« Piston-powered aircraft from the 1950s were as fuel-efficient as the current average jet | Main | The velomobile: high-tech bike or low-tech car? »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Mat Redsell


Not a problem here at my place in port burwell ontario, see continuo.com as I have been composting our humanure for over three years now. Ofcourse if the municipality found out I would probably end up in jail! -mat



I remember my grandfather, who was an auto mechanic, telling about problems he had when they collected the "night soil" from his place. He would sometimes be given a leaky drum so he would replace it with one of his spare water tight drums he had around his garage. The men collecting the drums worked out what was happening so they started giving him the worst leaky drums. So one day he used clay to seal the bottom of the drum. When they tried to collect it they could hardly pick it up and asked my grandfather, "What have you been eating, batteries?" That was the last time he was given a leaky drum.



Using fungal (stamets Mycelium Running) and bacterial ("living machine") remediation of sewage for return as agricultural inputs is fine, but what about heavy metal accumulation? Even without local industrial inputs, airborne pollution would cause lead, mercury, etc. to accumulate in any feedback loop. I've yet to see a low tech remediation strategy for heavy metals, although it would be great to have one.



Great illustrations and chronicling of history! Most of the nutrients are in the liquid component alone. See Liquid Gold: The Lore & Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants: http://www.liquidgoldbook.com

Nick Palmer


Truly inspiring. One thing - I thought a problem with reusing human manure/urine was heavy metals, hormones and pharmaceuticals build up?

Kris De Decker


Nick & EdgeWiseInAnnArbor: the high-tech composting process described in the article destroys all harmful substances. Granted, it's not low-tech, but my idea of low-tech does not exclude the use of sophisticated technology. Obsolete technologies and approaches can be very inspiring, but in many cases they get even more interesting if you combine them with carefully chosen present-day materials or techniques.

Anna: I think it's kind of funny that the humanure advocates seem to be divided in "poo-people" and "pee-people". I think both pee and poo should be recycled. The liquid part may contain more nutrients than the solid part, but if you only recycle the liquid part the detrimental effects on the environment of discharging the solid part will remain.

Kris De Decker


--- Posting Comments ---

Please refresh the page before writing and posting a comment. My blog software blocks comments when the page has been active for more than an hour.



The low tech method of composing in the Humanure Handbook can be used on food crops, as the author demonstrates in his own garden. The method he users also creates temperatures up to 160*F. Where can I get information on this "high tech" industrial composting system?



See also "Holy Shit", Gene Logsdon's latest.

(I'm not the author or a shill for the publisher, I've just noticed that he came out with a book length treatise on this very subject.)

Mike in Buffalo


Truly great article about the insanity of our modern sewage and industrial agricultural fertilizer systems. However, for a post on low tech magazine, you took a nice swipe at one of the best low tech solutions to a problem I have come across by describing the diy humanure composting method of Joe Jenkins as slow and potentially unsafe if the compost is used where it will come in direct contact with the food.

According to the humanure handbook, which you cite in the article, composted humanure IS safe to use in direct contact with food. The author of the humanure handbook has been doing so for nearly 30 years with no ill health effects, using his family compost to grow vegetables. He has also had the compost tested a couple of times for diseases, worms, etc which came up clean.

Recyle pee and poo!

Kris De Decker


@ Mike in Buffalo & Alex: The main reason why I have expressed some reservations about Jenkins' composting method is that some people have criticized it, saying it could be unsafe to use it in direct contact with food. Since I do not have the knowledge or the experience to judge this myself, I am just trying to be careful here. I might be wrong on this, and, actually, I hope so.

Nevertheless, I am not sure if Jenkins' method would still be appropriate if you collect the humanure of a whole city and compost it all together on a large pile. It seems like a small-scale application to me.

Alex: I will try to post more information on Orgaworld's high-tech composting method, for the moment I only have information in Dutch.

@ jk: thanks for the tip, looks like a great source, too bad I missed it...

Kris De Decker


Holy Shit!

"We are so ashamed of our excrement and that of all the other animals on earth that we pretend the stuff doesn’t exist."




Dung is biomass energy. It can be easily converted into fule like gas or alcohol. Also, it is much cheaper compared to other alternative energy sources. the production of biomass often means the restoration of waste land, such as deforested regions. However, you have to be concerned that it can contribute to pollution as well.

