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I came across this really interesting piece of writing, , concerning Henry Moule’s Earth Closet.
In the summer of 1859 (I think) he decided his cess-pool was intolerable, and a nuisance to his neighbour; so he filled it in, and instructed all his family to use buckets. At first he buried the sewage in trenches in the yard, one foot deep, but he discovered by accident that in three or four weeks “not a trace of this matter could be discovered.” So he put up a shed, sifted the dry earth beneath it, and mixed the contents of the bucket with this dry earth every morning. “The whole operation does not take a boy more than a quarter of an hour. And within ten minutes after its completion neither the eye nor nose can perceive anything offensive.”
After some experimentation, Mr Moule came up with a marketable earth closet design that was quite sucessful, and it seems to have been a pretty close thing between earth closets and water closets. Today, we hear almost nothing about earth closets, and the presumption generally is that water closets are a good thing, with no competition, and there is nothing but positive from promoting access to water-polluting sanitation for all.
For some decades in the second half of the nineteenth century, therefore, the earth-closet and the water-closet were in hot competition. Almost everything Moule said was true, and much the same arguments are used today by the champions of bio-loos and composting lavatories. The environmental considerations have not changed; using water-closets is expensive, and merely shifts the problem downstream—the sewage has to decompose somewhere.
Henry Moule died in 1880, but even in his seventies he was still trying to persuade the British government that the earth-closet was the system of the future, and he nearly succeeded. Nevertheless in rich countries, because it does rapidly and effortlessly remove the sewage from the house, the water-closet has won the battle—so far…
This little article about Henry Moule’s earth closets certainly added to our knowledge of history, and changed how we think about lovable loos and other simple compost toilet systems. Society came closer than we realised to adopting earth closets as the normal sewage treatment. A monumental error that needs correcting.
Friday 22nd March was “world water day: co-operation”, with various water related messages sent to my inbox. The UNwater.org website has some very shocking and important facts and figures:
85% of the world population lives in the driest half of the planet.
783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.
6 to 8 million people die annually from the consequences of disasters and water-related diseases.
On the surface, great, the impulse is to feel concerned for all the people who do not have access to ‘safe’ water, and make sure that everyone is doing their utmost to ensure all people can have the type of lifestyle that we in the west take for granted.
Our arrogance presumes that the set-up we have both works and should be replicated the world over.
But, sorry, NO. The reality is that many of the places that do not have safe water, have never had the kind of water systems that we have and that are being promoted.
Here in Central Portugal, for instance, some villages only recieved sewage pipes etc less than 10 years ago.
Although many houses had septic tanks, those who did not, I presume, would bury or compost their humanure, traditionally, and seemed to know what to do with it – we are certainly not surrounded by cases of cholera and other water-borne illnesses, even though many of us get our running water from simple wells and water mines.
There is little agriculture here, mainly forest monocultures of pine and eucalyptus, or subsistence peasant farming (which we also do ourselves, of course!), so it rains in the winter, and the rain water permeates through the (relatively) clean soil and ends up in our wells, normally reasonably clean and free of chemicals.
The other thing to consider, and the materials I have read did grudgingly recognise that:
Various estimates indicate that, based on business as usual, ~3.5 planets Earth would be needed to sustain a global population achieving the current lifestyle of the average European or North American.
but, in no way did it go far enough to reveal the problems being caused by flush toilets, sewage systems and the european/US lifestyle.
If there were more industry or industrial agriculture here, if the people here were more committed to economic ‘development’, if everyone were becoming richer, by turning natural ‘resources’ into things to sell to other people, the groundwater here would not be clean or drinkable.
Generally people in the areas, like this, where capitalism is not poisoning the water, tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer but are dirt poor in economic terms.
The underlying premises of all these water day campaigns, seem to be that:
People without toilets and sewage systems will crap in their drinking water.
If water isn’t treated and chlorinated it will be contaminated and unsafe to drink.
Economic activity that results in people paying for things that nature used to supply free, is ALWAYS a good thing.
Everyone should use water closets, and sewage systems.
what is adequate sanitation? if water isnt being polluted it doesnt need to be cleaned.
I suspect that many of these campaigns are initiated and supported by companies and people who benefit financially from the spread of water toilet systems, chlorination and generally the spread of capitalist economic values and systems. As I wrote this, I realised that, as a pyramid system, the spread of heirarchical capitalism benefits everyone who is already within the system. Any system predicated on growth has to find new slaves, consumers and resources all the time, or the promises of better life, more time, food, security etc will be unable to fulfill. The system has to enslave people today, to serve those who were enslaved yesterday. Without the promise of a better day tomorrow, on the backs of others who are yet to be enslaved, no one would voluntarily join the system, and it would stagnate.
