The Human Nutrient Cycle

The Human Nutrient Cycle is an endless natural cycle. In order to keep the cycle intact, food for humans must be grown on soil that is enriched by the continuous addition of organic materials recycled by humans, such as humanure, food scraps and agricultural residues. By respecting this cycle of nature, humans can maintain the fertility of their agricultural soils indefinitely, instead of depleting them of nutrients, as is common today.

Food-producing soils must be left more fertile after each harvest due to the ever-increasing human population and the need to produce more food with each passing year.

instead discarded as waste, the natural human nutrient cycle is broken, creating problems such as pollution, loss of soil fertility and abuse of our water resources.

We in the United States each waste about a thousand pounds of humanure every year, which is discarded into sewers and septic systems throughout the land. Much of the discarded humanure finds its final resting place in a landfill, along with the other solid waste we Americans discard, which, coincidentally, also amounts to about a thousand pounds per person per year. For a population of 290 million people, that adds up to nearly 290 million tons of solid waste personally discarded by us every year, at least half of which would be valuable as an agricultural resource.

The practice we humans have frequently employed for waste disposal has been quite primitive — we dump our garbage into holes in the ground, then bury it. That's now called a landfill, and for many years they were that simple. Today's new "sanitary" landfills are lined with waterproof, synthetic materials to prevent the leaching of garbage juice into groundwater supplies. Yet, only about a third of the active dumps in the U.S. have these liners.1 Interestingly, the lined landfills bear an uncanny resemblance to gigantic disposable diapers. They're gargantuan plastic-lined receptacles where we lay our crap to rest, the layers being carefully folded over and the end products of our wasteful lifestyles buried as if they were in garbage mausoleums intended to preserve our sludge and kitchen trash for posterity. We conveniently flush our toilets, and the resultant sewage sludge is transported to these landfills, tucked into these huge disposable diapers and buried.

This is not to suggest that sewage should be used to produce food crops. Sewage consists of humanure collected with hazardous materials such as industrial, medical and chemical wastes, all carried in a common waterborne waste stream. Or in the words of Gary Gardner (State of the World 1998), "Tens of thousands of toxic substances and chemical compounds used in industrial economies, including PCBs, pesticides, dioxins, heavy metals, asbestos, petroleum products, and industrial solvents, are potentially part of sewage flows." Not to mention pathogenic organisms. When raw sewage was used agriculturally in Berlin in 1949, for example, it was blamed for the spread of worm-related diseases. In the 1980s, it was said to be the cause of typhoid fever in Santiago, and in 1970 and 1991 it was blamed for cholera outbreaks in Jerusalem and South America, respectively.2

Humanure, on the other hand, when kept out of the sewers, collected as a resource material, and properly composted, makes a suitable agricultural resource for food crops. When we combine our manure with other organic materials such as food and farming byproducts, we can achieve a blend that is irresistible to certain beneficial microorganisms.

The U.S. EPA estimates that nearly 22 million tons of food waste are produced in American cities every year. Throughout the United States, food losses at the retail, consumer and food services levels are estimated to have been 48 million tons in 1995.3 That would make great organic material for composting with humanure. Instead, only a small percentage of our discarded food is being composted in the U.S.; the remaining is incinerated or buried in landfills.4

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group made up primarily of western industrial countries, estimates that 36% of the waste in their member states is organic food and garden materials. If paper is also considered, the organic share of the waste stream is boosted to nearly an incredible two thirds! In developing countries, organic material typically makes up one half to two thirds of the waste stream.5 According to the EPA, almost 80% of the net discarded solid waste in the U.S. is composed of organic material.

It is becoming more and more obvious that it is unwise to rely on landfills to dispose of recyclable materials. Landfills overflow and new ones need to be built to replace them. In fact, we may be lucky that landfills are closing so rapidly — they are notorious polluters of water, soil, and air. Of the ten thousand landfills that have closed since 1982, 20% are now listed as hazardously contaminated Superfund sites. A 1996 report from the state of Florida revealed that groundwater contamination plumes from older, unlined landfills can be longer than 3.4 miles, and that 523 public water supplies in Florida are located within one mile of these closed landfills, while 2,700 lie within three miles.6 No doubt similar situations exist throughout the United States.

Organic material disposed of in landfills also creates large quantities of methane, a major global-warming gas. U.S. landfills are "among the single greatest contributors of global methane emissions," according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to the EPA, methane is 20 to 30 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse (global warming) gas on a molecule to molecule basis.7

Tipping fees (the fee one pays to dump waste) at landfills in every region of the U.S. have been increasing at more than twice the

Source: Fahm, Lattee A., (1980), The Waste of Nations; pp. 33 and 38; Allanheld, Osmun and Co. Publishers, Inc., Montclair, NJ USA.

rate of inflation since 1986. In fact, since then, they have increased 300% and are expected to continue rising at this rate.8

In developing countries, the landfill picture is also bleak. In Brazil, for example, 99% of the solid waste is dumped into landfills and three fourths of the 90,000 tons per day ends up in open dumps.9 Slowly we're catching on to the fact that this throw-away trend has to be turned around. We can't continue to throw "away" usable resources in a wasteful fashion by burying them in disappearing, polluting, increasingly expensive landfills.

