How did the indigenous Amazonians create their miracle black soil? No one knows for sure, but it seems obvious that human waste - poo and pee - were important ingredients in the brew.
The ancient Amazonians were ahead of us in many ways. We have embraced the Amazonian practice of adding charcoal to soil. When will we also adopt the practice of gifting our own excreta to the soil microorganisms? Can we call ourselves an advanced civilization when we still engage in barbaric practices like pooping in our own drinking water?
Personally I have not pooped in my drinking water for more than 20 years. I have a two-hole “composting” outhouse with two separate compartments at my remote home in the woods. About every 5 years when one compartment of the vault gets full, we switch to the other hole. We alternate sides so that the composted poo is stored for nearly 10 years before it gets applied to soil. It has been stored so long that there are not likely to be any pathogens left.
When I built my biochar workshop down in the village, however, I had a an opportunity to try something different - pooping in a bucket!
Following the guidelines established by Dr. Ralf Otterpohl of the Hamburg University of Technology, I set up a lactic acid fermentation system for my poo. Terra Preta sanitation is big in Germany, which figures, since they have a lot of sauerkraut juice available to use. Lactic acid fermentation is what produces yummy foods like sauerkraut, yogurt and Asian pickles. Pickled poo may not be “yummy” but it has one great virtue – it eliminates the poo smell. That’s right, pickled poo does not stink. It doesn’t smell wonderful, but it’s really not offensive. So you can keep your bucket indoors right in your bathroom and no one will complain.
Here’s what my system consists of:
• Two buckets – one for pee and one for poo - with nifty spin on lids (I get them from a company called Gamma Seal). You want these because the buckets need to be tightly sealed and regular bucket lids are hard to pry off – especially when you are in a hurry and really need to “go”.
• A bag of bokashi. I can buy bokashi in my local garden store. It is a mix of organisms developed in Japan that includes lactic acid fermenters.
• A supply of biochar. I make my own in various small kilns and stoves.
• A place to empty the results. The poo is destined for my orchard. The pee goes in the compost.
To use my system, I start by filling the poo bucket one third full with biochar. Each time I use it, I add a big handful of bokashi on top of the poo. The bokashi I use is a dry bokashi that has been cultured with bran husk and molasses. If you cannot find bokashi in your area, make some homemade sauerkraut and add it along with some sugar or sweet food scraps (like apple cores) to the poo bucket. You need a sugar source because apparently the lactic acid bacteria cannot live on poo alone (not a surprise, really). After I close the lid, I give the bucket a shake to mix the contents a bit.
I fill the pee bucket about three quarters full with biochar chunks. The pee will just fill in all the spaces in and around the biochar. You want plenty of biochar because there is a lot of odor to absorb. You can also prinkle a little bokashi on top of the biochar. Professor Otterpohl says it will help retain the nitrogen in the pee.
I don’t use a toilet seat because the special spin-on lid comes with a heavy rim that you snap on to the top of the bucket. This is comfortable enough to sit on, but you may want to have a better seat for yours. Separating pee from poo is usually not hard. When pooing, some pee may show up, but that’s not a problem. It would be worse to get poo in the pee bucket because that goes directly into the compost for the garden with no further treatment. Adjust your strategies accordingly.
Researchers in this field are looking at bucket based systems for less developed countries and for refugee situations. They have found that lactic acid fermentation for four weeks kills most bacterial pathogens. Six more months of vermicomposting should take care of the rest. The jury is still out on parasite eggs, but one study in the Philippines that looked for worm eggs after this regimen could not find any.
My feeling is that we have been way too selfish with our personal produce. Instead of feeding it to the fish – who really don’t want it – lets give it to the soil.
For more information, visit Professor Otterpohl’s site at www.terra-preta-sanitation.net