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Dealing with Shit….or, Cholera is Fun!

January 22, 2019

When you start looking beyond the popular consumer literature about emergency and disaster preparedness, and start diving into case studies and government records, one of the recurring themes that arises is the incidence of disease spread as a result of breakdowns in sanitation systems and practices.

From municipal sewage systems flooding and spilling into the streets to breaks in lines contaminating drinking water supplies; to people’s toilets backing up from a lack of water to flush. Once shit starts piling up, disease vectors start ramping up, and people get sick and die.

Even as a kid in the 1980s, reading government Civil Defense handouts from the 1950s and 1960s, and survivalist literature of the era, and Army Field Manuals I purloined from my father’s bookshelves, one of the recurring suggestions for dealing with that included a bucket with a trash bag liner. Once full, you, you were supposed to tie up the bag and “dispose of it safely.” Beyond “bury it” (in which case, why not just use a fucking slit trench?), I don’t recall any specific instructions on what constituted “dispose of it safely.”

The second common suggestion I’ve seen over the years is the time-tested and approved “dig a hole and build an outhouse.” When I was a young kid—really, even into high school—in our rural community, everyone had an outhouse, even though we all had indoor plumbing by then, and running water (well, most. We did have a couple neighbors that, even in the early 1990s, still used a hand pump from a shallow well for household water).

The final suggestion was usually only mentioned by people who’d been in the military in combat arms, and/or were Vietnam vets, which was, shit in a metal barrel, mix in diesel or av-gas, and burn it when it gets close to full. Before I offer a much better option, let’s look at some of the inherent problems with each of the above.

Buried Bags of Poop!

Cat holes and slit trenches go back, at least to the beginnings of recorded military history, and probably further than that. Common in Roman military practice, with the rise of castles and siegecraft in the medieval period, they found a new lease on life. Having a besieging army of thousands, just shitting wherever was convenient was…well inconvenient, when it results in half the army dying of dysentery or cholera. Putting it all in a hole and burying it keeps it mostly safe from rodents and flying vermin who then transmit the pathogens to human food stores…the presence of microbes and mychorrizal in the soil that exists just to break down waste into plant nutrients helps that process.

So, what’s wrong with bagging it and burying it? A plastic bag creates an anaerobic environment, because no oxygen can reach the waste. The microbes that grow in that waste in the anaerobic environment are the ones that stink, and are harmful to human health. Further, when the bag does rupture, the stench attracts vermin…that transmit the harmful bacteria and any disease pathogens to human food stores…

Yay! Cholera!

Here’s a pro tip: Dying of fucking cholera is antithetical to survival.

Privies are for Privacy!

Outhouses, while when done right, aren’t inherently bad. The problem is, even when they were the norm, most people didn’t do them right. Doing them right means digging the hole in clay-rich, basically non-percolating soil, and/or a place that will not allow the seeping waste to contaminate the surface water, or the wells of your property or your neighbors. Guess what….and this is probably something that most people nowadays have never bothered to consider, given the prevalence of piped municipal water systems and sewage waste treatment…of your well is close enough to your house, and shallow enough to be useful without grid-power…and your outhouse is close enough to your house to be useful…the two are close enough to each other to contaminate.

Second, doing it right means adding either lime to kill any possible pathogens, or some carbon rich material like sawdust, or straw, or dry leaf litter to cover the fresh deposits, so they don’t stink and draw vermin that will spread fecal contaminants to human food stores, while also allowing enough loft to encourage aerobic—versus anaerobic decomposition of the waste (remember this part, because you’re going to see it again).

Third, doing it right means digging a really deep hole, and backfilling it long before it is full of waste. I was taught, an eight foot deep hole should be backfilled when the waste reaches the four foot level.