If we had scraped up all the human excrement in the world and piled it on the world's tillable land in 1950, we'd have applied nearly 200 metric tons per square mile at that time (roughly 690 pounds per acre). In the year 2000, we would have been collecting more than double that amount because the global population is increasing, but the global land mass isn't. In fact, the global area of agricultural land is steadily decreasing as the world loses, for farming and grazing, an area the size of Kansas each year.10 The world's burgeoning human population is producing a ballooning amount of organic refuse which will eventually have to be dealt with responsibly and constructively. It's not too soon to begin to understand human organic refuse as valuable resources begging to be recycled.

In 1950, the dollar value of the agricultural nutrients in the world's gargantuan pile of humanure was 6.93 billion dollars. In 2000, it would have been worth 18.67 billion dollars calculated in 1975 prices.11 This is money currently being flushed out somewhere into the environment where it shows up as pollution and landfill material. Every pipeline has an outlet somewhere; everything thrown "away" just moves from one place to another. Humanure and other organic refuse materials are no exception. Not only are we flushing "money" away, we're paying to do so. The cost is not only economic, it's environmental.


The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in their drinking water supplies and those who don't. We in the western world are in the former class. We defecate into water, usually purified drinking water. After polluting the water with our excrements, we flush the polluted water "away," meaning we probably don't know where it goes, nor do we care.

Every time we flush a toilet, we launch five or six gallons of polluted water out into the world.12 That would be like defecating into


about water

  • If all the world's drinking water were put in one cubical tank, the tank would measure only 95 miles on each side.
  • People currently lacking access to clean drinking water: 1.2 billion.
  • of world's households that must fetch water outside their homes: 67
  • increase in the world's population by mid 21st century: 100
  • increase in the world's drinking water supplies by mid 21st century: 0
  • Amount of water Americans use every day: 340 billion gallons.
  • Number of gallons of water needed to produce a car: 100,000
  • Number of cars produced every year: 50 million.
  • Amount of water annually required by a nuclear reactor: 1.9 cubic miles.
  • Amount of water used by nuclear reactors every year: the equivalent of one and a third Lake Eries.

Sources: Der Spiegel, May 25, 1992; and Annals of Earth, Vol. 8, Number 2, 1990; Ocean Arks International, One Locust Street, Falmouth, MA 02540.



  • In the mid 1980s, the 2,207 publicly owned coastal sewage treatment works were discharging 3.619 trillion gallons per year of treated wastewater into the coastal environment.14
  • In 1997, pollution caused at least 4,153 beach closings and advisories, 69% of which were caused by elevated bacterial pollution in the water.15
  • In 2001, of the 2,445 beaches surveyed by the EPA, 672 were affected by advisories or closings, most often due to elevated bacteria levels.
  • In 2003, there were more than 18,000 days of pollution-related closings and advisories at U.S. beaches according to NRDC's annual report on beachwa-ter quality. 88% of the closings and advisories stemmed from the presence of bacteria associated with fecal contamination.
  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the primary cause reported for beach closings is the overflow of combined storm-water and sewage systems with insufficient capacity to retain heavy rains for processing through sewage treatment plants.
  • In 2002, New York State sued Yonkers over sewage discharges, alleging that thousands of gallons per day of untreated sewage were discharged into the Bronx River from at least four pipes owned and operated by the city. Laboratory results showed that the pollution contained the bacteria fecal col-iform, an indicator of raw sewage, in concentrations as high as 250 times more than allowed by New York State water quality standards.
  • In 2002, a federal judge found Los Angeles liable for 297 sewage spills. From 1993 to January, 2002, the city reported 3,000 sewage spills. Los Angeles has about 6,500 miles of sewers. The spills end up in waterways, are carried into the ocean and pollute beaches.16
  • United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) studies show that over 800 million people in coastal South Asia have no basic sanitation services, putting them at high risk from sewage-related diseases and death.
  • In 2000, 55% of U.S. lakes, rivers and estuaries were not clean enough for fishing or swimming according to EPA testimony before Congress in 2002. In 1995, 40% were too polluted to allow fishing, swimming or other aquatic uses at any time of the year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
  • In January of 2005 it was reported that twenty-two percent of U.S. coastal waters were unsuitable for fishing, based on EPA guidelines for moderate consumption of recreationally-caught fish.

a five gallon office water jug and then dumping it out before anyone could drink any of it. Then doing the same thing when urinating. Then doing it every day, numerous times. Then multiplying that by about 290 million people in the United States alone.

