Tag Archives: nitrogen

Holy Shit! Humanure and Liquid Gold as Ecological Resources

An outdoor compost toilet

An outdoor compost toilet

When I spent two weeks living in an ecovillage last summer, I proudly talked to friends and family about the fact that I hadn’t flushed a toilet in two weeks. This led to a wide assortment of responses, including “gross, ew” and others who were intrigued. My experience in living at the ecovillage helped better align me with my own waste streams. Each time I made any kind of deposit in the composting system at the ecovillage, I knew the waste my body no longer needed wasn’t going into some toxic sewage plant, but rather, back into the living landscape. And for that, I was grateful—I felt realigned with the land in a new and exciting way. And so, I worked to take that lesson back home with me in a few different ways since that time.  For one, I’ve been doing experiments with small applications of urine as a fertilizer for my seedlings that I’m growing for my Refugia garden this year.  After the application of “Liquid Gold” my seedlings are twice as big as they would otherwise typically be!  So today, in the spirit of “spring cleaning” and for those looking to start new projects with spring energy swirling around us, I wanted to tackle this crappy topic!  That topic is our own waste–and what to do with it. So today, we’ll explore humanure and liquid gold as useful resources for growing things.

 

Waste Not!

Humanity is literally drowning in its own waste, a topic not new to anyone who is paying attention. Even if we work to eliminate waste in other ways of our lives (as some of my earlier posts on disposing of the disposable mindset and dealing with materialism suggest), any “resources” our bodies produce is rarely discussed.  The underlying problem is, modern industrialized society treats human waste like a toxic substance–but they are not.  They are resources. I use the word bodily resources, rather than bodily waste, because even thew way that we frame these things in our speech matters.  Our bodily resources are flushed into septic systems that are full of poison and require heavy amounts of fossil fuels and chemicals to process and address.   But with a little rethinking and openness, we can get past the “gross” factor and start to see our own waste as a resource.  And to help in that rethinking, I’ll point to two key permaculture principles: the problem is the solution and produce no waste.

 

So let’s follow the path that one flush takes to see the problem with human bodily resources–and where we might intervene and divert those waste streams to more productive uses. First, obviously, you begin by doing your business.  If you are in the Western world or other industrialized places, you are doing your business often into gallons of perfectly acceptable drinking water (which is obviously also wasted).

 

After flushing, your waste can take two routes: a typical city or town dweller sends their flush directly into a municipal sewer system. If you live in a more rural area, it likely enters your private septic system, a type of holding tank, where it can partially break down, but eventually, the tank fills us.  Then you call someone with a big truck that pumps it, and it ends up in the municipal septic system.  So in both cases, let’s take a look at that municipal septic system.

 

Municipal septic systems are not just carrying human bodily resources.  They take human” waste” and combine it with many other kinds of liquid (and sometimes solid) material “wastes” including: stormwater runoff (more of that perfectly good and clean water running into the septic system, often mixed with oil from roadways, etc); industrial waste from various factories and processing plants (much of which can contain poisons, heavy metals, chemicals, etc), hospital waste (which can contain disease, toxins, caustic cleaning agents, etc).  Often present in this combined waste, from the many non-human waste streams, is something called “dioxins”, which are one of the most toxic chemicals on the earth.  Dioxins are currently not regulated or tested by the EPA for sewage sludge that is applied to farmlands–and that’s a typical end result of these combined wastes after heavy processing.  In fact, the information I linked above is the EPA’s argument for non-regulation of dioxins.  And radiation somehow ends up in there as well. Regulatory issues with dioxin and radiation aside, on the basic level, we take perfectly good material (human, stormwater, water from flushing) and mix it with really toxic waste, and then process the heck out of it (with more waste, chemicals, etc) to try to salvage something that is really not good at all that we spread on the fields that grow our food.  Ew, ick.  And you thought human poo was bad?

