Book Review: The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins

How can you describe a book such as this? “The Humanure Handbook” by Joseph Jenkins. How about a cult classic, for a start. It had been on my to-read list for a long time and I must admit, I was not entirely sure what to expect when I first sat down with it.

It is, in one word, fantastic. It was adapted to a book from a master thesis and it shows, as the book is packed to the brim with facts, tables, references and sources. The tables are also my only misgiving about the book: I read it on my ereader, and the tables had not been adapted to that format and were very difficult to read.

Other than that, what can I say except if you are interested about living a life where you leave as small a carbon footprint as possible and want to be sustainable about as many aspects of your life as possible, you will come across this book and its premise sooner or later. Lay your prejudices aside, bring an open mind and get ready to learn things you might have heard about already, but haven’t really wanted to face head on.

The Humanure Handbook does not let you look away.

We have a sewage problem

In 2018, it was estimated that the percent of water that is accessible as drinking water is less than 0.5 % of the total water on the planet. In drier parts of the world, wars are already fought over water, the aquifers of North America are decreasing at alarming rates and yet we mix billions of liters of drinking water with our own bodily waste turning two resources into a toxic mix we’re having big trouble getting rid of safely.

But an even bigger problem? The moment we flush we forget. It becomes someone else’s problem and not something we need to think about. This dissonance makes it difficult to make change because it is so very, very convenient. Why would we want to change it?

The Humanure Handbook is all about these issues. The why, the how and the big data, both in terms of conserving water, taking responsibility for our own waste, and doing so in a safe manner that removes dangerous pathogens and diseases that may be present.

And all you need is a couple of large buckets, sawdust or other fine, carbon-rich material, and a compost pile. But there is one problem.

The fecophobe

Joseph talks about “the fecophobe” repeatedly throughout the book. Or an intense aversion to see, think about or in any way deal with our own refuse, AKA humanure. How we, as a society, have become so afraid of poo that we would rather not think about it at all. We distance ourselves from animal waste by calling it “manure”. As if it is fundamentally different from our own waste. Hence the book’s attempt at rendering it harmless by calling it humanure, which carries with it associations of manure and compost and soil improvement.

There is also the insidious and pervasive group perception. This perceived fecophobia by groups of “others” has been the biggest hurdle in discussing humanure composting facilities with my husband. It’s not so much “That’s too much!” for ourselves that’s the issue. But what would our guests think??

This is quite a scary attitude because it keeps us stuck in an unfortunate status quo, even though many individuals would take action if they were not afraid of the repercussions of their group. It even made me scared about the potential repercussions of writing and publishing this book review and talking about this issue at all.

But if there’s one thing The Humanure Handbook has taught me, it is that this issue is far too big and too important to keep silent about just because it makes us uncomfortable.

Embracing discomfort

As a child of the modern age, I have grown up in a world of flushing toilets. Our only knowledge of anything else were small cabins with outdoor loos which were just a hole dug into the ground with a small shed on top and it stank to high heaven. You know what I mean, I am sure.

But those were highly inefficient, and not at all the composting facilities Joseph talks about in The Humanure Handbook. If there is one thing I’ve taken away from this book it’s that you need to use at least as much carbon-rich material as you, uhm, defecate. It needs to be completely covered in sawdust, rice hulls, dead leaves or whatever you might have near you in abundance. And if it smells bad or looks bad, you need to add even more.

This is not just an aesthetic thing, but comes back to the very backbone of composting: the carbon-nitrogen balance. By itself, our waste is not good bacteria food and will fester rather than compost. When a bucket is full you take it to a hot compost pile, dig a hole in the center, empty the contents (rinse the bucket and empty the rinse water over the compost too), and then rake the compost back over the hole and cover with another solid helping of straw, grass clippings or similar. Then you wait. A year if you have a good, hot compost or know that none of the “donors” had any parasites or similar. Two years if you have a cold compost pile or are uncertain about the source of your humanure.

At the end you have compost, just as you would normally have. Use it on fruit trees, berry bushes and perennials if you are feeling squeamish, but there is nothing wrong with applying it to the kitchen garden at this point.

Taking responsibility for our own products

Does composting our humanure mean more work for us compared to flushing a toilet?

Yes, of course. And it is obvious that is way easier for people who have access to land and some pre-existing knowledge of composting.

But even if we live in an apartment and can’t implement the changes right now, we can still talk about it, think about it, and get used to the idea. The more we share it and talk about it, the more awareness we spread about the issue, and the more there is a chance it will start to crop up in the public consciousness where it might reach municipalities and public officials.

With sustainability, it is so easy and so tempting to fall for the instagram-worthy glass jars, reusable masks and amazing unpaper towels. One of the problems with toilets and sanitation is that is is hardly instagram-pretty, so it is very easy to forget and ignore.

This book is a great primer to being exposed to the idea of taking care of our own waste in a better way than we currently are. It is an alien and intimidating prospect for a lot of us, but I think time is helpful here. So read the book, digest it and see if you can’t get more comfortable with the idea of composting your own humanure over time. I know I would feel it quite irresponsible of me to not at least think about how I can implement these ideas now that I have read this book.

What a revolution that would make.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins

  1. A friend of mine has a composting toilet in her home. She keeps a bucket of sawdust with a cup in t next to the loo. You just pour a cup of sawdust into the loo after you do your ‘busines’.
    She has a thriving food forest and she uses her compost on that.

  2. When I was a homeowner, I had three thriving compost piles and would have tried this. But as I’m downsizing to an apartment, I’m struggling to figure out how much simpler things, like how to hang dry my laundry and how to compost my kitchen waste. Part of the problem is that I live in a HCOL area and have a limited apartment buying budget so I may be reduced to buying something very small with no balcony. If I go the rental route, than I layer on the landlord’s rules.

    Any apartment dwellers out there with tips for me?

    1. When we lived in a small apartment with no balcony, we dried our clothes indoors on a drying rack. Good ventilation or a dehumidifier can help if you live in a place with high humidity.
      I think the compost is a more difficult one. We do bokashi composting for our kitchen scraps, but compost piles and the value they are difficult to replace. Curious to hear any suggestions too!

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