Friday, February 27, 2009

A Golden Opportunity - Pee Here Now!

As the following article indicates, we can continue killing the ocean with anoxic dead zones or conserve the causative nutrients for farmers. Others are doing it on a large scale. Why not your town?

We could train and allow people to compost humanure and utilize urine (which contains by the way, in one person's annual output, enough N, P, and K for ONE ACRE of garden). The cost of these nutrients is rising (along with everything else related to petroleum - ask any farmer) and we're THROWING IT AWAY!!!

"Away" itself has gone away. There IS no "away". We always pay the costs in one way or another whether it be red tides, toxic shellfish or higher medical bills. We could save a LOT OF MONEY because THAT'S what we're really throwing away. At some point an informed public will get tired of having their money "treated like crap" and their crap treated like waste. There's a "golden" opportunity here. "Urine" charge...let's grow with the flow. Pee here now.

Yellow Is the New Green


IN the far reaches of Shaanxi Province in northern China, in an apple-producing village named Ganquanfang, I recently visited a house belonging to two cheery primary-school teachers, Zhang Min Shu and his wife, Wu Zhaoxian. Their house wasn't exceptional " a spacious yard, several rooms " except for the bathroom. There, up a few steps on a tiled platform, sat a toilet unlike any I'd seen. Its pan was divided in two: solid waste went in the back, and the front compartment collected urine. The liquids and solids can, after a decent period of storage and composting, be applied to the fields as pathogen-free, expense-free fertilizer.

From being unsure of wanting a toilet near the house in the first place "which is why the bathroom is at the far end of their courtyard " the couple had become so delighted with it that they regretted not putting it next to the kitchen after all.

What does this have to do with you? Mr. Zhang and Ms. Wu's weird toilet "known as a 'urine diversion', or NoMix (after a Swedish brand), toilet " may have things to teach us all.

In the industrialized world, most of us (except those who have septic tanks) rely on wastewater-treatment plants to remove our excrement from the drinking-water supply, in great volumes. (Toilets can use up to 30 percent of a household's water supply.) This paradigm is rarely questioned, and I understand why: flush toilets, sewers and wastewater-treatment plants do a fine job of separating us from our potentially toxic waste, and eliminating cholera and other waterborne diseases. Without them, cities wouldn't work.

But the paradigm is flawed. For a start, cleaning sewage guzzles energy. Sewage treatment in Britain uses a quarter of the energy generated by the country's largest coal-fired power station.

Then there is the nutrient problem: Human excrement is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which is why it has been a good fertilizer for millenniums and until surprisingly recently. (A 19th-century sewage farm in Pasadena, Calif., was renowned for its tasty walnuts.) But when sewage is dumped in the seas in great quantity, these nutrients can unbalance and sometimes suffocate life, contributing to dead zones (405 worldwide and counting, according to a recent study). Sewage, according to the United Nations Environment Program, is the biggest marine pollutant there is. Wastewater-treatment plants work to extract the nutrients before discharging sewage into water courses, but they can't remove them all.

And there's also the urine problem. Urine, like any liquid, is a headache for wastewater managers, because most sewer systems take water from street drains along with the toilet, shower and kitchen kind. Population growth is already taxing sewers. (London's great network was built in the late 19th century with 25 percent extra capacity, but a system designed for three million people must now serve more than twice as many.) When a rainstorm suddenly sends millions of gallons of water into an already overloaded system, the extra must be stored or "if storage is lacking " discharged, untreated, into the nearest river or harbor. Each week, New York City sends about 800 Olympic-size swimming pools' worth of sewage-polluted water into nearby waters because there's nowhere else for it to go.

This probably won't kill us, but it's not ideal. Environmental scientists in California have calculated that sewage discharged near 28 Southern California beaches has contributed to up to 1.5 million excess gastrointestinal illnesses, costing as much as $51 million in health care. We can do better.

Urine might be one way forward. Before engineers scoff into their breakfast, consider that since at least 135,000 urine-diversion toilets are in use in Sweden and that a Swiss aquatic institute did a six-year study of urine separation that found in its favor. In Sweden, some of the collected urine "which contains 80 percent of the nutrients in excrement " is given to farmers, with little objection. If they can use urine and it's cheap, they'll use it," said Petter Jenssen, a professor at the Agricultural University of Norway.

