Taking the Piss

Taking the Piss and Talking Shit

It's been said that the next major global conflict is as likely to be fought over water as oil, whilst closer to home, looming droughts are threatening to give us yet another summer of hosepipe bans and exhortations to share the bathwater. From this perspective, our habit of using water of drinking quality to flush our bodily wastes out to sea can be recognised as the absurdly wasteful practice that it is. Maybe instead we should think about using a 'problem is the solution' approach, and find some ways to both preserve our H2O supplies for more vital functions, whilst at the same time actually turning our urine and faeces into valuable sources of fertility.

Peeing straight into the garden is a minimum effort way of providing nitrogen and other nutrients to my growing plants - I often work late at night in the back room, and its much easier just to pop outside rather than having all the bother of going upstairs and trying not to make a noise that will disturb the rest of the household. Better still if we've got a few friends round for the evening, as long as everyone doesn't go in the same spot. One drawback of urine is that it can actually damage plants if applications are too concentrated - there was a case I read of in the paper last summer where an otherwise respectable citizen of Middle England was jailed for killing his neighbour's Leylandii conifer hedge by systematically pissing on its roots every night. The Centre for Alternative Technology recommends that urine should ideally be watered down by at least 1 part to 10, with their researchers observing that applications of this solution led to large increases in brassica and onion crop yields. However, I'm sure that simply moving around and peeing straight onto the soil in different places each time can't do anything but good, and much of the dilution process can be carried out biologically, 'in situ' as it were, simply by drinking a few pints of beer during the evening's course. Or else just piss straight onto your compost pile to kick-start the various microbes and bacteria into doing their wonderful job of producing rich organic matter.

Another practical issue is discretion, especially during the daytime, and particularly if you have overlooking neighbours who already consider you 'eccentric' to the point of certifiability. Whilst wasting valuable 'liquid gold' might seem a shame, a visit to the magistrates court on charges of indecent exposure would be even more regrettable for most of us. I'm lucky in that despite having the small garden of a typical urban terraced house, its a forest of fruit trees and bushes that can provide me with plenty of cover, or else I can always pop in the greenhouse with a bucket and pretend to be potting something up. I did go through a period of collecting my urine in plastic lemonade bottles stored next to the toilet, but this had to stop once the children reached the age where they wanted to bring their friends round after school. I later learned that urine is actually far better used fresh than stored for any length of time anyway, as the nitrogen content quickly turns to ammonia that can actually do more harm than good according to some books, even when used via the compost heap.

A couple of years ago I a received an email from a young chap who had decided to take the logical next step of shitting straight onto his garden, and wanted to know whether this was a practice I'd recommend. Often such unsolicited requests for free advice hang around in my inbox for a good few weeks, but on this occasion I immediately hit 'reply' with an emphatic "No! Cease and Desist!! Now!!!" Apart from the questionable aesthetics, fresh human faeces are very likely to carry pathogens that can be extremely harmful to health. Furthermore, uncomposted manure from any animal should never be applied to the soil surface in a raw form.

A much better solution would be to build a compost toilet. Here wastes can gently break down over a year or so into pleasantly earthy-smelling 'humanure' that can then be applied around fruit bushes and ornamentals rather than salad plants or other leafy vegetables you are likely to directly handle. Unfortunately we don't have room in our garden for such a structure, although I have helped to build one at Dial House, the Essex home of 'Camp Idle' as well as our regular permaculture courses. In this particular system the user dumps into a container, covering their deposits with a layer of straw, sawdust or other carbon rich materials. This balances out the high nitrogen content of the faeces, as well as absorbing smells and excess moisture. This mixture is periodically emptied into large wooden compost bins at the end of the garden where its left to get on with its thing until ready. Despite many people's initial misgivings, everybody that has used this toilet has found the experience most enjoyable. I think this is because we made a conscious effort to avoid the archetypal monuments to squalor often associated with outdoor 'facilities' (think 'Glastonbury Festival', if you can bear it...). Instead we asked ourselves whether our loo was one that people would feel comfortable about - will it look good, will it smell, and would we feel embarrassed at the thought of visitors using it? Consequently its not the sort of draughty, stinky nightmare you want to get in and out of as quickly as possible, rather a solid structure where one is happy to take one's time, relax and even sit down and read a good book. Come and try it some time...

Graham Burnett is a permaculture teacher and designer and author of 'Permaculture, a Beginners Guide', 'Earth Writings' and other publications. You can contact him via his website, www.spiralseed.co.uk