The neighbours at my cottage have decided that it’s okay to shovel out their outhouse and pile it behind the structure. They call it “compost.” Is human crap of this order actually compost?—Louise Jensen, via email
“Well, no,” says Melissa Ivey, a public health inspector with the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit in Port Hope, Ont. “It’s sewage.”
Your neighbours are not entirely wrong. It’s possible to turn human waste into compost. (Composting toilets, hello.) But if they’re just piling the stuff straight on the ground, they’re composting the wrong way. This strategy isn’t safe for human health or environmental reasons. “What if it rains? The waste could run into the lake or contaminate the drinking water in a well,” says Ivey.
It also isn’t very efficient. “Eventually, it would break down,” says Joe Jenkins, the author of The Humanure Handbook, who has been making compost for 40 years. “Five to 10 years later, it would be a pile of plants.” But composting works better and faster when the pile is nourished: with leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, or “whatever organic material is available,” says Jenkins. This is because proper compost needs a mix of nitrogen and carbon. Excrement provides the nitrogen; the carbon has to come from other organic material. And to avoid contaminating any groundwater, the business should all be contained in some kind of bin or box.
If you’re too squicked out to talk to your neighbours, you could call the local health inspector to come out and investigate.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.
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