The price of phosphorus fertilizers rose 50 percent in the past year in some parts of the world, as phosphate reserves, the largest of which are in Morocco and China, dwindle. (The gloomiest predictions suggest they'll be gone in 100 years.) Although half of sewage sludge in the United States is already turned into cheap fertilizer known as "biosolids," urine contains hardly any of the pathogens or heavy metals that critics of biosolids claim remain in mixed sewage, despite treatment.

The rest of Sweden's collected urine goes to municipal wastewater plants, but in much smaller volume so it's easier to deal with. Research by Jac Wilsenach, now a civil engineer in South Africa, found that removing even half of the nutrient-rich urine enables the bacteria in the aeration tanks to munch all the nitrogen and phosphate matter in solid waste in a single day rather than the usual 30. Urine diversion also makes for richer sludge and produces more methane, which can be turned into gas or electricity, Mr. Wilsenach said. In short, separating urine turns a guzzler of energy into a net producer.

Putting urine to use is not new. A friend's grandmother remembers the man coming round for the buckets 60 years ago in Yorkshire, which were then sold to the tanning industry. The flush toilet ended that, and no one "my friend's nan included" wants outside privies again. "Any innovation in the toilet that increases owner responsibility is probably seen as downwardly mobile," said Carol Steinfeld, of New Bedford, Mass., who imports NoMix toilets into the United States.

Then there's the sitting problem: in most urine-diversion toilets, a man must empty his bladder sitting down. This wouldn't be a problem in some countries (Germany recently introduced a toilet-seat alarm that admonishes standers to sit) but it has been in others. Professor Jenssen was flummoxed by one participant at a training workshop in Cuba who said firmly, "If a man sits, he is homosexual."

For now, "ecological sanitation" or "more sustainable sewage disposal" thrives mostly in fast-industrializing countries like China and India, which have money to invest in alternatives but few sewers. A subculture of composting toilets exists in the United States, but only a few hundred urine-diversion toilets have been imported, Ms. Steinfeld said.

Necessity "whether occasioned by fertilizer prices, carbon footprints or crippling capital investments" could bring change. At a recent wastewater conference, I watched in astonishment as dour engineers rushed to question a speaker who had been talking about stabilization ponds, which clean sewage using water, flow control, bacteria and light. Normally, such things would be cast into the box of hippie-ish ecological sanitation. But to managers struggling with energy quotas and budget limitations, more sustainable, less energy-intensive sanitation may be starting to make sense.

As Mr. Zhang told me with a smile: "For me, whatever the toilet is, I use it. For example, here we eat wheat. When we go to the south of China, we eat rice. Otherwise we starve."

It's been more than 100 years since Teddy Roosevelt wondered aloud whether "civilized people ought to know how to dispose of the sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water." The Zhang family toilet is not the perfect answer to Roosevelt, as it still uses some water, though 80 percent less than a regular flush toilet uses. But at least it's the result of someone asking the right questions.

Rose George is the author of "The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters."
More "Waste" management books here.

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure
by Joseph C. Jenkins,
1994, 198pp. $25

Learn how to deal with your own shit. "Stop trying to change the world. Toilet-train the world and you won't have to keep changing it."(Swami Beyondananda) Here's all you need to know to make sewage treatment systems obsolete. Answers all the questions you never dared ask!

Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants
by Carol Steinfeld
2004, 88pp, $13

Pee=fertilizer. Witty, practical, liberating! Grow with the flow! Urine charge. A golden opportunity. Pee here now. Every day, we urinate nutrients that can fertilize plants that could be used for beautiful landscapes, food, fuel, and fiber. Instead, these nutrients are flushed away, either to be treated at high cost or discharged to waters where they overfertilize and choke off aquatic life. Liquid Gold details three ways to use urine hygienically and productively for plant growth, with studies that show the science behind this practice. Several advocates of urine diversion and their gardens are profiled, demonstrating that using urine for fertilizer is a feasible, safe, and cost-saving way to prevent pollution and save on fertilizer costs.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Turn off the High Definition for better viewing

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Find the Ecovillage where you are...

Good news from friend and colleague (once long-term editor of Communities Magazine and author of Creating A Life Together and Finding Community) Diana Christian (and previously fellow ecovillager at Earthaven) who writes (at her excellent new website, Ecovillage News):

I’m publishing Ecovillages as a free, bimonthly newsletter in order to encourage and inspire ecovillage projects with news about what ecovillages are doing worldwide. People seem to love photos and stories about how others are succeeding in good work. Ecovillages will bring you stories about successful projects in every issue, and practical, how-to information, too.