 

Urinal at Sirius Ecovillage

Urinal at Sirius Ecovillage, where I lived for two weeks

A Closed Loop System Humanure and Liquid Gold

We can work to keep our human bodily resources out of the municipal septic system, and cycle it back into the ecosystem in careful and mindful ways–and now we’ll explore ways of doing so. In fact, the idea that human waste is a resource is not a new concept.  For millennia, humans collected and used their own feces and urine effectively.

 

The underlying principle here is simple: if at all possible, we want to create a closed loop system in our living. This means that rather than nutrients and resources being in a line, like this: natural resource–> factory/farm–>store–>consumer–>garbage; we want to have  system that instead functions like a circle, cycling nutrients, like this:  garden plot –> you–> feces/urine –> compost –> garden plot.  This closed loop system is infinitely recycling and sustaining if all resources are harnessed. The truth is that human bodily resources are actually quite good for fertilizer, when treated properly.  The nutrients that your body doesn’t need, and the waste your body produces, can be cycled back into the nutrient cycle of life–meaning, its not waste at all, but a resource!  Human pee is the same–it is liquid gold for good reason!  So let’s explore these resources and how they can be harnessed and used.

 

Liquid Gold

Happy seedlings get fertilized often!

Happy seedlings get fertilized once every week to two weeks with human urine – look at them growing!

Liquid gold is the much easier of the two to collect and use for the direct benefit of green, growing things, and so we’ll start with that process (and this is the one I have the most experience with).  Urine had (and in some places, has) a whole industry built up around it in many parts of the world: from being used as a fertilizer, to a medicine, to a teeth whitener, to an ingredient in gunpowder! I’m not going to go into such detail here with the many uses of urine, but I do think it is worth exploring some options for recycling our nutrients.

 

Human urine has incredible amounts of nitrogen–so much that if you pee directly on plants (or pour urine on them) it will burn them due to the high nitrogen content. It also has potassium, phosphorous, sulfur, magnesium, and calcium (see the Permaculture News article here for more info). Nitrogen is one of the key elements of plant growth; and I’ll take a moment here to again point out how humans and plants co-exist in such a complex web of interactions. We pee the plants’ most important nutrient–nitrogen; and we exhale carbon dioxide–both of these they take in and transform back for us.  This incredible cycle only works when we let it.

 

Our urine is sterile, and it is therefore safe to use as a direct foliar spray on plants and trees with a 10% dilution (10% urine, 90% water). If you have a vegetable garden, you can add liquid gold, at the 10%/90% water ratio, in a backpack sprayer and simply spray your plants every few weeks. The alternative, that seems to work just as well for seedlings, is to use it just like any fertilizer you add to the water for watering the plants (again, 10% dilution, and I kind of eyeball this and don’t measure it exactly.)  Add this in your garden how  you would other compost teas–usually as a side dressing.

 

You can collect urine in any way you like–in an elaborate system, like at the ecovillage, every guest’s urine is diverted and used on extensive gardening systems each time they visit the urinal. But you can also collect urine in the most simple system, like a wide-mouth canning jar.  It doesn’t necessarily take a long time to collect enough to be used for plants (indoor, outdoor, or seedlings)–think a few hours of collection for weekly watering of indoor plants.  And you don’t need to use the liquid gold every week–I usually use it every 2 weeks and my plants are very happy.  You do want to use the liquid gold fairly quickly, as it starts to turn to ammonia and develops a stronger smell.

 

After returning home from the Ecovillage, and especially with my seed starting this year, I started using liquid gold even with my small potted plants and house plants. It was incredible to see the difference—urine is almost pure nitrogen, and that is a resource indeed!  My bay plant, which was suffering some aphid damage, quickly sprouted a ton of new growth.  My baby tomato and pepper plants for my garden plot and assortment of herbs are twice as big as they should be at this point in their growth!  Its really amazing stuff (and I am going to do some scientific experimentation on it in my community garden plot this summer and report back).  You can read more about urine and how to use it as fertilizer in a book called Liquid Gold.

 

Humanure and Composting Toilets

Composting Toilet System

Composting Toilet System that Produces Humanure – just do your business and turn the system every week or so!

