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Poop Excavated from Old Latrines Finds New Life

What good is human excrement? For most of us, it’s something to be flushed away, washed off, and certainly not discussed in polite company. Yet many millions of people around the world live with “unimproved” sanitation facilities or none at all (i.e., “open defecation”). It’s a huge problem for both human and ecosystem health, and efforts at improvement generally focus on disposal methods that protect people and the environment from contamination. End of story.

Outhouses in student's tourist tent base in Jawornik, Beskid Niski, Poland. Image by Tomasz Kuran (aka Meteor2017), Wikimedia. CC-BY agreement.

However, that doesn’t have to be the end of it. If you have a garden, you know that cow and horse manures are wonderful soil amendments. But have you ever considered human manure? DIY is very hip right now, and what could be better than DIY compost for your DIY vegetable garden?

If you find this a little repulsive, that’s ok. Most people are not very comfortable with poo, and with good reason – it can and does transmit disease, very efficiently. About 1.5 million children around the world each year get sick or die from diarrheal diseases specifically due to poor sanitation, and improved sanitation can reduce the incidence of diarrheal diseases by more than 35% (Source: US CDC).

But consider this: correctly aged and composted (and there are very feasible, safe, and effective ways to do this), human feces and urine make excellent fertilizer, and many cultures reuse their “waste” for just that purpose. And – bear with me here – this can take care of at least two important problems at one go: waste handling and agriculture. What’s not to love?

Recently a small nonprofit organization called SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) kicked off a series of informal reports on a project they’re doing in Africa (in collaboration with others such as National Geographic Emerging Explorers, SELF, and others) promoting improved sanitation and, specifically, reuse of human waste. For example, they dug up the contents of old, unused latrines to mine the contents for local agriculture. Upon excavating their first latrine – at a grammar school in Benin – they reported, “The pit, once filled with fresh human wastes, was now a chamber of rich black soil, a color and consistency that was in stark contrast to the dry red dust of northern Benin.” They removed the entire contents for a garden they planted with corn. In another wonderful post, they report on their experience promoting a “magic toilet” to the women of a small rural community.

Proof positive that there’s plenty to love about poop.

For more on this topic:

  1. Thanks for the great article! SOIL’s adventures into toilets in Africa have been informed by their years of work building composting toilets in Haiti. Ecological sanitation simultaneously tackles some of Haiti’s toughest challenges – providing improved sanitation to people who would otherwise have no access to a toilet and producing rich, organic compost critical for agriculture and reforestation.

  2. Thanks for bringing up ecological sanitation (EcoSan), Leah – I was remiss in not including that term in the post. Other organizations also work on applying it in different ways and different settings. And thanks, too, for emphasizing that SOIL has worked mostly in Haiti and is applying its lessons learned to other places.

  3. If it wasn’t for the tomato seeds…

    They are tough little things. They go right through you and if you don’t get your compost up to 65°C and keep it there for a while you will get far more volunteer tomato plants than most farmers would appreciate.

  4. Thanks, Don – Too true! Indeed, proper handling of the compost (including ensuring that it reach proper temperatures) is essential not only to kill tomato seeds but to inactivate pathogens.

  5. I’m ok with the use of humanure for ornamental plants, but absolutely not for food crops. It doesn’t matter how much it’s been composted. there is a danger of pathogens. leave it alone. use animal waste.

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