From six to eight articles will appear in each issue, in a variety of topics. Here are the kinds of articles and ongoing columns you'll find:

  1. The ecovillage movement
  2. News about individual ecovillages worldwide
  3. Practical ecovillage tools:
  4. “Ecovillagers Write” (letters to the editor)
  5. “Book & Video Reviews”

I’m especially keen on stimulating more interest in ecovillages in North America, ideally with news of what people are doing elsewhere. You’ll find stories about ecovillage projects in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Russia, South America, Australia and New Zealand, southern Asia, China, and Japan. (We’re everywhere!)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Be Fruitful and Mulch Apply

A few simple directions
Michael Pilarski, Friends of the Trees Society (2/3/03 edition)
The most effective sheet mulches are roundish in outline and at least 10 feet or more in diameter to minimize edge which can be invaded by rhizomatous weeds.
1). First chop down existing vegetation as close to the ground as feasible. Leave the chopped material as the first layer.
2) Plant any trees or shrubs desired (if any) in the area to be sheet mulched.
3) Water thoroughly unless the ground is moist from rain or winter melt-off.
4) Spread layer of rich material such as manure, compost or mushroom compost, lawn clippings, fresh green leafy matter,
5) A good addition if available is to add trace mineral rock dusts such as rock phosphate, limestone, dolomite, greensand or humates depending on the soil.
6) Add handfuls of red wiggler worm inoculum (contains eggs as well as actual worms) at regular intervals. Not entirely necessary but they help break down the lower layers of the sheet mulch faster.
7) Cardboard layer. 2 to 3 layers thick, overlapped like shingles. Full coverage. Pull the cardboard within a few inches of any tree stems which have been planted.
8) Chip layer. Broken down is better then fresh material but both will do. Deciduous trees are better than coniferous trees but both will do. Biomass from less polluted areas are preferable than from more polluted sources. Leaves, needles, twigs, and bark are better than the actual woody trunk chips. The finer the grind the better. Use whatever you can get, as long as it doesn’t have weed seeds in it.
9) Poke planting holes all the way through the sheet mulch with a heavy steel bar or a pick. Make a planting pocket in the hole and fill it with some good soil and then transplant herb plants or vegetable starts or flowers that you wish to plant. Water in thoroughly and remulch up to their stems.
10) Monitor the planting and pull the occasional weed which pokes its head up through planting holes, or around trees. After a few months the cardboard will decay to the point where weeds will gradually begin to emerge though the sheet mulch. It is easy to pull these shoots out if monitored frequently. The mulch can be renewed once or twice a year to maintain its effectiveness.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Financial Permaculture: What Is It?

Financial Permaculture from Greg Landua on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A simple technology that brings fresh hope

Case study

In the hot weather of Sudan, Hawa Abbas used to lose half of her tomato, okra and carrot crop.

Her world changed when she began working with Practical Action. As she herself says, “After many years of struggle, Practical Action came and showed us how to make pottery refrigerators. They are made of two different size pots. The smaller is put inside the bigger one and in between we put sand and wet it with water and cover it.”

“They keep our vegetables fresh for 3-4 weeks, depending on the type of crop. They are very good in a hot climate such as ours where fruit and vegetables get spoiled in one day.”

It is clear to Hawa Abbas how important this has been to her family. “Since I learned how to make zeer pots our life has been so much better.”

Clay refrigerator
Detailed background and instructions on how to make a zeer pot clay refrigerator

Clay-based technologies manual
A practical handbook on making clay refrigerators, water coolers and stoves, from Practical Action Sudan. This manufacturing manual has step by step instructions, photos and technical drawings.

Evaporative cooling
Download a technical brief on evaporative cooling from Practical Answers


without the Zeer

using the Zeer


2 days

20 days


2 days

20 days


4 days

17 days


4 days

20 days


1 day

5 days

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Archdruid Speaks...about Peak Oil

In his book, "The Long Descent", John Michael Greer observes that our culture has two primary stories: "Infinite Progress" or "Catastrophe". On the contrary, he sees history as cyclic: civilizations rise and fall. Like others, ours is exhausting its resource base. Cheap energy is over. Decline is here, but the descent will be a long one. It's too late to maintain the status quo by swapping energy sources. How to deal with this predicament? He lays out practical ideas, possibilities, and potentials, including reconnecting with natural and human capacities pushed aside by industrial life. []