Last week Rishi called out, “Guys, come over!” He had a wheelbarrow full of soil, freshly excavated from the plot behind the orchard against the back fence. He explained that it was soil extracted from the composting toilet, where composting worms had been living and doing their duty. Rishi felt the soil and took a deep inhale, saying, “we’re rich!” We smelled it for ourselves and to our relief – it was an odorless and (or not shitty at least) dark-colored soil!
I have been acquainted with composting toilets before and generally embrace the practice of using them. But, it has been raising questions in me: What kinds of animal manures contain pathogens? What can go wrong with the human composting processes? How long have we been composting human waste? Thankfully, we have the internet. And our cyberspace does contain a robust quantity of poop information.
So, composting toilets are generally divided by their temperatures; thermophilic are high-temperature types, while the majority available commercially are low-temperature systems known as “mouldering toilets”. At it’s simplest form, we can collect the waste in a receptacle and add it to our compost pile (thermophilic). This can only work in locations where there is land to hold the outdoor composting unit and with someone who is willing to handle the waste… And most people today want nothing to do with the backside of their system (literally). The term fecophobic that has been created to describe those with no tolerance for the use of human waste as compost in general and especially for compost used to grow food. The root of this phobia is what I have been seeking. Every fear derives from some “bad” experience. Interestingly, in the Chinese language there is no derogatory word for feces like ‘shit’ in English. Although there has been a history of composting toilets depicted for ancient China, there is no evidence of such practices. According to a report from a hygienic committee in Shantung China, there were only three techniques for human waste management recorded in China. There was a method of drying (nitrogen depleting), applying it raw to crops and feeding it to pigs, the latter two have shown to be unsanitary. The oldest type of composting toilets were the Vietnam Double Vault, installed in rural Vietnam in the 1950’s to improve rural hygiene.
Human feces have the potential to cause disease-causing microorganisms (pathogens), the likelihood of which is directly related to the health of the humans the feces derive from. The pathogens need a host, or similar conditions to the host (such as temperature) to thrive. Therefore, to eliminate the risk of an outbreak, the waste must reach temperatures well above a normal internal human temperature or for a length of time beyond the lifespan of the pathogens. Thermophilic composting has the greatest certainty of eliminating the pathogens. I was curious about how diseases can proliferate, and read about the Disease Triangle. The Disease Triangle describes the three conditions necessary for a disease to spread. The pathogen is one of the players, and they need a host to replicate in the right environment. When these three factors combine, the pathogen can thrive.
So, a bit of research has confirmed for me that there is no reason to fear using our waste for compost. If we follow the guidelines for the needed duration of time and temperature to allow any potential pathogens to subside, we find ourselves rich with healthy and useable soil. The phobia is indicative of our disconnection with the natural processes we are participating in, whether we choose to embrace or not. Let’s choose embrace!
At the end of my first week at Sarvodaya Farms, I think what is most striking about my shift in myself is my heightened awareness of waste. It’s a shift in perceptual awareness, and it is uncomfortable – but necessary. At Sarvodaya Farms, almost nothing is wasted. Everything has a purpose, a way to give back to the earth and the cycle of food production and consumption. Because people are encouraged to bring reusable water bottles and dishes are provided, there are no trash bins filled with disposable cups, forks, or food containers. People bring their plastic containers that held tomatoes or small cucumbers from the store to house microgreens and berries on the farm. Used egg cartons are reused for new eggs. Unlike the other CSAs I’ve been a part of, produce is stored in reusable plastic bins. To keep the produce fresh, moist beach towels shade them from the summer sun, rather than paper towels. Vegetable waste is composted. Everything feeds back into life.
I am finding a deep sense of peace in this when I am at the farm. It appeals to my minimalism, my earth-centric spirituality. There is a beauty to it: the plywood bins of green waste, the neat stacks of plastic bins and egg cartons, the little lessons about how to use parts of vegetables I hadn’t known were good for anything. It feels good not to waste. It feels respectful toward all the lives that are involved in the process of my living another day. It also appeals to my sense of efficiency.
Now, I think what is striking to me is that I already knew this. I’ve taught sustainability classes, and yet it was extremely difficult for me to shift my everyday lived perceptions and actions. In one week at Sarvodaya Farms, this is rapidly changing for me. I am spending time in an environment in which waste is planned for such that it is no longer waste – but rather an input. If it can’t be an input, it is creatively worked around such that it doesn’t need to exist at all. There is no substitute, at least for me, in the process of being in such a place, seeing it work, helping it work.
It is causing me to rethink waste in my household – not from a theoretical or intellectual space, but directly as the waste occurs, because I notice it, and it makes me uncomfortable. When I would have thrown out the decaying celery, I find that with some processing, half of it can be salvaged. The other half bothers me as I throw it away. I need to figure out a way to compost at my house in a very space-efficient manner. When I look at take-out containers from a restaurant, I realize that this could be circumvented if I simply brought my own glass food storage with me. We already have a large system of reusable spill-proof glass containers. Why don’t I take one or two with me when we dine out for the inevitable leftovers? I realize that the yard waste filling my bin each week – most of it leaves from my large, historic live oak – would be great high-carbon material for compost. And what’s amazing me is that, though it all adds up to a substantial shift toward zero waste, it’s not hard or time-consuming. It just requires an extra minute or two and some creativity.
Waste doesn’t need to be waste. Waste could be thought of as an opportunity: either the item is an input, and we haven’t recognized it, or the item isn’t necessary. All I know is that at my house, one major summer project will be starting compost. I can’t bear to throw out any more inedible vegetable bits. They’re practically screaming at me to have a second life in the soil, in the land. It’s up to me to honor this shift in my ability to hear that call.