The modern term for human feces that is properly composted is called “humanure” (coined by Jenkins in the Humanure Hanbook).  Humanure, once finished, is a lot like other kinds of organic compost–it contains microorganisms, a lot of dark, rich, organic matter, and a lot of carbon for the use of plants.  It can be created and used no differently than other fertilizers if composted properly (two years, minimum).  Most people who make humaure that I know only use it on perennial trees and/or simply return it to the forest since people would get weird about eating veggies grown in humanure.  I think as long as you are taking it back into the ecosystem, sharing it with any plants is a good idea, and your comfort level determines the rest.  The process of composting is really simple, and not much different than other forms of composting.  Compost piles really stink when human pee and poop are added together, so most of the advanced systems separate the two (such as the photo of the urinal above).

 

Most systems begin with a composting toilet. There are many models of composting toilet—and seeing which kind you can use depends a great deal on the codes and regulations where you live. Sometimes, the easiest way to do this is to keep the regular toilet and septic tank there in your house (legally required), but to have a simple alternative system. Most alternative systems are not complicated or expensive – a 5 gallon bucket with a lid (you can get both for about $25) and a second bucket full of wood chips or other absorbent woody/carbon rich material (some people use peat moss, but I don’t recommend it due to its unsustainable harvest; find a local resource instead if possible).  And then, the management is simple enough. You use the bucket, and each time you do, you add 1 scoop for yellow and two scoops for brown. This is composted outside or in an enclosed place that is turned occasionally.  It is generally composted for a minimum of two years before being added to fruit trees or other woody perennials.

 

Composting Toilet System

Composting Toilet System

Much more elaborate, permanent systems can be built or purchased—the most expensive I saw during my PDC was a self-contained unit that was put in a basement right above the toilet (photos in this section)—this system was about $8000; it was self contained, odor free, and literally had a spot where you came in and shoveled out rich compost (see the photos). It was that simple!

 

A more elaborate self-built system, like what was at Sirius Ecovillage, diverts urine and feces into separate places. Feces is composted as usual, often in large pits beneath the bathrooms that are dug out very occasionally; a solar powered fan moves any odor out and away.  Their system was great because it used mostly time to do the work.  They had double toilets in each stall, and one would be “composting” and be closed to new deposits, and one would be active.  The active one would eventually fill up, and then they would switch to the other side.  The one that is full was given a year or so to break down, and then it was scooped out and the process began again.  It was very elegant, not at all smelly, and really effective.

 

The Humanure Handbook, in its full form, can be downloaded in PDF format. It gives many more options for you if you are interested in pursuing this path!

 

Humanure and Liquid Gold as Offerings

I’m going to propose an even more radical idea here—our human bodily resources can be seen as an offering and resource to the land. Humans in ages past knew our waste wasn’t waste at all, but was a valuable resource. Think about it—when we make an offering as part of ritual, say, a shiny penny as some traditions may use, what good does that offering do? It’s symbolic, yes, but our lands are in such duress.  Around here, logging abounds, and resources are always being taken away, never added to our forests and wild areas.  So, wouldn’t a direct offering of nitrogen be a better choice? Given this, I have begun making offerings when I go into the forest. For solid offerings, I bring a small trowel and make a hole six inches down, working hard not to disrupt the soil web more than necessary (See the book How to Take a Shit in the Woods for detailed instructions). For liquid offerings, I make sure not to pee directly on any plants, but I do pee near the base of trees or directly on the ground, as they can take a direct application of rich nitrogen. I know this seems radical, but from a plant’s perspective, its just more nutrients to be gained!  And since I do wild food foraging, I do think that “giving back” a little is an important part of this.  I want to give back more than I take, in all things.  And this approach allows me to continue to cultivate that balance.

