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Waste Management Pt. 1: Joe Jenkins and the Composting Toilet

October 29, 2008


“There are two kinds of people in this world,” says Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook, “those that shit in their drinking water, and those that don’t.” Unfortunately, most of the western world falls into the former category, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Human waste can be a viable force for good instead of a harmful pollutant, and Jenkins has the answer.

The technology is all relatively simple – a bucket, a seat, a way to empty it, but implications are immense. Imagine if 8 million shitting souls in New York City were transformed into fertilizer producing machines. The process only requires one vital step, and that will be the hardest to get the Western World to wrap their minds around: it requires you to think just a little bit about your own shit.

Having grown up in a military family, Jenkins came up with the idea for the composting toilet during the wake of the Vietnam war: disgusted by what he considered a massive crime being committed every day by the federal government, he took a vow of poverty and attempted to live the lowest impact life he could – which meant living off the grid as much as possible. To accomplish that goal, he needed a way of disposing of his own waste without mess, and without odors. He came up with the idea of using clean organic materials to cover waste every time it was, shall we say, produced, and that seemed to take care of the odor problem. For a quick video of a “Loveable Loo” in construction, check this out:

When it came time to write a thesis for graduate school, an institution Jenkins never cared for much anyway, he figured that his own composting toilet might make a good topic. That work eventual grew into his self-published “Humanure Handbook,” which he only ever intended to be a way to practice self-publishing, but ended up taking on a life of it’s own over the years, at this point having sold 35,000 copies.

Since then Jenkins has travelled to Mongolia, Tibet, and across the country talking about Humanure. He was being filmed by a Korean documentary crew the other day, and today he was trapped in a blizzard on his way to a talk in Manhattan.

Right now, the only thing holding composting toilets back from releasing their natural potential all over the country is the lack of a large scale business enterprise and government seals of approval for use at large events at that sort of thing. But with the recent popularity of sustainable technologies and general and composting toilets in particular, Jenkins is optimistic about the future of this kind of waste management. Some people have just sort of started doing it on their own – watch the video below for guerilla composters at a music festival –


“I just lurked outside these toilets with a video camera,” said Jenkins about filming that.

The next step for humanure should be clear, and the answer is scale, scale scale. There is no reason to assume that the entire Western world should be shitting in their drinking water just because they can. 

When are we going to see the enxt large-scale, government approved humanure project?

“Honestly, within 5 years,” says Jenkins.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    October 30, 2008 4:18 pm

    So, can you do this at your house? Does it work during the winter? Does the waste build up during the cold months or does the pile stay hot enough?

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