Eco-friendly feces

By Trevor Ballanger

by Trevor Ballanger

assistant arts & culture editor

In an age when “going green” is becoming a higher priority on people’s to-do lists, it’s hard to go anywhere without having the option to recycle just about anything. And though not everyone chooses to do so, there is one thing all people have in common: the need to have a bowel movement. Environmentalists are now using this simple bodily function to the earth’s advantage.

The act of composting feces into nutrient-rich soil is growing in Chicago and around the country. Carol Steinfeld, ecological solutions advocate and author of “Reusing the Resource: Adventures in Ecological Wastewater Recycling,” said there is a grassroots movement of people creating their own composting toilets. She is in the business of selling them, along with literature about the effects of human fecal waste on the environment.

Steinfeld said the work and process of Chicago-based ecologist Nance Klehm’s human waste program has furthered the movement. According to Klehm, recycling defecation is a way to give back to an environment that is consistently polluted with chemicals and destroyed by soil

stripped during construction.

In 2005, she began using a composting toilet in an effort to become more eco-friendly and use less energy, which later became something she wanted more people to become involved with. By 2008, she had created Humble Pile, a program produced with the assistance of arts

funding to encourage more people to use composting toilets to create soil.

Convincing people to talk about such a delicate topic proved to be a task that needed sugarcoating. Her strategy was to send people aesthetically pleasing invitations about the project, give them the supplies and return the transformed waste to participants in ornate

handmade bags.

“I think it’s really lacking in this culture,” Klehm said. “We’re takers, and we don’t do the giveback. We don’t think of what supports us.”

Although utilizing composting toilets may seem like a very natural task, she said it is a process that users should educate themselves on before participating. The toilets can essentially be used anywhere, and while most have a traditional look, some are simply a modified bucket.

The toilets are designed to separate solid and liquid waste, prevent the contents from using the oxygen needed to break down and keep the elements from becoming overly moist through the addition of sawdust. A chemical reaction occurs between the feces and sawdust that initiates the transformation. If there is too much moisture, the composting process would stop, causing pathogenic bacteria to grow.

According to Klehm, it would literally be like creating a “bomb” capable of spreading disease. She said she found herself in a situation where she had to do a “gut rehab” on 1,500 gallons of waste that had became pathogenic. She said her education in horticulture and composting

provided her with the skills to handle the task.

“It’s great that Nance demonstrated that picking up excreta and bringing it to a central composting facility is viable,” Steinfeld said. “She did it in a playful way to [make] a very artful project. But what she was doing was a microcosm for a larger system that’s

completely doable for any place, from a campsite to the city of Chicago.”

The composting process takes two years to complete. Steinfeld said the time allows for any bacteria to filter out, which is why the soil is completely free of pathogens and harmless from a public health standpoint.

Chicago is unique in that the city is doing more to respond to this new recycling idea, but Klehm said she is trying to expand the business to areas nationwide. The city has systems designed solely for handling excrement that Steinfeld said are showing up in schools and

parks to make better use of clean water and energy. In terms of efficiency, the composters are 10 times faster in filtering out germs because they use as little as a tablespoon of water.

Human waste composting may look rustic, but Steinfeld said the process will have a direct impact on wastewater treatment plants in as little as five years, making the system not only energy efficient but energy producing.

“The reason that I do this is because I believe in soil,” Klehm said. “I think our bodies are soil makers, and this is something to recognize. Our bodies are not dirty. They’re amazing, productive machines and we connect to the [earth] in a direct way.”