In reality, these campaigns are also more about treating the symptoms of the problems, not the actual problems. It would be way better to stop water getting contaminated in the first place, by regulating industry and agriculture, educating people about sickness, water and how stupid it is to shit in water, while encouraging real health – local food production, forest protection, diversity, composting and how:
We are the soil – if we look after the soil, it will look after us.
Yes. There is a problem, and we applaud any educational programmes. Washing hands is such a simple and effective action.
But many of these Water Day materials oversimplify, and offer solutions that may well compound those problems. Being initiated by governments and aimed at raising money from people who are already living within those problems, without proper recognition that our present behaviour regarding humanure, soil, water, forests etc are degrading all the processes that we, as complex life forms, rely on to survive, some of these programmes are very likely to make matters worse.
Real change comes from people making changes in their lives. Institutions change more slowly, and only when we force them to take notice.
Do you poo in your water supply? Isn’t it time you stopped, and started recycling all those important nutrients?
The coming of visitors (Hello Dan, Ola & Olivier!) lurched us into building comfortable toilet facilities so others wouldn’t have to poo in a bucket. We’ve constructed a small dry stone terrace and a lovely wooden bench for you to sit on and poo while gazing up at the stars. The benchtop opens and the buckets of poo and sawdust removed, dumped into our pile of compost that is brewing to become future year’s rich garden soil. We’ve decided not to build a grandiose structure around the terrace and bench as very soon we’d like to move the toilet bench indoors and put a chicken shack on the terrace; so until then all will be pooing in comfort with an outdoor breeze. We have managed to attain a fairly decent level of comfort for guests who are still camping but can shit on a posh bench.
“Wendell Berry once said if you eat, you’re involved. He was talking about agriculture, but if you ask me, he really meant humanure. Getting your outputs sorted is a big and necessary task. For us, that meant designing and implementing a composting toilet system based on wheelie bins.
I thought I’d better give out the details of our compost toilet bin system, as we’re receiving many emails asking for the specifics of how the system fits together. It’s a simple design, but one that we’re very happy with. Here’s how the bins work:
The whole point of having these bins as our composting toilet system was to remove the need to handle the humanure until it had gone through its composting process and was safe to handle. We’re fine with handling open buckets of our own family’s sawdust-covered poo within a small humanure toilet system, but when we have a course here at Milkwood we can have up to 70 people on the farm each day. And though I value their presence (and their poo) I prefer not to process their collective contributions while they’re fresh, if i can avoid it.
So the bins are our solution. When one fills up, you roll it out, stand it aside in the sun, roll another empty in, lock it into place and continue on. No bucket handling, no processing. And a year later, each full bin has transformed into a rich, safe humus, ready to be added to the rootzone of our food forest trees. We label each full bin so we have a full inventory of when each lot of humanure will be ready to use.
The bins we’re using are normal 200 litre wheelie bins, used for household rubbish in Australia. We add a vent at the top of the back panel, a tap outlet at the bottom of the back panel, and a grate inside the bin. Each bin takes about 1 hour to prepare all up, and are best done as a batch. Once a bin is adapted, you’ve got it adapted for life, so it’s a worthy time investment.
Each compost toilet bin has a home-made grate in them which sits about 5cm off the bottom of the bin. This grate provides a permeable barrier between the solids and woodchips coming into the bin, and the bottom of the bin reservoir. Any liquid (and there isn’t much, as the woodchips absorb most of it) moves through this grate and fills the bottom of the bin, and then drains out the bottom through the tap.
The grates were made by cutting a piece of galvanised steel mesh to size, and then adding a polyethylene surround (19mm low density irrigation pipe) to the mesh and wiring it on. A shadecloth cover is then tied to the grate to filter finer particles. The finished grate is wired to 4 bar chairs (the little plastic cones that support rebar while concrete is being poured), which raise it off the bottom of the bin. The completed grate can then be placed inside the bin, and can be removed easily when the humanure is used at the end of it’s composting cycle.”
We’re following Joe Jenkins‘ method for our composting toilets, so this is how we built our compost pile, using bracken as our organic sponge. Bracken harvested at this time of year has the additional advantage of holding together very well when it’s shaped into a ‘nest’ to hold the material to be composted in the centre. As well as mixing in green stuff with the humanure and sawdust, we also add kitchen scraps and the wood ash from the stove.
The toilet itself is constructed from a WWI-vintage wooden army chest (then the property of one Company Sergeant Major Grist of the Royal Corps of Signals) which has seen over 30 years’ service with me as a linen chest, toy box and dressing-up box before ending up as the thunderbox. A circular hole is cut in the lid of the chest which exactly fits the diameter of the 20-litre plastic containers that fit inside.