 

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this week’s post–its certainly something to consider, moving forward, into paths of deeper sustainability and awareness. Using “liquid gold” instead of regular plant fertilizer can, certainly, reduce your dependence on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizer, and bring you in closer connection with your own plants.  I would encourage you, if nothing else, to try using liquid gold for a month or two on plants and see how it goes! (As a fun note, I’ll link here to my very first blog post ever, which had a similar title, and talked about how I was using local horse manure for my garden and how sacred that substance was!)

Don’t Bag Your Leaves: An Analysis of Nutrient Loss and Soil Depletion for Leaf Removal

This is the time of year when the leaves all drop in their delightfully whimsical fashion.  And yet, it seems that fall is not an enjoyable time for many, especially if those leaves end up on the lawn. I’ve discussed problems with the practice of keeping a lawn before, and today, I’d like to look at our relationship to leaves and typical practices for dealing with leaves.  People spend quite a bit of their own energy and fossil fuel energy removing leaves from their lawns (raking, blowing, mowing, and so on).  These leaves seem to end up in three places for a typical American household in the sprawling urban and suburban areas:

 

  1. In bags on the side of the roads for “compost” (most common in my area by far)
  2. Blown onto the side of the road and left there and/or picked up by the city (more typical in urban settings)
  3. In a burn pile smouldering away (this also happens a lot where I live).

 

Some of the more radical folk, like permies and guerrilla gardeners the like, might end up composting their leaves in our gardens or otherwise keeping the nutrients on our properties; but this is a rather rare approach and one not practiced by the bulk of the American populace. Many of us who are radical gardeners go out seeking the bags of leaves left on the curb to bring additional nutrients to our properties (I do this every year).  However, not all of us have the benefit of composting or keeping our leaves–not raking, mulching, or composting leaves is illegal in some township or city mandates and also in many subdivisions throughout the US. And leaves aren’t often the only things found in the leaf compost bags–usually when I go out to collect, I find a good deal of other matter and live plants.  This year, at about 10% of the houses where I picked up leaves, I also found the remains of someone’s backyard garden (tomatoes) and at another 10% I found other kinds of food from trees just thrown away (walnuts, apples, acorns, pears, etc).

 

And so, today, I’d like to explore this practice a bit and its long-term impacts on soil health…and what we might do instead.

 

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

What’s Written on the Bag: Linguistic Framing of Leaves

When people talk about the leaves that drop from the trees in the fall, they often call it “leaf litter” or “yard waste.”  Looking at the brown paper bags that people buy to store their leaves in for pickup, they say “Lawn refuse” or “Yard Waste” or “Refuse” on the sides. We label the bags and then frame what we put in them as waste or refuse; something to be discarded.  So we are already creating a framework for seeing materials that come from our yards as “waste” rather than seeing the nutrients in the leaves as a valuable thing.

 

What’s in the Leaves: Nutrients Contained in Fallen Leaves

The other issue I’ve been pondering for some time is the nutritional content of the leaves, and how many nutrients leave a typical American lawn in suburbia each year when they are discarded.  I found a reasonable analysis about the nutrient content leaves here; their calculations are based on one ton of leaves (which, granted, is a lot of leaves).  This section presents a look at the nutrient content in leaves and how much is lost when we put them on the curb (or how much is gained by picking up someone else’s leaves).

 

According to the analysis above, 1 ton (2000 lbs) of leaves has the following:

  • 940 lbs of carbon
  • 20 lbs of nitrogen
  • 2 lbs phosphorus
  • 2 lbs potassium
  • 32.8 lbs calcium
  • 4.8 lbs magnesium
  • 2.2 lbs sulfur
  • Plus other nutrients and a great deal of organic matter (organic matter not calculated)

 

Before I get into my analysis of how much we lose by putting leaves on the corner, I have a few caveats.  First, this kind of analysis requires quite a bit of assumptions and estimations; I’ve done my best, but what I have found might be specific to my local area in South-East Michigan.  Second, I’m certain that leaf nutrition varies pretty widely based on the  soil profile of the region, the nutrients present or absent in the soil already, the types of trees, the weather for the year, and so on.  With that said, I do think even a rudimentary analysis, like the one I’m presenting, gives us some starting points.

