Humanure Is No Laughing Matter

It’s something that becomes more and more unsettling for me the deeper I look into the issue. With every morning constitutional, with every quick run to the bathroom, the majority of industrialized humanity is carelessly waging war on the environment. In harsh but accurate terms, we are pillaging and polluting the planet in the most idiotic of ways. The way we’ve come—and much of the underdeveloped world still seems to be moving—to handle human feces and urine is almost immeasurably damaging to the world when it could be exceedingly good for it.

Compost Toilet (Courtesy of Andy Wright)
Compost Toilet (Courtesy of Andy Wright)

Generally, when I’ve written about this topic, I’ve done so light-heartedly, acknowledging the humorous side of poo and pee (and, I fear, distracting conscientious readers from the point), but that mood has sort of escaped me of late. As I find myself too often caught in the locks of modern life, visiting someone or somewhere, in an urban environment, at an eco-hotel, it’s left me with little option but to flush and add to this problem. Where else can you go in a city? Where else can you go when at a family member’s house? A friend’s? A restaurant? A business? A crowded campground!

Trust me, I want to laugh. I grew up in a household where fart jokes were richly appreciated and the agony of “holding it” rowdily laughed at. But, perhaps this is why the problem has persisted so. The end result of digestion, a simple fact of life, has become so taboo and untouchable that, despite a growing awareness of the environmental impact of the flush toilet system, change is excruciatingly slow if not largely ignored. But, as much as plastic is a problem, as much as chemical waste dumps, feedlots and GMO corn is an issue in need of immediate address, some would venture to say that humanure is doubly so.

The Reality of a Flush

For every flush of the toilet, people are sending away a minimum of 5 liters (and up to 25 liters) of fresh water, something that we are quickly recognizing as a hugely dwindling resource. The toilet accounts for over a quarter of the water usage in the average US household (and not far off in most other industrialized nations). Obviously, this means that over 25% of the fresh water we use in our homes has no greater purpose than to usher human excrement away. Every time we flush the toilet it is wasting water, be it grey or completely potable.

 A Flush (Courtesy of peapod labs)

A Flush (Courtesy of peapod labs)

If it stopped there, it would still be horrible, but unfortunately, that initial flush and waste of fresh water is only a tiny fraction of the actual damage caused by what results: human waste. Before the flush, as we well know, human excrement and urine can be great replenishers of the soil, composted into rich, organic fertilizer. But, upon entering a flush toilet, these elements are usually met with chemicals like bleach and deodorants (no longer organic), and after that, they are transported into waste management systems that mix them with more chemicals, both from other waste sources and in an effort to clean what is now sewage.

Often, the sewage then goes into water treatment facilities, where humans now have to attempt to take the waste we’ve created (from what once were two invaluable commodities: soil fertility and fresh water) and get it to a point where we can safely release it into the sea for nature to finish the job. But, even in developed countries, this is proving ineffective. Seas and lakes have chemical build-ups, resistant bacteria, super viruses, and nitrogen overloads that cause severe environmental and human health problems. In other words, for all that fresh water we ruin flushing, we then contaminate an exponential amount on the other end of the flush.

No Sort-of Solution

With water shortages consistently coming to new all-time highs, with the endangerment of marine life ever increasing, with looming leaching of contaminants in just about every fresh water source we have, to continue flushing the toilet is nothing more than complete negligence on our part. We know what the problem is, we know how we are creating it, yet the most ubiquitously adopted solution—efficient flush toilets—are simply adding to the problem, albeit more slowly than before. Frankly, that’s anything but funny.

A Sign of the Times (Courtesy of Cory Doctorow)
A Sign of the Times (Courtesy of Cory Doctorow)

In blunt terms, the HET (high efficient toilet) is the equivalent to energy-efficient light bulbs. Sure, it’s better than what was there before, but it isn’t a solution to the problem, just as those light bulbs aren’t suddenly going to make our energy sources renewable and clean. Rather than reach for an actual, applicable solution, these technologies are often thought of too much as an answer to the greater issue, as opposed to an obvious continuation of the problem they are addressing. We still need better energy sources (and it’s great that those bulbs will use less of it), and we still need a clean way of dealing with human feces that (unlike HETs) doesn’t involve using fresh water to flush and/or contaminating more water at the other end.

Perhaps the greater problem with regards to wastewater from our toilets is that we absolutely have the answer, but only very few of us are electing to take advantage. We know very well that our feces can be composted to create fertile soil, enhancing life on earth for all its creatures and environs. We know that combining that feces with water instead creates a massive environmental disaster. But, cultural norms (and laws) suggest that dealing with excrement in the more positive way is disgusting, unthinkably so, and our only realistic choice is continue with the flush system, somehow thought of as a more sanitary situation. But, that has to change.

The Truth about Change

It seems every so often humanity begrudgingly accepts that what we’ve been doing is obviously unacceptable. My wife and I spend most our time in developing countries, most of which have huge liter problems, and we often remark hopefully how that changed in our respective countries of origin (England and the US) within our lifetime. To liter now in either of these countries would warrant all sorts of societal tisk-tisking, as well as legal fines. Such pollution seems a clear case of society learning to protect our environment, especially natural areas (but even concrete jungles look better without junk).

Fresh-Smelling Compost (Courtesy of SuSanA Secretariat)
Fresh-Smelling Compost (Courtesy of SuSanA Secretariat)

The point is that, when it comes to toilets, it’s time we start pushing hard for this cultural paradigm to change, every bit as hard as we push for renewable energy sources and the end of plastic bags. We have access to composting toilets, not just for rural spaces or campgrounds but ones that are built to function in urban settings. They require minimal maintenance or less overall effort than what flush toilets do (and even create less odor), eliminating the need for black water plumbing systems. Who in their right mind would want to use these systems and continue destroying the world?

