When I was on Science Friday last week, talking about ways in which colleges are going green, the show got a call from someone named Patrick, who told us his story:
Patrick: I’ve been teaching on the campus at the University of Wyoming, and the university has a composting program for garbage — organic garbage. And I thought I would do them one better after reading Joseph Jenkins’s Humanure Handbook. I have been, since May, composting all of our organic material, including feces and urine. It goes into a pile that is referred to as “thermophilic compost,” and the heat generated from the material reaches 130 to 140 degrees, and after a two-year period should turn into rich humus.
Ira Flatow: And is this a course you teach? Do you get the students involved in this?
Patrick: No, I haven’t presented it yet. I’m going to wait until I am sure that I can get the results that I am hoping for.
Mr. Flatow quickly ushered Patrick off the show after that. Now I wish I’d had the presence of mind (and the guts) to interrupt the host to say, “Right on, Patrick!” His experiments are the sort of thing that good sustainability programs can encourage — and the sort of innovation that we might need in a future where we’ll grapple with both water shortages and nutrient deficiencies in agriculture.
Let me explain: I own a copy of The Humanure Handbook and have long been interested in the practice of safely using human waste for horticultural and agricultural purposes. OK, I’m a odd guy. But if you think that sounds weird, consider the insanity of what we do now: We take perfectly clean water, defecate in it, then use a lot of energy to flush it to a treatment facility, where it is usually inadequately “cleaned up.” Then we dump it into waterways, leading to all sorts of problems. Flushing waste through a toilet is a concept hundreds of years old — plans for them go back to 16th-century England. And we thought we were an advanced civilization.
Patrick described an alternative method, which may be even older: With a composting toilet or some other composting facility, one can mix human waste with high-carbon materials, like straw, to start an aerobic decomposition process. That process generates high heat, which breaks down the poop and simultaneously kills pathogens. The waste is chock full of nutrients that plants can use.
F.H. King, in his Farmers of Forty Centuries, noted that ancient Asian farmers were able to maintain soil fertility in part through their willingness to recycle human waste. The New York Times recently profiled two American women in Haiti who were solving sanitation problems and addressing hunger by teaching people how to compost human waste into fertilizer. In a charming new book with a memorable title that Chronicle style rules won’t let me mention — the subtitle is Managing Manure to Save Mankind — the well-known agricultural writer Gene Logsdon covers the good, the bad, and the smelly in our society’s relationship with, and use for, feces.
Of course, composting poop is not a foolproof process — you don’t always get the results you hope for, as Patrick pointed out. In A Good House: Building a Life on the Land, the environmental journalist Richard Manning spent a chapter discussing the installation of his composting toilet — and the time when the composting process inexplicably failed, prompting him to shovel pounds of wet human feces out of his house. It’s no wonder that we choose to flush the stuff away, he writes:
The alternative is to trust individuals to attend to their own [feces], and remarkably we are not up to the task. The government is right about this. Given the evidence, the bureaucrats are justified in keeping us as dependent as we are on a centralized sewer system, a nation of individuals diapered by a central authority.
Mr. Manning’s composting toilet eventually found its equilibrium and was working fine by the end of the chapter. But what hardship!
And yet, I’ve encountered some colleges that are thinking about this unsavory topic, and finding alternatives. The University of Vermont is one. That campus is renovating a ghastly modern building on its main oval, and the renovation will include a system in a solarium that uses aquatic plants and animals to clean wastewater. (It is pictured above. Such systems are sometimes called “living machines.” The living machine at the Adam Joseph Lewis Center at Oberlin College has been an experiment that led to student learning.)
Work in this area may not be as glamorous as curing cancer or discovering new galaxies, but it may be as important — with wide-ranging impacts on the world around us. If sustainability presents opportunities to address an unmentionable problem, all the better.