Now, besides the preponderance of improperly built and managed privies, there are three other major disadvantages to them:

1) the most common, and the one I’ve witnessed myself—I’ve never experienced it, but I’ve come close a number of times—is the predilection that spiders and other venomous creatures like scorpions, have for dark places. This results in people using the privy, and getting bit in sensitive places. Tragedy—well, tragic comedy, as long as you’re not the victim—is witnessing a man who was just bit on the scrotum by a brown recluse spider. Now, imagine that happens, without access to a hospital and medical care…I literally cannot count the number of times I’ve witnessed people get bit by spiders and/or scorpions in outhouses. Seeing a six year old get bit on the inner thigh by a spider, while trying to shit, is horrifying.

2) I’ve never witnessed anyone getting snakebit in an outhouse, but I’ve heard of it, and I’ve personally witnessed snakes in the outhouse more than once. Terrifying to me, is defined as the time I walked out to the outhouse, by flashlight, in a pair of flip-flops and shorts, late one night when I was a kid, and opening up the door to find a very angry diamondback rattlesnake hissing and preparing to strike, sitting coiled on the floor in front of the bench. Fuck it. I can hold it til morning.

3) I’ve only witnessed it once, but I’ve heard of it a lot. When I was 9 or 10, at a community gathering at someone’s farm, a little neighbor girl who was probably 4 or 5—barely out of diapers—actually fell through, into the pit. She survived just fine, because her mother dove halfway in herself, and was holding the girl by the hair and collar, while the little girl’s dad, uncle, and a half dozen other men tore the outhouse apart, with their bare hands, in minutes.

I suspect we will see a rebirth of the backyard privy in many places, and judging by some articles I’ve seen recently, it is already happening in some places in the US. It’s kind of tragic though, because there really is a better way.

The GI Shitter Detail

The standard military solution in the modern US military goes back at least as far as Vietnam, and we saw it come back in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is, outhouses with cut down, 55-gallon metal drums instead of holes in the ground.

When the barrels are partly full, the barrels get pulled out the back of the privy, the poor bastard private stuck with the detail wraps a tshirt around his face to mask the stench (or puts on a pro mask, if he’s got a caring chain-of-command), dumps some diesel or av gas fuel in, and sets the whole mess on fire, stirring it regularly to ensure all of the waste is exposed to the burning fuel.

In ten years, I fortunately never had to do this, but I’ve heard it sucks, and I can’t imagine I was being lied to about it. Additionally,

a) there are a number of reports of health problems arising from this practice, and b) it sends up a lot of very dark, very thick, very foul-smelling smoke.

From a grid-down perspective, a) where are you going to get the diesel from, and do you want to waste it on burning feces, and b) don’t you imagine that anyone within twenty miles is going to be asking the same questions, and come looking for fuel? That giant column of black smoke in the sky is a giant “Loot here!” bat signal.

A Better Way

To start this section, I feel it necessary to preface by pointing out that I know it freaks most people out. It did me too, until I did the research.

The solution to a hygienic waste disposal system actually kills two birds with one stone—and that stone is not cholera. That is, a composting toilet. To start, manufactured composting toilets may or may not work. In my research, I found proponents of every model out there that sang its praises. However, for every review singing the praises of a given model, I found four or five reports castigating it as a piece of shit that didn’t work worth a damn.

The only system I could find that didn’t have overwhelming negative reviews from people who had used it, was the system described by Joe Jenkins, in his book The Humanure Handbook. That system, quite simply, involves defecating into a simple 5-gallon bucket (the one preppers tend to have warehouses full of…). Once you’ve finished your business, you add just enough quantity of a dry, carbon-rich material to cover the addition. This might be peat moss, or saw dust (not from cedar!), or straw, or even the dead, dried leaves raked out of the yard, or even dried, brown grass clippings (fresh grass clippings have too much nitrogen content to balance out the nitrogen already in the waste).

The idea behind the addition of carbon-rich material is two-fold.

1) It covers the waste in dry material that keeps it from stinking, and keeps vermin away.

2) The carbon balances and equalizes with the nitrogen in the waste, so it composts into something that actually provides a useful balance of nutrients for plants. Once the bucket is full (enough), you empty it onto a compost pile, cover that with a bit more carbon-rich material, and let it sit for a full year.

Before I address common concerns, I will say, you should read Jenkins’ book. He covers any concerns you might voice, and cites the legitimate scientific research to support his conclusions throughout the book. I’m offering the knuckledragger explanation for it.