It’s time to we begin demanding that our new and refurbished buildings, our own homes, come equipped the responsible way, not just with off-the-grid energy but with composting toilets (and well designed greywater systems for the rest of it). And, it’s definitely time to stop thinking about these solutions as fine for the country but unsuitable for the city. It’s just not true, and—like litter—we will eventually come to see flush toilets as absolutely unacceptable. Composting toilets are a real solution, a natural cycle with not just the power to stop pollution but also to provide a positive impact on the planet. As builders, designers, homeowners, and humans, it’s time we really start enlightening ourselves and other people.

Then, we can laugh at how stupid we once were to flush away so many resources, choosing to pollute the environment when nature has devised the perfect system for how to deal this part of the human—as with all animals—cycle productively.

(Of course, I am but a humble voice reiterating that of many admirable people. In a word, I’m trying to do my part on more than just a personal level but rather use whatever sway I have as a writer to bring awareness, present solutions and inspire action from those who already know. For an amazing, sometimes comical but statistical argument regarding our treatment of bodily functions, read The Humanure Handbook, a much more detailed, book-length account of what I’ve presented here.)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. We move to our off-grid homestead about 5.5 years ago and since we bought from the Amish community, it was not furnished with a typical flushing toilet…we use a humanure bucket system in or home bathroom and our outside outhouse. Our first use was a funny uncomfortable break from social norms and from that first time one, we really feel so horrible when we are at a friend or work (like you mentioned) and have to “flush”…it’s a dirty word to us. This awakening didn’t come without cost…we actually have friends that refuse to visit us because of our “bucket”. Oh what the blind can’t see.

    Thanks for this article. Diana

  2. First, if you can edit this please change the first two instances of “liter” to “litter”; that really confused me at first, ‘specially as we’re talking about water use here.

    Next: Grew up a flusher (obviously) in the U.S. and now been in India near twenty years, where HET’s are even in 2019 completely unknown, despite massive water shortages in so much of the country. In rural places (such as where we live now), people were long in the habit of just going out to river/pond banks (horrible choice) or fields (slightly less bad) to deposit their so-called “night soil”, and the government here had subsidized the construction of toilets in the interest of creating ODF (open-defecation-free) zones; All these new toilets are of course are never of the composting variety – never was presented as an option – they’re simply ten-liter flushers emptying into 18-century tech stone-lined soakpits. Very unfortunate.

    I myself have virtually no experience or contact with composting toilets but am more than willing to look into it as we contemplate developing a small property in India’s northeast hills (from where my wife originates).

    However, one issue here in the subcontinent would relate to the far-superior (in my view) habit of properly WASHING one’s ass after a defecation event, vs. using something as grossly (and I do mean grossly) ineffective as toilet paper to pretty much smear filth and germs around in one’s crack… a most disgusting “development” in much of the West, I must say. But as I understood it, even that small amount of wash-water would be less than helpful in a composting toilet. Please do confirm/deny.

    As depicted in Mollison’s classic “Designer’s Manual”, I really liked the subterranean irrigation of tree crops using septic-tank outflow via an automatic flushing siphon. In that design, high-powered nutrients are very much utilized even pre-composting, and assuming you’ve got a double-tank system which allows for alternating commissioning/decommissioning, you get pretty much effortless composting to harmless, inoffensive, pathogen-free sludge on its own within about eight months or so. With the added potential for capturing bio-gas in the process. I built one such system for a residential block in south India, it was truly amazing how those couple dozen trees thus irrigated shot up in a single season… In that case actually used a PAIR of (non-mechanical) automatic flushing siphons – these alternated automatically between two separate irrigation fields and covered a very large area. Just a brilliant idea, another good thing about it being that there are no issues of evaporation as everything’s underground. Quite good resource utilization I’d say, and for that matter it could be combined with animal manure from stables/pens or whatever and really get quite a lot of work done with poop. A lot of your objections seem applicable mainly to urban sewer type environments, which are undeniably really bad. In the countryside we really do have another option or two besides just dry-composters or Amish buckets, in my view.

    Long-story short, if you’ve got a HET (or good ol’ Indian squatter latrine) flushing with grey-water, and then use, say, at most a half-liter of rainwater to spray-wash your anus, and if you’re using the post-event products in some kind of smart way as described above, then in environmental terms I’m gonna call that every bit as good as that Amish bucket, whereas socially speaking and for the sake of maintaining friendships, it’s far superior.

    What does a prefab dry composter as the one pictured cost in terms of manufacturing and ongoing maintenance? And vs. a simple and largely maintenance-free system as I (and others) had successfully implemented?


  3. I might add that there is the possibility of constructed wetlands, which similarly can produce fodder grasses and other useful things using high-nutrient septic tank outflow. Have seen a couple in South India and can’t see why they’d be a bad option so long as the space for them is available. And again it’s not as though your humanure is lost forever and subject to expensive processing. I don’t see these dry composting toilets collecting bio-gas either, which means they’re releasing it into the atmosphere.


  4. Being a flusher and not completely understanding the logistics of this concept I have to admit my ignorance.

    I like the idea of the composting toilet but I’m thinking that on my small urban block it may cause a stench and my kids already wretch using a campsite drop toilet so I’m not sure how this would go down in my family.

    When it comes to urban environments, such as high rise buildings could this technology scale? I’m just being devil’s advocate.

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