I have a good few books on compost in my library, and the now stained and worn copy Humanure Handbook, Shit in a Nutshell is one of my favorites.
Firstly, there’s the breadth of the book. It could easily have been a narrow polemic on the need for humanure, but instead, the book takes you deep into shit (in a good way) and its history. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the science of composting.
The science and history may put you off if you just want a basic guide to humanure and/or composting – but it is well written and full of fascinating tidbits to keep you interested.
The decades of work in the field also show, with the author sharing his experiences from teaching nuns how to compost turds to sorting out the errors of previous shit-composting teachers in third-world countries.
I also love the humor that permeates the book. As one passage stated:
Everything we eat turns to shit. When the turds stop coming, it’s because we’re dead. Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” He forgot to mention shit.
The problem the book addresses
The author, Joseph Jenkins, starts by laying out the absurdity of our current system of waste management.
Several times a day, billions of us go to the toilet, defecate or urinate, and then flush it down with liters of treated water that is clean enough to drink out of it.
Once contaminated, that water is flushed out, sometimes to be treated again and sometimes straight out into our waters and seas.
That waste is full of nutrients that, if composted properly, can improve the structure and fertility of our soil and fields.
Yet at the same time, we mine inorganic fertilizers which are shipped across the world and used in our fields. These inorganic fertilizers give a rapid boost to plants but lack the long-term benefits of compost.
At least, that’s what happens in more affluent countries.
In poorer countries, people go hungry because farmers with poor land can’t afford fertilizers.
Meanwhile, millions of people defecate in the street and children fall into and drown in deep, open latrines.
It’s a system dying for a solution, and Joseph Jenkins lays it out as a simple solution – humanure.
The potential of humanure, though, could easily be derailed by prejudice and misconceptions, and Jenkins deals with them one by one.
Won’t shit stink? No – not if you deal with it properly.
A composting toilet – or dry toilet, because as the author points out, you don’t get compost from the toilet itself – simply needs a material such as sawdust to cover excrement and eliminate odors.
And if you compost it properly, which again involves a layer of compost material, you can eliminate – or at least minimize – outdoor odors too.
Too often we’re told we can’t compost human – or pet – excrement because of the danger of disease. Joseph pops this myth too, explaining that if done properly pathogens are eliminated.
(You can also see a guide to how composting eliminates pathogens on this website, along with practical tips for the home composter.)
The composting process
I also learned a lot from Joseph’s description of the composting process.
Joseph eliminates turning from his process and uses straw (or an alternative cover material) to remove odors and provide insulation.
In the process, he achieves a successful breakdown of waste from compost piles that (at least from his videos) appear to be fairly modest in size.
I was inspired enough to adopt elements of his system the autumn after first reading his book. I bought two bales of straw and used them to insulate the bottom, sides and top of my compost heap.
I then panicked, as I remembered some farmers in my area use herbicides, which lead to a complete disaster in my garden and greenhouse one year!
Fortunately, it all turned out fine. In fact, just like Joseph, I tried composting a dead animal (only a chicken – I am not quite as ambitious as the author yet), and when I turned the compost there was no sign of it other than a few bones.
As you’d expect in a book on humanure, there’s a whole section on compost (or dry) toilets.
After the fuss I have had to put up from my wife over just getting a worm bin, a flock of chickens, several trailer loads of cow shit, and a polytunnel that was only 26 feet long, I am afraid there is no chance of me ever installing a compost toilet in my house.
(Although I am still lured by the thought of secretly installing one in a hidden garden corner.)
For that reason, I did skim over the chapter on compost toilets when I first read the book, and had to revisit it for this review.
There’s a lot of information there – as per the rest of the book, it dives into their history (such as the 1922 Earth Pail Privy!), the science, and how they are used across the world.
Fortunately, close to the end of the chapter, I found what I was looking for – simple instructions with diagrams on how to build your own compost toilet.
What problems can the book solve?
As we saw at the start of this post, our current system poses big problems.
Personally, I am skeptical that, at least in the short to medium term, humanure composting will make much of a difference in the first world.
While enthusiasts may embrace the system, both our prejudices and waste systems are too entrenched to see mass adoption.
However, it’s a different matter in poorer parts of the world.
With the cost of constructing a compost toilet standing at just $6.00 in some countries (albeit at 2006 prices), there’s potential for humanure systems to make a real difference.
Who’s the book for? (Plus alternatives for the new composter)
For anyone interested in humanure, this is the seminal book on the subject.
I think it will also be of interest to many people who are interested in composting, its history, and the science around it but who don’t have the space (or ability to persuade their families!) to actually do humanure composting.
It’s also an important read for people interested in practical solutions to global problems – from the need to reduce harm to the environment to improving the lives of people in countries with poor sanitation.
As someone with a deep interest in composting, I frequently revisit the book, and, combined with the Rodale Book of Composting , it’s been a good springboard into the science of composting.
There’s also plenty of information on composting – although it is often buried under a wealth of other information and facts. (Do note you can also find some helpful videos made by Joseph Jenkins, such as the one below.)
However, if you are new to composting and are just looking for a practical guide, I’d probably something suggest something like Composting for a New Generation by Michelle Balz.
Balz’s book is ideal for a beginner composter and walks you through many different ways of composting.
I also like the fact that it teaches you how to build many of the things you need, such as a sieve for getting fine compost.
What’s more, if you are interested in making your own humanure, I’d also suggest composting something less challenging than feces first. It’s best to make those inevitable beginner mistakes with easier materials than shit!