 

Methods: On my trips out to get leaf bags from the side of the road this year,  I did some counting in my area to estimate the amounts and weights typical bags of leaves had.  I went out for three weeks and brought back 46 bags of leaves; I went out twice each week to different areas within a 3 mile radius of where I lived. I counted how many leaves people left on the curb and when I got back, I weighed them to get their average weight.  In a fourth week it rained, and while I collected bags, I did not weigh them because the water weight would have impacted my findings. I then did some simple math using the numbers above.

 

Amount of leaves per bag and per yard: Most leaf bags I picked up ranged from 8lbs – 22lbs, depending on whether or not they were shredded. Shredded leaf bags typically account for about 20% of the bags I pick up.  Even unshredded bags are often compacted and pretty heavy, especially if the leaves fell relatively flat or were slightly wet when they went in the bag.    The average for the bags was just above 10 lbs.  People in the suburban area where I go leaf hunting put out an average of 4.5 bags of leaves on collection day; some had many more, and most had been putting them out for a period of weeks. My estimate is that most families in my area put out at least 7 bags of leaves in a fall season assuming they have a few trees in their yard dropping leaves; this amounts to about 98 lbs of leaves (I’m going to round this to 100 lbs to make the math simple).

 

So for each 10 lb bag of leaves put on the curb, it has:

  • 4.7 lbs of carbon
  • .1 lbs of nitrogen
  • .01 lbs of phosphorus
  • .01 lbs of potassium
  • .16 lbs of lbs of calcium
  • .02 lbs of magnesium
  • .01 lbs of sulfur
  • And Iron, Zinc, and much, more.

 

That’s a lot of nutrients.  And that’s just the leaves–I don’t have any way of figuring out what whole tomato plants and other plants ripped up from the soil are also contributing, but I suspect these numbers are much higher.  And then, if homeowners are also removing their grass clippings all season long, that’s a whole other calculation to include.

 

There are alternatives!

There are alternatives!

 

What’s Left in the Soil:  Long-Term Removal of Nutrients and Inadequacy of Fertilization

Now one bag of leaves makes an impact, but perhaps a small one.  The problem is that one bag of leaves isn’t what’s being removed–this is about the long-term systematic removal of nutrients from our landscape.  As I was driving through a bunch of Detroit communities last weekend, what really struck me was the age of the houses.  Many of the houses I was looking at literally were 75 years, 100 years, or older.  In my research on dandelions, I discovered that typical lawn practices prevalent today really rose to popularity after World War II, which suggests that people haven’t been bagging up their leaves forever, but likely they have been doing it for some time.  So let’s assume that for the last 50 years, most citizens of Metro Detroit (or any other city or suburban area) have been removing their leaves from their property.  So if we take the numbers above and assume 100 lbs of leaves being removed each year, we end up with nutrient loss something like this:

 

Nutrient Loss over Time

Nutrient Loss for Fall Leaf Removal for 100 Years (all numbers in pounds)

 

These numbers are striking, but what is even more striking is the fact that I haven’t accounted for any other kinds of “yard waste” such as grass clippings (put out on the curb weekly or bi-monthly by many) or other kinds of yard compost that people don’t want.  I might do a case study of this at some point, but for now, we can see the potential for soil nutrient health decline.

 

I’d like to offer one other piece of evidence as well. My house was built in 1945, so my yard likely suffered the same fate for most of the last 70 years as well.  When I got at my homestead a few years ago, prior to putting in the garden, I ran soil tests.   These are exactly where the leaves (and lawn clippings) would have been taken from (and I knew from taking to my neighbors that the people who owned this house did such practices).  I found that the soil where I wanted to put in my garden was pretty much sand.  It had little organic matter and a P.H. of 8.2 (our PH is high in this area, but the lack of organic matter made it higher).  It had only 8 PPM of Phosphorus (considered extremely low), 22 parts per million of potassium (low) and magnesium of only 27 parts per million (extremely low).  To get my soil prepared for growing crops…what did I do? Went around and picked up everyone’s leaves, imported massive amounts of organic matter in the form of manure, compost, and this year, even a pile of seaweed from a local pond.  And now my soil tests are beautiful and my soil is rich and healthy (and much lower in PH thanks to the organic matter all of the leaves helped create).