Uncle B


Humanure the last great free resource flow in America - San Antonio Texas does good with this! Bio-gassing then retrieving the sludge for topsoil and fertilizer works out, and yields consumer gas good enough to run cars on!
As the Peak Oil problems build, and the 200 million empty gas tanks in China produced this year alone are filled, and gasoline prices soar, Americans will overcome any discomforts they may have had about using sewage for good purposes economic realities will prevail.
A new sort of poverty brought to the West by burgeoning growth in Asian countries will sharpen our abilities to operate economically and shrewdly. In order to keep our very heads above the new Asian water levels we will have to make huge changes in our American Dream! Expect recycled humanure to be one of them, as well as huge Nuclear expansions, and shrinking of the McMansions to reasonable sustainable sizes - The big cars are already gone - a harbinger of what is to come! In the twinkling of and economic eye, the great fat-assed American will be declared out of style and a svelte, in shape, new American will become de rigure! Humanuring will be common-place and accepted by all as necessary for economic survival.
Today, as we speak, China feeds sewage to warm, shallow lakes, grows algae and Carp in them then feeds Carp pellets to game fish they sell to us at high prices! Humanure is just part of a food cycle.
When the American fiat dollar crashes, we will all repent but the haughty ruling class will die off! The reminents of America, much like the reminents of the former U.S.S.R. will be a sturdy survival orientated working class - the armpits of the nation, not the spoiled elite - they will hold huge amounts of stolen but now worthless fiat paper - this is why gold is booming - but to no avail - you cannot eat gold! you can so eat from a humanured garden, and compost will still have value, the same value it had before the crash, it will produce food.

William Bendsen


No, no, no. Collecting human and farm sewage and recycling it is not as easy as you describe, and I suspect you know this.
The massive amount of antibiotics used in farms, and the much smaller but much more diverse amount of medications used by humans, means that the shit and piss we collect is full of antibiotics and hormones. If used on soil, there's a risk of killing the microbial soil life and a certainty of having chemically polluted farm produce, if used in water it plays hell with marine wildlife.

It either has to be disposed of*, or be used in closed systems.

The only sensible option I've heard of is to fertilize forests for firewood.

*Dumping it in the waterways is not disposal - I'm talking biological breakdown into N2, H2O and CO2

Jörgen Fidjeland


The conditions in soil are perfect for the breakdown of hormones and pharmaceuticals. In soil are water and air available, and a rich bacterial diversity take care of the biological conversion into harmless substances. In the western world these substances typically are discharged to water bodies where they may end up in drinking water. In water the breakdown of these substances go very slow, because of less air, and less density of microbiological activity.



Did I miss something? The manure from animals could make up for the shortfall in human manure fertilizer? What about the fertilizer used in growing the grains which are fed to the animals? Can the animal manure make up for the inorganic fertilizer now being used to grow these grains? I read an interesting book titled "Just Enough" which describes life in Tokugawa Era Japan. Although horses and water buffaloes existed, the vast majority of labor in the countryside and the cities was performed by humans, because animals ate too much. The book waxes poetic about how "in-tune" the Tokugawa Era Japanese lived with their environment, contrasting this with the deforestation and frequent famines of previous eras. Of course, only 28 million Japanese lived during the Tokugawa Era! Today, there are 127 million. Oh well, at least that population is trending downward again. I think composting humanure is a great idea, but my wife would divorce me if I tried it.



Oyser mushrooms for organic waste


Use hemp for the heavy metals, burn as fuel, use ash as fertiliser.

Allison Jack


Check out a new short film on an NGO composting humanure in Haiti: http://www.holycrapthefilm.com/thefilm/



Health threats related to traditional pigsty-privies are more complex than covered here and so merit further discussion:

Nemeth, David J. 1989. A study of the interactions of human, pig, and the human pork tapeworm. Anthrozoös 3(1): 4-13.



When I was stationed in Korea I noticed that wherever you went one was aways welcome to use the facilities. Like, using someone else's bathroom just wasn't a big deal. I've always wondered why that was, now I know.



One of the biggest problems with affordable houseing is sewage.
I would like to produce bio gas for cooking and possibly powering a vehicle. I can only imagine the hassles if authorities figure out that you dont have a wasteful septic system.



Ok, ignorance is not bliss. Antibiotics, and most toxic waste IS locked up during the composting process. Heavy metals are not a problem until you import them in the first place. What no one wants to face is everything we do needs to change. We all need to be responsible for waste reuse and food growing. It is our modern life style that has almost depleted the earth in just a couple centuries of selfish "progress". I would even argue that almost none of what modern life provides is truly needed, or profitable. Our hollow stick box houses require huge amounts of energy just to make them livable; when cool tubes and many ancient ideas provide free heat and cooling. If you must take an advanced approach then it must work in real time using energy that comes from the sun; unlike oil which is plant energy buried in the flood. Cities dont have the right to eat unless their waste is returned to the ground that their food comes from. Anything else means depleting limited resources and killing everyone all for a life style that will never fulfill the deepest needs of humanity.

