Nance Klehm, a professional ecologist, is trying to make No. 2 her No. 1 priority.
Humble Pile is a nutrient looping project started by Klehm that utilizes the composting of human excrement and urine through the use of a dry toilet. With the project now in its second phase-composting-Klehm has started holding workshops at the Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood Ave., to discuss the project and celebrate the end of phase one- collection.
Klehm, who oversees the experiment, sent 30 letters out in April inviting families around the Chicago area to collect and save their poop with the use of “dry toilets”-five-gallon buckets containing sawdust. Out of the 30 letters sent out, 11 households chose to participate.
“On a philosophical level, I am really tired with the current green dialogue; I think it is very eco-light,” Klehm said. “I wanted to address the fact that most of that dialogue is based around the marketing of other goods and services and I’m interested in what we are going to do with all this crap, and quite literally, what we are going to do with our own.”
To Klehm, this project is about the dialogue, saving water and about not using clean water to put waste into. She said Humble Pile is about a new opportunity to build new and healthy soil, and recycling human feces was one of the most obvious resources to do so.
“I wanted to celebrate the collection phase,” Klehm said. “Phase two is the composting stage. Three is soil; after it’s been composted and transformed it’s going to either be given back to the people who made it or donated to a site on the South Side.”
Joseph Jenkins, author of the Humanure Handbook, calls human excrement “humanure,” because it would either be that or s–t, c–p, turds and all the words for human feces, he said. Humanure is a term that can be used to talk over the dinner table with one’s grandmother and no one will be offended, Jenkins said.
“There have been quite a few people in individual settings that have been composting humanure in the last year or so,” Jenkins said. “It’s now expanding in group situations, and composting is occurring at festivals and conferences.”
Both Klehm and Jenkins said they think composting humanure is important for a number of reasons.
“I think our water problem will increase over time if water is consumed faster than it can replenish itself,” Jenkins said. “As drinking water becomes scarce, it should be used more wisely. It should not be used to flush away waste.”
One of the basic reasons for nutrient looping-taking food from the ground and then naturally breaking down fecal matter into a usable soil-is to eliminate water pollution caused by sewage. Using water to flush waste away is not wise, Jenkins said.
Klehm said Humble Pile was about saving water and trying to get people interested in the fact that bodies are soil factories.
“If you don’t flush it away and you recycle it, it becomes returned to the soil and it builds up soil fertility,” Jenkins said. “[Humanure] aides in growing food crops and keeping the soil healthy-a healthy soil grows a healthy food crop, which is the foundation of community health, clean environment and good food.”
Jenkins said humanure’s high moisture and nitrogen content repels microorganisms that convert organic material back into soil. Adding a carbon-based material like plant fiber, which is high in carbon and low in moisture, creates a balanced material. The natural organic breakdown of human waste will leave essential minerals after decomposition.
Jenkins said there are neighborhoods, communities and new developments that could be designed within urban areas to be retrofitted with collection toilets rather than disposal toilets.
“We are just starting to see that concept being experimented with at festivals, conferences and [in] communities,” Jenkins said. “As the experimentation develops it can be adapted to residential areas.”
One of the festivals that used composting toilets this past summer included the United Kingdom’s Shambala Festival. According to the festival’s website, ShambalaFestival.org, the flowers planted around the outdoor toilets were planted in composted fecal matter.
Dr. Elizabeth Davis-Berg, an ecology and evolutionary biologist who teaches general zoology and marine biology at Columbia, said her main concern with using human feces as compost is what would be going back into the soil after the decomposition of excrement.
“With [dry] toilets you have to let the compost cure for a longer amount of time [so it decomposes correctly],” Davis-Berg said.
“[By adding sawdust] you’ve added enough carbon to balance the nitrogen and moisture, and by doing that you end up with a collection toilet with a material that is ready for conversion back into soil,” Jenkins said. “It’s simply adding the carbon-based material to the humanure; that’s the key. If you can do that you’ve set the stage for a natural, ecologically beneficial transformation of humanure into a positive, constructive resource.”
Jenkins said there have been an increasing amount of people using humanure toilets in several urban areas such as Texas and in various cities in Vancouver, British Columbia. Through Klehm’s Humble Pile project, Chicago may follow suit.
“[This project is] seeing who the courageous people are that would be willing to form a community around pooping,” Klehm said. “It’s about the dialogue, it’s about saving water. It’s about not using clean water to put waste into; it’s about a new opportunity to build new healthy soil, and this is one of the most obvious.”