Even after the contaminated water is treated in wastewater treatment plants, it may still be polluted with excessive levels of nitrates, chlorine, pharmaceutical drugs, industrial chemicals, detergents and other pollutants. This "treated" water is discharged directly into the environment.

It is estimated that by 2010, at least half of the people in the U.S. will live in coastal cities and towns, further exacerbating water pollution problems caused by sewage. The degree of beach pollution becomes a bit more personal when one realizes that current EPA recreational water cleanliness standards still allow 19 illnesses per 1,000 saltwater swimmers, and 8 per 1,000 freshwater swimmers.13 Some of the diseases associated with swimming in wastewater-con-taminated recreational waters include typhoid fever, salmonellosis, shigellosis, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, pneumonia, and skin infec-


If you don't want to get sick from the water you swim in, don't submerge your head. Otherwise, you may end up like the swimmers in Santa Monica Bay. People who swam in the ocean there within 400 yards (four football fields) of a storm sewer drain had a 66% greater chance of developing a "significant respiratory disease" within the following 9 to 14 days after swimming.18

This should come as no surprise when one takes into consideration the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The use of antibiotics is so widespread that many people are now breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria in their intestinal systems. These bacteria are excreted into toilets and make their way to wastewater treatment plants where the antibiotic resistance can be transferred to other bacteria. Wastewater plants can then become breeding grounds for resistant bacteria, which are discharged into the environment through effluent drains. Why not just chlorinate the water before discharging it? It usually is chlorinated beforehand, but research has shown that chlorine seems to increase bacterial resistance to some antibiotics.19

Not worried about antibiotic-resistant bacteria in your swimming area? Here's something else to chew on: 50 to 90% of the pharmaceutical drugs people ingest can be excreted down the toilet and out into the waterways in their original or biologically active forms. Furthermore, drugs that have been partially degraded before excre tion can be converted to their original active form by environmental chemical reactions. Pharmaceutical drugs such as chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, antiseptics, beta-blocker heart drugs, hormones, analgesics, cholesterol-lowering drugs and drugs for regulating blood lipids have turned up in such places as tap water, groundwater beneath sewage treatment plants, lake water, rivers and in drinking water aquifers. Think about that the next time you fill your glass with water.20

Long Island Sound receives over a billion gallons of treated sewage every day — the waste of eight million people. So much nitrogen was being discharged into the Sound from the treated wastewater that it caused the aquatic oxygen to disappear, rendering the marine environment unsuitable for the fish that normally live there. The twelve treatment plants that were to be completed along the Sound by 1996 were expected to remove 5,000 pounds of nitrogen daily. Nitrogen is normally a soil nutrient and agricultural resource, but instead, when flushed, it becomes a dangerous water pollutant.21 On December 31, 1991, the disposal of U.S. sewage sludge into the ocean was banned. Before that, much of the sewage sludge along coastal cities in the United States had simply been dumped out to sea.

The discharging of sludge, sewage, or wastewater into nature's waterways invariably creates pollution. The impacts of polluted water are far-ranging, causing the deaths of 25 million people each year, three-fifths of them children.22 Half of all people in developing countries suffer from diseases associated with poor water supply and sanitation.23 Diarrhea, a disease associated with polluted water, kills six million children each year in developing countries, and it contributes to the deaths of up to 18 million people.24 At the beginning of the 21st century, one out of four people in developing countries still lacked clean water, and two out of three lacked adequate sanitation.25

Proper sanitation is defined by the World Health Organization as any excreta disposal facility that interrupts the transmission of fecal contaminants to humans.26 This definition should be expanded to include excreta recycling facilities. Compost toilet systems are now becoming internationally recognized as constituting "proper sanitation," and are becoming more and more attractive throughout the world due to their relatively low cost when compared to waterborne waste systems and centralized sewers. In fact, compost toilet systems yield a dividend — humus, which allows such a sanitation system to yield a net profit, rather than being a constant finan cial drain (no pun intended). The obsession with flush toilets throughout the world is causing the problems of international sanitation to remain unresolved. Many parts of the world cannot afford expensive and water consumptive waste disposal systems.

We're also depleting our water supplies, and flushing toilets is one way it's being wasted. Of 143 countries ranked for per capita water usage by the World Resources Institute, America came in at #2 using 188 gallons per person per day (Bahrain was #1).27 Water use in the U.S. increased by a factor of 10 between 1900 and 1990, increasing from 40 billion gallons per day to 409 billion gallons per day.28 The amount of water we Americans require overall, used in the finished products each of us consumes, plus washing and drinking water, amounts to a staggering 1,565 gallons per person per day, which is three times the rate of Germany or France.29 This amount of water is equivalent to flushing our toilets 313 times every day, about once every minute and a half for eight hours straight. By some estimates, it takes one to two thousand tons of water to flush one ton of human waste.30 Not surprisingly, the use of groundwater in the United States exceeds replacement rates by 21 billion gallons a day.31

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