OK, now before you think I’m totally nuts about that statement, there a caveat addendum…without thinking about where that waste goes.
Waste handling permaculture principles
One of the 16 principles in permaculture is “produce no waste.”
The idea is that you actually reduce the waste, or use them as an input to another process, and connect the processes together.
For example, if you have ducks, then you have duck water.
Gross, stinky duck poop-filled water. Ewww what is even in there?
What do you do with it? Throw it away?
No! Do some fertigation(irrigation and fertilization), like dump it onto a tree that needs some nutrients.
So the tree benefits and you don’t have to “away” that valuable resource.
If you aren’t using this waste stream in some way, eventually it will build up to toxic levels and become very unhealthy for ducks and people alike.
Or then it flows off your property and causes other people harm.
Neither result is good.
The problem is the solution?
Very often, you arrive at a solution to a problem by considering this phrase “the problem IS the solution“.
This is not a “zen thing” where you need to contemplate your navel. Rather, permaculture is about systems thinking, a scientific design methodology that considers the WHOLE system. Really, it’s about meta-systems design.
Now I promised not to talk about metaphysics. No WooWoo, right? It’s in the tagline to the site!
Look at the duck water example. The problem (duck water) is the solution (for the tree).
Often you will find that the problem in one element is the solution in another element.
Nature can give you some awesome insights if you look hard and see the interactions and possibilities.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
So now that you know the principles, let’s circle back to the title of the post.
Do I expect you to never darken a bathroom door again? Of course not!
This is a different way to think about waste, quite difficult for some. Every living thing must eliminate waste periodically. The average human excretes a pound of feces and two pints of urine daily, so it would really “pile” up if we didn’t “away” it.
How do we do that? Let’s talk about toilets. Yay!
This might sound a little gross, but stick with me and at the end you’l be better informed than most people.
Likely you are either connected to a city sewer system, or in a rural area and connected to a septic system. Regulations with many rules govern sewage and how to handle/treat it.
How about a little story time about poop? This should be fun! Get your blankie…
Let’s assume a guy “Bill” lives in town. When Bill makes a “deposit” in his toilet, fresh drinkable water is used to flush it through sewer pipes to the wastewater treatment plant.
In the treatment plant’s first stage the floating and sinking solids are separated. These solids are usually disposed of in the landfill. There are still suspended solids in the wastewater.
Bill’s sewage then goes into a sedimentation process, where the tiny particles are allow to settle out of suspension.
The process so far is what’s considered the primary treatment. The applicable laws and local water quality considerations determine whether on not the sewage must be treated further before discharge.
Secondary treatment involves removing most of the organic matter by using bacteria. It’s similar to how a biological filter in a fish tank works – the bacteria break down the nutrients into safer forms. Aeration helps the bacteria to do this.
The effluent is usually disinfected with chlorine before discharge, as chlorine is toxic to most forms of life. This reduces more than 99% of the bacteria “if done properly“, according to the EPA.
Many states require dechlorination before release is allowed, so the hazard is reduced, but not eliminated. Another option is to use UV light or ozone to accomplish the disinfection. This is much less hazardous to fish downstream.
Finally, Bill’s poop water is discharged, probably into the nearest body of water, like a lake or river.
For more info see https://www3.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/bastre.pdf
Some problems with this approach are:
- Adding water to human waste provides a wonderful (and by wonderful I mean totally not wonderful!) breeding ground for many protozoa, bacteria, and viruses that make us sick
- Typhoid, giardia, cholera, dysentery, salmonella, and hepatitis are some examples
- It takes a lot of energy (electrical power) to move all that wastewater, and chemicals to treat it
- Chlorine treatment is dangerous to life in the receiving waters, if not removed
- Accidental improper or incomplete waste treatment and raw sewage discharge happen frequently
A better way(ste)?
We can use a dry composting toilet system. Many off-grid homesteads use these kind of systems. This does not use water to flush the waste “away”. Separated (automatically) from the feces, dilute the urine with water and use in the garden as a fertilizer. For most healthy people, urine is actually sterile as it leaves the body.
Add a high-carbon source to the solid waste like dry leaves or sawdust. Allow it to sit for a year or two, to “cook” and break down into a safer form. This human waste contains many pathogens, and contaminated water diseases happen if handled improperly or too soon.
For TONS more information about this process see permies.com composting toilet forum.
Even more options
For those people who want a less-mess no-touch system (meaning not hauling buckets), the system is designed with proper capacity and function in mind. Non-food trees and bushes like cottonwood and willow handle this very rich fertilizer and break down the waste. Use them for firewood or furniture.
If we want to have a more natural and less energy intensive waste treatment, we build a system with the same functions as modern wastewater treatment. This involves a simulated wetlands ecology that handles the waste and cleans the water. The process is more efficient than a wetland because of the controlled conditions and added aeration.
It also is much more pleasing to the eye and nose than traditional treatment plants (ugly and stinky, the twin brothers of DOING IT WRONG!).
For more info see http://lda.ucdavis.edu/people/2007/HStovall.pdf
But there is (a new) hope!
Some wastewater treatment plants find ways to use this wasted resource. One city uses anaerobic digestion to produce natural gas. This powers the city’s large trucks. See here. Other cities take the dry solids and turn them into fertilizer for non-food plants, like golf courses.
So as you visit the porcelain throne, at least think about where your waste goes, and about better ways to use this resource.
Do you have questions about waste treatment or alternative options? Comment down below and let’s talk about it!
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The Crew at TPL