But, pathogen transfer!

The solution is two-fold:

1) the loft provided by the carbonaceous filler means that the pile gets plenty of oxygen throughout. This allows aerobic microbes to work, just like in the forest, to break down the organic material into humus (not to be confused with hummus, which some people at least claim is not only edible, but tastes good. Nobody seems to think humus tastes good, even though it can smell divine). Aerobic compost, apparently, does not provide the same risk of pathogenic growth that anaerobic compost does.

2) Aerobic composting creates a LOT of exothermic reaction. The inside of that pile gets HOT. Like 200 degrees or more hot. Anything above 160F apparently kills any human pathogens that may be present in the fecal matter (which makes sense, when you think of the purpose of a fever). While this may be retarded somewhat by freezing temperatures in the winter, I’ve seen steam pouring off the top of a compost pile when outside temperatures were in the single digits, and that’s why we let it sit for an entire year, so it gets through at least one complete summer of hotter temperatures, to ensure the interior of the pile gets hot enough.

I’ve turned over a year old humanure compost pile and found zero original material. There was simply a pile of rich, moist, dark brown humus that might have come off the floor of a dark, mature forest. It was loaded with fat, happy earthworms…which leads to a modification to the basic program that I’ve heard of, but not found necessary. That is, building the compost pile in a large bathtub, or IBC tote with the top cut off, and introducing a large population of earthworms. They eat the poop and straw or sawdust, and poop out clean, hygienic wormcastings at the other end.

In fact, apparently, if you screen the bottom, you can use the drain holes to collect the liquid portion of the castings for “compost tea,” and apply it directly to your plants leaves even.

A similar modification was suggested by an 18C friend who mentioned just putting the compost in black five-gallon buckets, set in the sun. The temperature within the buckets is going to reach 160F so quickly, you could probably use the compost a week later, without harm or risk.

Finally, at least one person I’ve met took the simple precaution of just letting their compost sit for two full years instead of one.

My House Will Smell Like Shit!

No. It won’t. We’ve used this method in three different houses. Two were very small 12×20 cabins, and then in our current 1200 square foot house, with a 10×10 bathroom. Nobody realizes anything is amiss, until they start to sit on the toilet. It actually smells less than a standard bathroom, because there is less moisture in the bathroom’s air, and because we don’t need the addition of chemical toilet cleaners and antibacterials.

Second, the compost pile itself doesn’t stink, at all, even in the heat of summer. I’ve had people standing next to the compost bin, looking in, with both (bare) hands resting on the pallet walls, ands ask “What’s this?”

But, You Can’t Put it on Food Crops!

Well, no…and yes. You don’t put it ON food crops (unless you’re using the worm casting compost tea). You put the perfectly hygienic, clean compost on the ground around the food crops, where the nutrients go into the soil and get utilized by the plants’ root systems.

Here’s the thing: I can go to my local Lowe’s, or Wal-Mart, or garden nursery, or feed store, and buy 50# bags of “composted” cow manure. When I bring it home and cut the bag open, it smells like…shit. It may be partially composted, from sitting in a giant, anaerobic pile of scraped up cowshit in a feedlot somewhere, and then it was shoved into a plastic bag, where it continued to stew with anaerobic microbes…and people don’t blink an eye when you put it on their gardens. What diseases, drugs, and feed additives were present in that feedlot?

Assuming, like mine, that your family doesn’t have anyone suffering from any known chronic pathogens, and if they do, you should have them shit elsewhere, I suppose, and dispose of it some other way—where does this pathogen that people are afraid of come from?

My wife, I will admit, has heard enough potential horror stories and refuses to use humanure compost on her vegetable garden. So, we use it in the orchard, for an extra margin of “safety.” (and by “safety” I mean, “False, completely unnecessary peace of mind”).

Fortunately, we have livestock that we can gather enough manure from to compost aerobically, and build a plentiful compost pile (yes….I just said that….) Additionally, as long as the stores are still open, and trucks are still running, and I still have a job, and I can still spend money, I can always go to the store and buy fertilizers (we don’t, but I could). What about when you no longer can though?