 

What’s going back into the soil?  Not enough.

In a natural process, assuming no removal of nutrients, it takes 500 years or more to produce one inch of topsoil.  This gives you a sense, I think, of the enormity of the challenges that face us in regenerating landscapes with these destructive lawn practices.  But, you say, aren’t people putting things back into the soil?  Yes, and we’ll take a look at that next.

 

1) Plants can pull certain kinds of nutrients from the air; typically this is nitrogen and oxygen. So certainly, some nitrogen theoretically could be being brought back into the soil, although typical lawn ornamentals and grass don’t do this well.

 

2) Most nutrients are in the soil, and those nutrients are cycled through the dropping and decay of organic matter.  Trees and other plants (like Burdock, Comfrey, Dandelion), penetrate deep into the ground and pulling up nutrients to the surface, which they then deposit as leaves or dead plant matter.  But how many nutrients are down there for the taking?  If nutrients are systematically removed from the same spot over a 25, 50, or 100 year period, I suspect that at some point, the ground underneath will simply run out of those nutrients. I also have a theory (untested) that this is part of why we have so many plant and tree diseases.  We keep removing organic matter and nutrients from our landscapes in this form, through logging, etc, and those aren’t going back into our system.

 

3) People also often add fertilizers; but most commercial fertilizers focus only on the three macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  All of the micronutrients (some of which are critical to plant and human health, such as magnesium or calcium) are not added.  Fertilizers also come in a water soluble form (nitrate) and cause substantial problems for our waterways (I am not going to spend the time today to describe soil ecology, but a good introduction to it is here).

 

4) Mulch is sometimes also added to select areas.  But wood mulches are very high in carbon and little else.

 

5) Some people do buy compost and add it in select areas (say, a garden) but this is in select areas; I don’t see people dumping compost all over their lawns to make up for the loss of nutrients.  More on this in my next post.

 

So even with the inputs, it seems likely that a substantial net loss in nutrients in the soil immediately surrounding most of our homes and communities due to the “composting” practices of leaves and grass clippings.

Concluding Thoughts

What concerns me about this analysis, if its in the ballpark range at all (and I have reason to believe it is) is that each year, the soil surrounding our homes and in our communities gets more and more depleted as we continue to remove nutrients from our soils systematically through fall leaves and grass clippings.  This leaves me with a few serious concerns:

 

1) More and more people are becoming interested in urban gardening, homesteading, and the like, and yet, if they want to dig up their backyard, they are facing soils with literally no nutrients, organic matter, or life in them (as I faced when I started my homestead).  If we all wanted to do this, where would all the nutrients come from?

 

2) We aren’t looking at a few places of depletion, but probably we are facing it with nearly every suburban and urban home in the US.  When we combine this with modern industrial farming practices that kill soil life and strip the soil bare, its a very worrying issue.

 

3) The systematic loss of particular kinds of nutrients is also concerning; in my herbalism course, we have spent a great deal of time talking about magnesium deficiency (which the bulk of Americans are suffering from) and deficiency in other micro-nutrients; interestingly, many of these showed up in the list of what was in fall leaves and being removed.  Even if you were to grow some veggies in your soil that you added some organic matter to, would there be enough magnesium and other essential nutrients for your own body’s needs?

 

4) Perhaps most worrying of all: if history has anything to teach us, the widespread degradation and depletion of soil and other resources leads to a civilization’s collapse.  Combining this with many other ecological challenges suggests the widespread and systematic need for radical change.

 

I’ll elaborate on these concerns and what we might begin to do about this in my next blog post, which will discuss the concept of restoration agriculture and further discuss permaculture design.