Turn all Waste into Treasure
By Annie Birdsong
October 27, 2005

The Ukrainian village of Gozhuli has 3,600 inhabitants who needed improved sewerage disposal and protection of 448 private wells. The solution: a "double-vault" toilet system. Separation of urine and the feces kills or reduces pathogenic micro-organisms. Natural separation is easily managed using a special toilet, which can be a seat model or squatting slabs, as pictured above.
A family in Portland, Oregon, who cultivate every inch of their yard in fruit trees, vegetables and flowers, have added one foot of rich black compost to their lawn that they made in their compost pile over a 15-year period of time.

Dr. Ole Ersson and his wife Maitri, recently sold that home and moved into a small cottage that is also in Portland, which means they’ll be starting over, building new soil.
“We kind of regret leaving that place,” said Ole Ersson. “The fertility is astounding. It is such healthy soil. It’s rich black earth full of humus. Very fertile. Very friable. You can almost just dig your hand into it, it is so soft.”

They not only compost their vegetable and fruit peelings and leaves, they also compost their humanure, which they collect in what they call a “sawdust toilet.”

“As you know, nature doesn’t have waste. Nature recycle’s everything. Somebody poops in the forest and it decays and creates fertility and new soil. We have perverted that and invented waste; not just waste, but waste on just a humongous scale.”

Every week or so, they add several buckets of feces to their compost pile well covered with sawdust. “In about six months, it smells like fresh earth,” said Dr. Ersson.

Their urine, which is collected separately, is diluted one part to five with water and poured directly on their plants. “If you put it on full strength, it can be a little bit too strong. It’s high in nitrogen and has salt in it too,” he said.

Maintaining Soil Fertility in Ancient China
Humus, pronounced “hue mus,” is a dark, moist, nutrient-rich material formed from decayed plant and animal residues, such as excreta, dead bugs, grass clippings, fallen leaves, dead plants and twigs etc.

Humus helps create living soil by fostering a complex ecosystem teeming with microorganisms and fungi. This inhibits plant diseases by consuming or crowding out plant pathogens.

The microorganisms and fungi in the humus/compost are at work all throughout the growing season to break down organic matter, while enriching the soil with nutrients such as iron, copper, zinc, manganese and boron.

This pleasant, earth smelling material, which you have probably seen on the forest floor under a rotting log, is spongy and porous, and thus helps keep soil loose, full of oxygen and well drained. Soil that is rich in humus does not tend to dry out or erode as easily.

Composting humanure for use in agriculture began in China during the 12th Century or before. The idea spread to Japan, probably when Zen Buddhists traveled to China to study.

Japanese farmers were greatly impressed with the gains in productivity when they used humanure as a fertilizer. They began paying people for their excreta, keeping the urban areas clean and disease free.

The Chinese composted this waste along with animal waste, grass clippings, soil brought into the village and huge amounts of mud from the canals, which was rich in organic matter from the snails and other aquatic biota that lived in the water. Using this organic matter, they were able to maintain the fertility of the soil for 3,000 years in spite of the intense usage of the land due to severe population pressures.

In contrast, the United States has “exhausted strong virgin fields” in three generations, wrote F.H. King, a professor of agricultural physics and chief of the division of soil management with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who visited these countries in the mid 1920s and wrote a classic book called Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan.

This classic Chelsea Green book by Sym Van der Ryn helped inspire a revolution-from-the-bottom-up. Now, the entire city of Dong Sheng in China is building an Ecosan town for 2,600 households. Every unit will have a Swedish urine-diverting toilet. After at least six months, the composted urine will be used as a fertilizer. Dry solids will be collected separately, emptied once or twice a year, and composted with other organic wastes for use as fertilizer. For more information, go to: www.ecosanres.org
Composting and Sanitation
Stockholm Environment Institute says human urine leaves the body sterile, is a well-balanced complete fertilizer resembling very much the commercial fertilizers NPK and that its nutrients are readily available to plants.

The institute is an active member of EcoSanRes, a network of organizations managed by the Swedish Environment Institute that is promoting a variety of less “environmentally abusive” alternatives to sanitation.

“The issue of sanitation is very often neglected, you know. It’s embarrassing to a lot of people,” said Cecelia Ruben, a program development manager with the Stockholm Environment Institute, but added that it must be discussed “for the protection of human health, the environment and ecosystems.”

“At one point, a high level government person realized that this is really an issue to focus on and Sweden, along with a few other governments are taking it seriously: Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Finland and others. You find examples of ecological sanitation in these countries.”

Scientists across the world are calling attention to a staggering array of concerns associated with flush toilets and sewage treatment plants.

The Flush-Toilet Fallout
Scientists at Brunel University in the UK have been researching the impact of artificial estrogens excreted in urine that is discharged into water bodies by treatment plants. “We discovered that not only can you detect these in effluent and river water, but that they are present in high enough concentrations to cause effects on fish,” said John Sumpter, an ecotoxicologist at Brunel University. “Our fish get feminized basically.”

After examining thousands of wild fish in eight rivers, he and his colleagues found that “100 percent of male fish [examined] were feminized in quite a few locations on some rivers.”

The problem is not limited to the UK. “We have very good evidence from across the whole world now that estrogens in effluent is feminizing wild fish,” he said.

Researchers with the US. Geological Survey discovered intersex among male bass in the Potomac River in West Virginia when they were called in to investigate the cause of fish kills and fish with lesions, open sores and places where the skin was missing. In some areas of the South Branch of the Potomac River in West Virginia, they found as many as 80 percent of the male fish were intersex.