I guarantee you, when you’re staring the very real threat of starvation for your children and grandchildren in the face, you’ll be looking for every viable option to provide food. Unlike farmers in Asia for the last 4000 years, you don’t have to put raw, uncomposted human “night soil” on your crops. You have the option—now that you know about it, and can do further research—to use an available, easily accessible, perfectly safe resource, while disposing (…) of one of the sources of major catastrophic problems in a grid-down scenario.

As we continue to experience the decline of the empire, including increasing infrastructure failures, and reductions in available resources, the need for affordable—free—soil amendments to help feed the soil that feeds your crops will become increasingly obvious. Seriously, either a) get a copy of Jenkins’ book and do the research (including reading the papers he cites), or b) take my word for it, based on my personal experience—and develop a plan to use this method when you find yourself needing to dispose of human waste.

Or, don’t. You too can contribute to the projected 90% die-offs in one year due to the spread of disease and epidemic, because of the willful, inappropriate, unsafe disposal of human waste. Because all the cool kids know, cholera is fun!

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15 Comments
  1. Enlightening article, that was very humorous. I spent the $900+ on a composting toilet-a Nature’s Head. It requires coco coir from Home Depot, and I have wondered what would replace that in a grid down situation. Incidentally, a 10 pound bag of worm casings is $20 at HD-nice to know that you can make your own.

  2. Don’t overlook human urine as an effective fertilizer. My wife’s grandparents are farmers from Asia and use the system here in Texas. We have our boys pee into containers, add 75% on the original volume in water then let it sit for 3-4 days.
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-urine-is-an-effective-fertilizer/

  3. Internet Stranger permalink

    All I have to say is… it’s 255 pages of CRAP. I had to, sorry. You know I didn’t make it up. Also, I haven’t read them all yet but have your collection of reference books. The reason I like them is you get it! Priceless mother fucker. Never change. Best wishes to you and yours. Thanks.

  4. The Humanure book should still be available online free as a PDF. I checked it out and then bought a paper copy. I used a composting toilet myself and I wouldn’t do it any other way. But, you might also want to consider just making methane. It is a lot easier now with the IBC totes, compared to all the old pubs based on 60’s rural Chinese or Indian designs using tire innertubes or whatnot. Just YouTube to get an idea of how easy a methane digester can be. Not sure I’d want to mess with it myself but it is a TwoFer, cooking gas and waste disposal.

  5. BLACK permalink

    my neighbor is a osu agronomist , all most retired.we were talking about hu-manure. he says just try to be safe and compost it down for at least a year and you might not want to plant directly in it, with juicy crops or lettuces.
    i’ve been giving this idea a thought for a while. was thinking building a portable canadian fliptop box. lite enough to be moved semi regularly. positioning it in walk ways, in the garden,dig a few foot hole. place the box over it. pile the loose dirt, around the base, keeping anything from running out. then after a month or so . dig another hole in front of the box , move the box reseal it’s edge s. winter is going to be the tough part. getting the hole deep enough . to make it through the frozen season.
    the old timers with the over built out houses, would plant a f fruit bearing shrub of some sort, where the out house used to be. raspberries or black berries maybe even grapes. you will have 2-3 years of grwing before the first fruits are picked.

    i asked my neighbor about green cow manures, just be careful on juicy produce and lettuces. our biggest issue is in the green state, it can lock up nutrients and your plant growth, will just be retarded. don’t use swine or chicken manures un composted. that is where the stories in the news come from and just plane lazzines, in just dumping a load. where ever you walk and pick. then don’t wash your hands.

  6. Monte Miles permalink

    My copy is sitting down at the PO right now waiting for me to pick up. I had the PDF, but you know it isn’t EMP proof like paper. Like Black above I have been using a similar method for composting kitchen scraps. Dig a hole a couple of feet deep somewhere in the garden, add scraps, cover with a little dirt or wood chips as you go. The worms do the rest. Above ground composting at this altitude was problematic so I made up this system. So far so good. Thanks for your insight and helping to keep our right feet mashed on the pedal.