You know its funny how everyone will kill to get a house, clothes, amusement so they dont have to think about their life, fancy teckie toys and a car to go to work and be amused. In the end they want to retire some day to do what they want when they want without work. However, most of them only get cancer or old and die never having really lived. Yet, primitive cultures like ladakh have their nice large homes and clothes for free, work a few hours over 3 months and do what they want the rest of the year; never hurried. Even the amish have it far better than a person making a good wage. They have everything for free that the rest of us spend 20 to 50 years trying to pay off. There is a real big problem in our minds to believe all this that we know of as the good modern life is worth a humanure!

Philippe Chemin


Dear Kris De Decker,

Thank you very much for this article and all what you produce on your Web Site. That's really great!

I would like to communicate you an article titled "Peak Soil", you probably know, by Alice Friedmann [see http://www.rachel.org/?q=en/node/188/print]. It has been published in 2007 by Rachel's Democracy and Health News [see http://www.rachel.org/].

Another article can also be of interest: "Eating Fossil Fuels" by Dale Allen Pfeiffer [see http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/100303_eating_oil.html], published in 2004.

Congratulations, again.

Best regards,

Philippe Chemin
Gif sur Yvette

chad mcdonald


Wasn't this trialled in Sydney, Australia. Industrial composting of waste. It may have been by Australian Native Landscapes in conjunction with thhe state goverment. Anyway it fell over, does anyone know why.

CW Hayford


You might want to see my 2007 post at Frog in a Well, "Pigs, Shit, and Chinese History." http://www.froginawell.net/china/2007/01/pigs-shit-and-chinese-history-or-happy-year-of-the-pig/

I argue that, among other things, Chinese farmers were more interested in pigs for their manure than for their meat, with interesting consequences.

Yann kervennic


I am confused by the end paragraph. How can suburbia, the child of cheap oil, be sustained in the future. It is allready on the verge of explosion in many countries...
I recycle my pee in my garden and i get fabuous potato yield. I just pee in a jerrycan... I think the hippie toilet is my next step and I plan to use it for trees and not for vegetables.

I think it makes no sense to make a complicated connected system when such a simple dr toilette works.

We need to go back to the country side.
Any way there is no more job in town for us, apart from dealing drug or working in banks (which is about the same...).



Kris, why did you put a Chinese grain tower in the composting section?

Cat Vann


Thank you for an eye opening article. Our modern world has many broken systems that thoughtful recycling would remedy.
It will take many good minds and methods to restore balance to our planet.
My biggest question is why do we not admit to seeing the elephant in the living room, ie, exponential population growth? It is a very low tech, cost effective solution called birth control.



The description of nutrient loss and reducing artificial fertilisers stocks does make a return to humanure seem inevitable. When the energy implications are considered, the current system seems stark staring bonkers. However, although it is logical to close the loop there are two huge barriers. First are the sunk costs associated with the current system, meaning that it will probably be maintained until we can no longer afford it. And second is that, as a rule, people like to be able to flush their shit away and never think of it again. To actively save it would require a huge shift in mindset.
Finally, usually when I read anything about this subject someone throws in a comment about the dangers of prions. Does anyone know anything about how much of an issue that is?



Also totally agree with previous commenter about population size. Dr Albert Bartlett also refers to this as the elephant in the room in one of his lectures. In my view many looming disasters are either created of exacerbated by the huge human population

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

News & Links

The Chinese Wheelbarrow

  • Chinese wheelbarrow
  • How to downsize a transport network: the Chinese wheelbarrow
    For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history. This is especially true in the East, where it became a universal means of transportation for both passengers and goods, even over long distances.

Human Powered Cranes

  • Human powered crane
  • The sky is the limit: human powered cranes and lifting devices
    From the earliest civilisations right up to the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans used sheer muscle power, organisation skills and ingenious mechanics to lift weights that would be impossible to handle by most power cranes in operation today.

Wood Gas Vehicles

  • Wood gas cars 2
  • Firewood in the Fuel Tank: Wood Gas Vehicles
    Wood gas cars are a not-so-elegant but surprisingly efficient and ecological alternative to their petrol (gasoline) cousins, whilst their range is comparable to that of electric cars.

Hand Tools

  • Hand powered dril</a><br /></li>
							<li class=Hand Powered Drilling Tools and Machines
    Hand-powered devices have been used for millennia, but during the last quarter of the 19th century a radically improved generation of tools appeared, taking advantage of modern mass production machinery and processes (like interchangeable parts) and an increased availability in superior material (metal instead of wood).


Open Modular Hardware

  • Open modular hardware2
  • How to make everything ourselves: open modular hardware
    Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different.

Power from the Tap

  • Water motors
  • Power from the Tap: Water Motors
    Just before the arrival of electricity at the end of the nineteenth century, water motors were widely used in Europe and America. These miniature water turbines were connected to the tap and could power any machine that is now driven by electricity.

Aerial Ropeways

Other Languages

  • Some articles have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch. Find them here.