Friday, February 27, 2009

A New Toilet in Our Future

This morning Brooks brought his laptop in and threw it in bed with me. "Look," he said, "this is going to save us a lot of money".
And what had he linked to?
A RV-sized toilet that separates pee from poop, that's what.
His brainstorm involves replacing our fairly new toilet with this $800 model so we don't have to deal with removing the bottom of our Airstream to replace the black water tank, which is perfectly fine except for the fact that it does not hold water. You'd have to be an RV person to understand that is not a problem if you're connected by a big fat flexible hose to a septic outlet, and you'd have to be an Airstream person to understand that the challenges of unriveting half your home to replace that tank just isn't on the short list.
What follows proves why he thinks I won't flip out at the idea of spending $800 for a toilet.
This first appeared in the column 'Gardening on the Coastal Plain' in FL panhandle publication called The Forgotten Coastline. I stole it from myself, hope nobody minds! Kudos to Rose George for picking up on this. I agree with Roosevelt... it looks like we'd be intelligent enough not to pee where we drink.


The Great Pee Debate is officially over, and everybody wins. You know what I’m talking about. She says, “You’re going to kill that plant if you keep peeing on it,” and he says “No I’m not,” and she says “yes you are,” and the plant doesn’t die but eventually he starts peeing on a different plant anyway, just in case.
Since Adam, men have answered the call of nature outside, and today’s modern flush plumbing hasn’t entirely changed that fact. Never, ever, have I met a man I believe to be one hundred percent housebroken. So when I was searching for some information about composting, and stumbled on a conversation about peeing on compost at one of my favorite online gardening forums, I was intrigued. Four or five people wrote that they, or their spouses, did this to provide the nitrogen kick the compost pile sometimes needs to begin heating up.
Huh? My mind raced to come up with all the reasons this was a Very Bad Idea. Disease. Odor. Indiscretion. And good gosh, just don’t encourage this, I thought. Males are hard enough to contain as it is.
So I did a little research. As it turns out, the scientific world agrees that human urine is a clean, sterile product rich in nitrogen in the form of urea that is readily accessible to plants. Multiple experiments have proven that human urine can be used on crops, including food crops, with remarkably favorable results. The more nitrogen-loving a plant is, the better the urine makes it grow. Because it is so high in nitrogen, and because our diets are generally so high in salt, dilution is recommended at the rate of one part urine, to between one and ten parts water. For use as a kicker on the compost pile, however, urine can be applied straight.
In much of the rest of the world, this is common knowledge. The human nutrient cycle is eat, excrete, compost, grow, and eat, so the very thought of wasting a vital link, and not returning our nutrients to the soil, would be as repugnant to some cultures as the thought of eating food watered with urine might be to us. In the mid 1990s, in an effort to combat the extreme poverty in Mexico City, an organization called Journey to Forever experimented with ways to help the people grow fresh organic food in whatever space they had available. Large, fifteen to twenty liter containers without drainage holes were packed almost full of deciduous tree leaves and grass clippings. A hole was drilled a few inches from the bottom to provide drainage while maintaining a reservoir of water. On top of this was added a couple of inches of soil, and onto this soil, seeds were sown. The weight of the materials made these containers considerably lighter than filling them with dirt, therefore more suitable for balconies and rooftops. Men were encouraged to… you guessed it… and by the end of a year the contents of the containers had composted down into a rich, fertile humus. The contents of one container provided enough soil to start ten more. The crops produced ranged from outstanding to so-so, with leafy crops and fruits doing best, and tomatoes, cucumbers, squash growing beautifully, but producing little fruit. All the plants did especially well in the early stages, and all, intriguingly, proved very resistant to common insect pests and diseases.
In case you are wondering (as I was) about the odor, there isn’t any as long as the urine is used on mulch. compost or well-aerated soil. When it hits impervious surfaces such as concrete or asphalt, that’s where the odor is created.
The experiment in Mexico City especially interested me, but I read about many such examples of using this liquid gold for fertilizer. It all makes me wonder who, really, has the more civilized society: the ones who ‘close the loop’ by recycling what their own bodies produce, or the ones who flush away a cup of urine with a gallon and a half of clean water. Incidentally, since we on the coastal plain are such big users of septic tanks, you might want to know that the word septic comes from the Greek word ‘septikos’, which means ‘to make putrid’, and that septic tanks are the biggest polluters of groundwater in the United States. What goes through your system every day, other than personal waste: chlorine? toilet bowl cleaners? drain cleaners? Municipal sewer systems add to this mix medical and industrial wastes. No wonder we have to spend so much money cleaning water to be able to drink it.
Out of all the research I did (and I spent days reading about this subject) there were only a couple of cautionary notes about using urine as fertilizer. One was that people with urinary tract infections should let their urine go through the compost pile instead of directly on food crops, and the other was that today’s highly processed foods contain large amounts of salt that could eventually build up to toxic levels in container crops. Maybe we should all have a potted plant to be our canaries: if the plant dies from excess salt, we might want to cut down our own consumption!
All this really, really makes me wish I were still coming up with science fair projects for the kids. Just imagine the display… “In this container of corn, I peed.” “In this container I diluted my pee.” “In this container, I didn’t pee at all.” Talk about giving new meaning to the term ‘whiz kid’.
So, in the Great Pee Debate, the women win, because pee contains a high level of nitrogen, which, applied to the same plant over and over, might be too much of a good thing. This is also the reason we perceive dog urine as being bad: dogs tend to use the same spot over and over, and other dogs come along and add their offerings to the same spot. That causes a buildup of salts and urea, and that, too, is too much of a good thing. The men win, because, well, now they have a great reason to answer the call outdoors.
In case you are interested, June 21st was Pee On Earth Day in the northern hemisphere. If you are bummed about missing the opportunity to celebrate such a worthy event, head on down to the southern hemisphere, and catch it again on December 21st.
And ladies, don’t think you can’t participate. Marine suppliers can get potty lids for five gallon buckets. Mine’s been ordered.

1 comment:

Amy Stewart said...

Hi--can you send me an e-mail so I can get your GardenRant short fiction prize out to you? I've been on the road and email has been a bit unreliable, so if you've already sent it, my apologies. Also, Pat Stone at GreenPrints wants to reprint your piece, so I'd like to put you in touch with him so you guys can work that out if you like.

Send a note to amy at amy stewart dot com.