The Tao Of Compost

Organic material should be recycled by every person on the planet, and recycling should be as normal as brushing teeth or bathing. Organic materials can be collected by municipalities and composted at central composting facilities. This is now done in many parts of the world where food discards are composted for urban communities. Toilet materials are not yet being collected and centrally composted in very many places, although such collection will undoubtedly increase as time passes.

We can compost our own organic material in our own personal compost bins in our own backyards. This is already becoming commonplace and compost bins are now popping up in backyards everywhere like mushrooms after a rain. Composting need not cost money and it can be practiced by anyone in the world at probably any location where plants can grow. Therefore, it is important that we learn to understand what compost is and how it can be made.

It is also important that we understand how to compost our toilet materials in a safe and simple manner. A low-cost composting toilet system can be very useful as a back-up toilet in an emergency situation when electrical or water services are disrupted, or when the water supply is diminished as during a drought, when flushing drinking water down toilets becomes especially ridiculous. It can also be very useful in any area where water or electricity is scarce or non-exis tent, as well as in developing countries where there may be many people with little or no money to buy commercial composting toilets. Finally, a simple, low-cost composting toilet system is attractive to anyone seeking a low-impact lifestyle, and who is willing to make the minimal effort to compost their organic residues. This chapter details how to compost toilet materials by using a simple, easy, low or no-cost method called a sawdust toilet.

The organic materials our bodies excrete can be composted much the same as any apple core or potato peel — by being added to a compost pile. There are essentially two ways to do this. The first is to construct or purchase a toilet which deposits directly into a composting chamber. This is discussed and illustrated in Chapter 6. Such toilets must be properly managed if thermophilic conditions are desired; most commercial composting toilets do not achieve such conditions, and are not meant to.

The second, less expensive and simpler method is to use one's toilet as a collection device, much the same as any compost bucket, and then compost the contents in a separate compost pile. This simple technique can be done without unpleasant odors, and the toilet can be quite comfortably situated inside one's home. Moving toilet material to a compost bin, however, is an activity that many individuals have no interest in doing, not because it is a burdensome task — for a family of four it should involve a twenty minute trip to a compost bin about every week — but because it's shit, for God's sake.

The problem is not practical, it is psychological. Many people may consider the idea of composting their own excrement to be beneath them. In India, such a task was relegated to the "untouchables," the lowest caste of society. The act of carrying a container of one's own excrement to a recycling bin is an act of humility, and humility is sometimes in short supply. Eventually, toilets in general will be redesigned as collection devices and their contents will be collected and composted as a service by municipal workers. Until then, however, those of us who want to make compost rather than sewage must do it by our own humble selves.


Try to imagine yourself in an extremely primitive setting, perhaps sometime around 10,000 B.C. Imagine that you're slightly more enlightened than your brutish companions and it dawns on you one day that your feces should be disposed of in a different manner.

Everyone else is defecating in the back of the cave, creating a smelly, fly-infested mess, and you don't like it.

Your first revelation is that smelly refuse should be deposited in one place, not spread around for everyone to step in, and it should be deposited away from one's living area. You watch the wild cats and see that they each go to a special spot to defecate. But the cats are still one step ahead of the humans, as you soon find out, because they cover their excrement.

When you've shat outside the cave on the ground in the same place several times, you see that you've still created a foul-smelling, fly-infested mess. Your second revelation is that the refuse you're depositing on the ground should be covered after each deposit. So you scrape up some leaves every time you defecate and throw them over the feces. Or you pull some tall grass out of the ground and use it for cover.

Soon your companions are also defecating in the same spot and covering their fecal material as well. They were encouraged to follow your example when they noticed that you had conveniently located the defecation spot between two large rocks, and positioned logs across the rocks to provide a convenient perch, allowing for carefree defecation.

A pile of dead leaves is now being kept beside the toilet area in order to make the job of covering it more convenient. As a result, the offensive odors of human feces and urine no longer foul the air. Instead, it's food scraps that are generating odors and attracting flies. This is when you have your third revelation: food scraps should be deposited on the same spot and covered as well. Every stinky bit of refuse you create is now going to the same place and is being covered with a natural material to eliminate odor. This hasn't been hard to figure out, it makes good sense, and it's easy to do.

You've succeeded in solving three problems at once: no more human waste scattered around your living area, no more food garbage and no more offensive odors assaulting your keen sense of smell and generally ruining your day. Eventually, you also begin to realize that the illnesses that were prone to spread through the group have subsided, a fact that you don't understand, but you suspect may be due to the group's new found hygienic practices.

Quite by accident, you've succeeded in doing one very revolutionary thing: you've created a compost pile. You begin to wonder what's going on when the pile gets so hot it's letting off steam. What you don't know is that you've done exactly what nature intended you to do by piling all your organic refuse together, layered with natural, biodegradable cover materials. In fact, nature has "seeded" your excrement with microscopic creatures that proliferate in and digest the pile you've created. In the process, they heat the compost to such an extent that disease-causing pathogens resident in the humanure are destroyed. The microscopic creatures would not multiply rapidly in the discarded refuse unless you created the pile, and thereby the conditions which favor their proliferation.

Finally, you have one more revelation, a big one. You see that the pile, after it gets old, sprouts all kind of vibrant plant growth. You put two and two together and realize that the stinking refuse you carefully disposed of has been transformed into rich earth and ultimately into food. Thanks to you, humankind has just climbed another step up the ladder of evolution.

There is one basic problem with this scenario: it didn't take place 12,000 years ago — it's taking place now. Compost microorganisms are apparently very patient. Not much has changed since 10,000 B.C. in their eyes. The invisible creatures that convert humanure into humus don't care what composting techniques are used today anymore than they cared what techniques may have been used eons ago, so long as their needs are met. And those needs haven't changed in human memory, nor are they likely to change as long as humans roam the earth. Those needs include: 1) temperature (compost microorganisms won't work if frozen); 2) moisture (they won't work if too dry or too wet); 3) oxygen (they won't work without it); and 4) a balanced diet (otherwise known as balanced carbon/nitrogen). In this sense, compost microorganisms are a lot like people. With a little imagination, we can see them as a working army of microscopic people who need the right food, water, air and warmth.

The art of composting, then, remains the simple and yet profound art of providing for the needs of invisible workers so they work as vigorously as possible, season after season. And although those needs may be the same worldwide, the techniques used to arrive at them may differ from eon to eon and from place to place.

Composting differs from place to place because it is a bioregional phenomenon. There are thousands of geographic areas on the Earth each with their own unique human population, climatic conditions and available organic materials, and there will be potentially thousands of individual composting methods, techniques and styles. What works in one place on the planet for one group of people may not work for another group in another geographic location. For exam ple, we have lots of hardwood sawdust in Pennsylvania, but no rice hulls. Compost should be made in order to eliminate local waste and pollution as well as to recover resources, and a compost maker will strive to utilize in a wise and efficient manner whatever local organic resources are available.

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