  7. This is good info on a topic I hadn’t really considered (composting human crap). I thought of one other point that is related to your recent gardening post and this post that might be of use to fellow readers – the use of hay and certain animal manures as mulch and soil amendments in the garden. I certainly agree with their usefulness in gardening, and I use both of them myself when I can get them. The only way I will use them is if I am positive that the hay was not treated with herbicides containing aminopyralids and several other ingredients. These particular ingredients will severely damage most all your garden veggies and are extremely long-lived. Their persistence makes them so insidious. When an animal eats the treated hay, the ingredient can persist through the digestion process and end up in the manure as well. I’ve even heard reports that most composting practices are ineffective in breaking it down in a reasonable timeframe…we’re talking years until it’s been rendered ineffective! I’m not necessarily against herbicide use in general, but this stuff can be catastrophic in your garden. Using it is akin to “salting the earth” in that you’ve created a no-grow zone for quite some time, unless you want to transport the hay, manure, and contaminated soil elsewhere. If you are going to use hay or animal manure in your gardens, I strongly encourage you to make sure it hasn’t been treated with this stuff. The only way to do that is to make sure the farmer is honest about their herbicide use or roll your own and produce it yourself.

  8. Bwilson permalink

    In this area solids from sewer treatment plants are scattered in forest plots to fertilize the trees….

  9. james young permalink

    The cleanest least smelling privies on the Appalachian Trail are the composting ones.

  10. savage permalink

    So, do you pee in the bucket too or is that a separate affair?

    • With the bucket method, it gets dumped often enough (in our house, with four people using it, I dump the bucket about twice a week), that I just pee in the bucket, unless I’m outside, or close to the door, in which cases, I just pee on a tree or bush.

  11. SteveRN permalink

    Have read about or considered gobar gas/ biogas? Apparently, you can use the gas to fuel a stove, or heater. I guess you could also then use the residue to compost, once you have finished producing methane? I have only seen articles mentioning animal waste, but I would think human waste would work as well. The big difference seems to be that making biogas requires an anaerobic process. https://www.michaelyon-online.com/gobar-gas.htm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biogas

    • I’ve read a little bit on it. I need to do more studying. I am reasonably certain, once you’ve gotten the methane gas off the waste, you can then begin an aerobic composting process on the remnants, but I don’t KNOW for sure. We’ve got a pretty solid woodlot, and are surrounded by timber, so the wood cookstove in the kitchen is my default fall-back plan for cooking, if/when I can no longer get propane. It’s strictly decorative now, but it is set up to be functional, on demand. When I can no longer get propane, we’ll start using the wood cookstove with the remaining propane as backup.

  12. Einherjar permalink

    Back in 97 we moved out to South Georgia onto some land my mother-in-law gave us and we went off grid for two years. Jenkins’ 1st edition of Humanure was on our shelves and put into practice. The system just, plain works. Do look into it. In the end we couldn’t stand GA and moved back to the the Rockies.

    Also, on the subject of sewers backing up, if SHTF is long term, plan on using trash bags and expanding spray foam to plug up all the sewer lines in your house that might allow the neighborhood system to turn your basement into an open top septic tank.

  13. bluemudpatriot // night_driver permalink

    mountainguerrilla I would STRONGLY STRONGLY STRONGLY INSISTENTLY recommend that you and HH6 unlimber that range and USE it now while it’s just an interesting hobby. It took my a LONG time (subjectively) to render something that I considered edible (during some lean times). There is both skill and art to making a wood range work, and every damn one is different as to how much damper to use, how far to open the burner damper from the fire box etc. Even WHEN to use just the stove top and when to set the pan into the burner hole can be art…

    It’s no accident that (in “Pulling Through”) Dean Ing has Harve Rackham comment, “I’ve cussed and cajoled a woodstove for years……”

    Oh and did I mention STRONGLY recommend you use and play with the toy while it still IS a TOY and a HOBBY yet??

    Night_Driver

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