north in Kern County. There 99.9% of Hyperion's biosolids are applied to grow corn, wheat and alfalfa for use as cattle feed.
The possibility that this farm was named after a television show fulfills the stereotype of Southern California's tenuous grasp on the fine line between reality and fantasy, but in this case city officials may have been more prescient had they named the farm Soylent Green Acres. That's because Kern County residents passed a ballot measure to reject L.A.'s sludge by an 82% margin, because, after all, "It's people!" Los Angeles responded with a lawsuit, and the fate of Green Acre Farm is currently in legal limbo.
But whether or not L.A.'s sludge represents a hazard to Kern County residents is, in a way, irrelevant. What's unfair to the people of Kern County is having to deal with stupendous volumes of someone else's exported poo. Perhaps it's time for some personal responsibility. Perhaps it's time for a poo revolution perhaps it's time for us to take responsibility for our own shit.
Joseph Jenkins is the author of a consciousness shifting book called the Humanure Handbook which he makes available free online on his website. Jenkin's technique is simple. Your new throne is a five gallon bucket with a toilet seat stuck on it. Each time you make a deposit (both pee and poo), you throw some carbonaceous material on top Jenkins favors sawdust. When the bucket is full you empty it into a compost pile. You manage this pile just as you do the bucket each time you deposit more waste you cover it with more carbonaceous material. As with composting kitchen waste, the idea is to keep a balance of nitrogen rich materials, in this case urine and feces, and carbon containing materials, generally "dead" things like sawdust, dried leaves, newspaper etc. The sawdust also helps cover potentially offensive smells. By keeping this balance of carbon and nitrogen, after two years you'll have rich dark compost that you can safely spread in your yard (though not on vegetables).
Jenkin's humanure method is also a way of conserving water. When we use a conventional toilet we are fouling perfectly drinkable municipal water. Some 30% of average household water is flushed down the the toilet. Think about that for a second. We take treated municipal water, poop in it, and then send it down the drain where it needs to be treated yet again. With water uncertainty on the horizon, humanure composting could become an important conservation strategy.
While elegantly simple, Jenkin's technique is also wildly illegal in urban locations. Hefty fines, even the intervention of child protective services are all scenarios that have been discussed on Jenkin's very active humanure discussion boards. These taboos and inhibitions in dealing with our own poop are probably the biggest obstacle to widespread acceptance of humanure.
Amy, an avid humanurist who wants to stay anonymous, is one person who overcame those deep seated social constraints, convincing her reluctant husband to try humanuring, "There's a certain awkwardness to get past with this system. It's not conventional, and many people don't know what to make of it at first. My husband was one of those people. Talking about it warmed him up, but the only way to get him used to it, was to do it!"
Amy's enthusiasm has motivated others, "Now I've done it, and it's already inspiring another friend of mine to build one. Good ideas catch on."
But is humanuring scalable? What would happen if we all took it up? This brings us back to the sewage treatment plant we began this story with. Municipal sewage treatment, which predates the Romans, began as a sort of compromise. Leave sewage disposal to the masses and irresponsible folks will empty their chamber pots in the alley, causing outbreaks of terrible diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis. But, on the other hand, in relying on municipal sewage treatment we're wasting water and resources, and making our poo someone else's problem. "Flush it and forget it" is just another symptom of our wasteful consumer society. When you have to deal with your own humanure you've got an incentive to separate and dispose of those condoms and tampon applicators. This is not to mention the horrifying fact that our culture's addiction to pharmaceuticals like Prozac means that all sorts of unholy chemical compounds are finding their to find their way into our oceans and rivers via our urine. But every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, the fish are no longer depressed about their warming oceans.
A compromise between the centralized and individualized poo management might be the return of the night soil man. Night soil collection was an unenviable job predating centralized sewage treatment that involved going door to door collecting solid waste for mass composting and/or disposal. The job was done in the dead of night because of the horrible stench.
The night soil man's duties are still undertaken in may parts of the world. For a contemporary take on the night soil man, the Clivus Multrum company makes a number of composting toilets that, in most residential models, send waste down to your basement for composing. You can deal with the finished compost yourself or pay for a maintenance option wherein a representative from the company will clean out and disperse or remove the finished compost for you. But compared to Jenkin's humanure method, the Clivus Multrum doesn't come cheap. And in urban locations you still may have to battle skeptical building inspectors.
Another option are compost-in-place toilets that incorporate rotating drums and even heating elements to incinerate waste. These are marketed to owners of remote cabins who don't have a sewer to hook up to and don't want to or can't build a septic tank. The Envirolet is an example of this type of toilet. But again, Jenkin's humanure method is still far less expensive, though more labor intensive.
An admission here. We don't have a humanure system at Homegrown Revolution's tiny Los Angeles compound. Unlike Amy's husband, we haven't overcome the inhibitions of dealing with our own poo. Nor have we figured out what we'd do with all the finished compost, since one person can generate about a five gallon bucket's worth every week. Even so, it's wise to know the process. In an extended emergency, say the aftermath of a big earthquake, knowing how to deal with our own waste, and having some of the materials on hand to do so, could mean the difference, for us, between being able to stay at home and ending up in the Los Angeles equivalent of the New Orleans Superdome Stadium where, in the aftermath of Katrina, human waste piled up knee-deep on the staircases.
With conventional sewage treatment, the natural cycle of life, death and renewal inherent in composting human waste have been interrupted. Like so many other aspects of our lives, our toilets do little more than accumulate waste, leading to surging landfills and polluted rivers and oceans. The night soil man, not Al Gore, may be the new hero to lead us out of a culture of waste, and into a new garden of Eden, one in which these cycles of renewal and regeneration lead to abundance.