Humanure for the City Dweller (originally published in MAKE magazine: 18)

How to build a non-code human waste collection system

I am talking about pooping into a bucket. Bucket toilets are commonly used by campers, boaters, and hunters. Unlike pit latrines, they prevent the leaching of raw waste into soil and waterways. Bucket toilets concentrate waste so it can be of use later as ‘humanure’, – a term popularized by Joseph Jenkins of The Humanure Handbook (Google it!). The advantages of bucket toilets are that the materials needed are entirely forgeable – plus its portability allows for traveling or on chance you need to hide it from the squeamish visitor or any visiting official. Bucket toilets are perfect for city dwellers. Just be aware that bucket dumps are not code, nor is the composting of your crap code, you will have to do this on the down low and do it well.

This is all you need: one of those ubiquitous food-grade 5 gallon plastic buckets obtained from the backdoor or dumpster of most restaurants. The second component is a carbon-rich cover material – usually sawdust or some other carbon source such as newspapers, cardboard, dried leaves, straw, or composted stable bedding (call a local stable). Sawdust and dry stable bedding are my favorite carbon sources for use as cover material, as they both absorb moisture well. The sawdust I use comes from a furniture maker who uses hardwoods and whose resulting dust waste doesn’t contain glues or resins. You should be able to find a woodworker who would gladly let you sweep his/her floors for your resource.

If you want to get snazzy, find a snap-on toilet seat for a 5 gallon bucket online or at a camping, hunting, or boating store. I built a box for my bucket so it is better stabilized under the weight of any body and hides the faded and torn ‘corn syrup’ label on my bucket. It is a simple box with a hinged lid with a waxed top. It fits nicely over the bucket and is comfortable to sit on, cleans well, etc. For those who need more of the ‘toilet look’, a toilet seat can always be attached to the lid.

To start your dry toilet, put a few inches of carbon material in the bottom of the bucket to absorb moisture. Use it in a way you would a normal toilet. Each time you make a deposit along with the toilet paper, cover it well with your carbon material. Repeat as necessary until you get a full bucket and add it to the middle of your backyard compost pile (or in the expressly reserved large lidded garbage can subtly tucked in the corner of your back porch) covering it up with more dry carbon material to prevent curious critters from getting to it and protecting it from losing too much moisture. The inherent bacteria of your waste and the carbon and nitrogen combo of your toilet and the compost pile will fire that mixture up to high temps pretty quickly. You’re on your way to making soil from your soil! Rinse your bucket with lightly soapy (biosoluble or biodegradable soap) water and dump into the compost. Begin again. If you don’t have a backyard area or storage area for this collection, you will have to rely on friends and neighbors that do or in the case of a few people I know, hide it in plain public space with signage declaring ownership, such as ‘Nance’s Compost’, as people won’t know what they are looking at with all that wet sawdust anyway.

Inhale deeply; it’s all going to be okay

If your toilet is stinky, attracting flies or harboring fly babies (aka maggots), the toilet is too wet. Use more cover material after each deposit.

If your compost pile is not heating up, your C:N ratio is off. Add more nitrogen in the form of urine, non-atrazine grass clippings, fruit and veggie peelings, etc. Your pile also may be dry; add water and cover lightly with a tarp or some burlap to prevent evaporation.

If your compost is stinky, it needs more oxygen. Incorporate dry material to create air space. Or if in a rainy climate, cover lightly with a tarp this time to repel rain from entering.

Dregs to gold

Believe me, after a few seasons, if you have set things up reasonably well your crap will have become lovely soil. If you remain unsure of your humanure composting skills and it has been a year, use the resulting compost to nourish some trees or flowering plants or simply wait a few more months or a year to allow it to age. If you are really nervous about trusting the thermophilic process to kill the pathogens, test your soil through your state’s land-grant university. The testing is affordable and will bring you a sense of ease, though shows that you are playing into the common mistrust of natural cycles.

Copyright 2008  Nance Klehm