“I believe that it’s all tied together because many of these endocrine disrupting hormones also affect disease resistance,” said Vicky Blazer, a pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “The endocrine system and immune system are closely tied. I think it is very possible that the lesions were the first indication that there was some sort of immunosuppression.”

According to the UK environment agency, artificial estrogens in birth control pills are so potent, that fish can be affected by concentrations less than one nanogram per liter, which is “equivalent to finding one person in the population of the world.” The agency also said “male fish with more than moderate changes in their sexual organs are less able to reproduce, with potentially serious implication for fish populations.”

Scientists are trying to determine if there might be a link between estrogens in tap water, the early onset of puberty in girls and a decrease in the sperm counts of males. Sperm counts of males have decreased over the past generation or so, not to the point to where it is causing infertility, but scientists say if that trend continues, we could get to the point where there are some fertility issues.

On the Thames River, in England, where water is used, flushed down toilets and taken up by others downstream seven times, on average, before it reaches the sea, Dr. Jean Ginburg, a fertility specialist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, found that men were less fertile and had poorer-quality sperm than men in other areas.

Many water bodies contain high levels of effluent. According to Sumpter, “There are a lot of locations [in England] where effluent is 50 percent of the flow. And we have some locations where effluent is 90 percent of the flow.”

A Witch’s Brew of Chemicals
Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist with the US Geological Survey in Iowa, has been testing U.S. streams for the presence of estrogens and many other pharmaceuticals, such as heart medications, anti-depressants, headache remedies and antibiotics.
He also tests for chemicals in antibacterial soaps, shampoos, detergents, insecticides and other chemicals dumped into water ways by sewage treatment plants. In their last study, they tested for 150 chemicals and sometimes found as many as 50.

Asked if he would find more substances if he tested for more, Kolpin said, “Without question. Even with the pharmaceuticals, we are just scratching the surface.... there are thousands of compounds out there we could measure, but that would be insurmountable. It is just impossible to measure 10,000 compounds.”

Kolpin said waste water treatment plants were never designed to remove chemical compounds. “That wasn’t part of their objectives,” he said. “They’re basically to remove pathogens and to a certain extent, nutrients.”

He expressed concern about people pouring paint down the drain. “That would tend to overwhelm any wastewater treatment plant,” he said. He and his colleagues are trying to find out if such compounds “are pervasive in our drinking water.”

Sumpter expressed concerned about what mixtures of chemicals do to wildlife. “The simple answer is that nobody knows.... You can show that when a number of chemicals are present in a mixture, the response of the fish is greater than the response to any individual chemicals.”

Futhermore, according to him, there is “quite a bit of information” to suggest that permanent, 24 hour exposure to low concentrations of chemicals is of concern.

Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Deadly
Another serious problem with conventional sewage systems is that they contribute to the formation of dead zones where the water has too little oxygen to support aquatic life. This occurs because the urine they dump into streams over-enriches rivers, causing a profuse growth of algal blooms that deplete water of oxygen when they die and rot.

“Worldwide, there are some 146 dead zones,” wrote Janet Larson with the Earth Policy Institute, adding that the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is “larger than the state of New Jersey.”

Waterways are also being over-enriched by manure from animal farms, fertilizer run off from farms and atmospheric deposition of exhaust from fossil fuels.

The Chesapeake Bay receives nutrient-rich effluent from the toilets, showers, sinks and washing machines of 16 million people -- around 1.5 billion gallons every day from close to 500 sewage treatment plants situated on the 48 major rivers and hundreds of smaller creeks, streams and rivers that empty into the Chesapeake from parts of New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.

This summer, 36 percent of the Chesapeake Bay was anoxic, creating a dead zone 100 miles wide. Crabs scrambed to the beaches just to breath, the bloated bodies of dead fish washed up on the shores and watermen pulled up crab pots full of dead crabs. The algal blooms also prevent the light from penetrating the water, contributing a great decline in seagrasses.

In 1840, John James Audubon described a profusion of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay that provided food for the waterfowl throughout the winter. He wrote that when the air of the bay “turned crip and the leaves fell from the trees, the skies filled with a million to a million and a half ducks.”

But today, as the seagrasses have declined, “many ducks don’t make it through winter,” said Dr. Matthew Perry, a habitat management specialist at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Redhead ducks have declined by 96 percent, and black ducks by 67 percent.

A loss of seagrasses is harming other species as well. For instance, as under-water vegetation declines, young fish, young crabs and molting crabs are over consumed by predators as they lose places to hide. Crabs lose an important source of food: the tiny zooplankton that live on the leaves of seagrasses. Without this food, crabs sometimes “starve or eat each other” and the “underfed female crabs don’t have enough energy to reproduce,” said Dr. Ronald Eisler, a senior research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. A loss of seagrasses also means less oxygen in the water.

Depletion of Rivers
Another problem with conventional sewage systems is the enormous amount of fresh water it takes to flush away wastes -- about 50,000 gallons per year for the average household, according to Dr. Sim Van der Ryn, an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

To keep from stressing aquatic ecosystems with such massive withdrawals of fresh water, the EcoSanRes program not only recommends ecological sanitation with dry collection of solids, but also rainwater harvesting using cisterns and rain barrels to provide water for hygiene and agriculture.

To prevent chemical contamination of waterbodies, EcoSanRes recommends the use of wetlands to treat greywater from showers, washing machines and sinks.

Appropriate technologies as these can help us protect vulnerable aquatic ecosystems, as well as return nutrients we take from the soil so that the land is ever increasing in richness and aesthetic beauty.

An excellent book that is rich in resources on composting humanure is The Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water by Dr. Sim Van der Ryn, a leading authority on sustainable design and an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. The book includes a forward written by Wendell Berry.

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