Let’s move toward sustainable waste management

By Madison Martin

DMACC Honors Student

Guest Columnist

 Human waste is a topic that is rarely considered as an environmental concern. It is disposed of as rapidly as possible and quickly forgotten about. However, flushing human waste is actually causing some major environmental issues that could be solved by the act of composting human waste. Although some might be immediately opposed to the idea, the act of composting human waste has actually already been implemented. For example, as noted in the article “Improving Sanitation with Composting Toilets,” a student from the University of Washington took the initiative to install composting toilets in a rural area of Costa Rica. It has been a very successful endeavor, as the community has been able thrive, invent, and achieve in the sanitary environment without worrying about the potential health or environmental risks of human waste.

Although the traditional sewer system is an enormous innovation that has provided a safe and sanitary environment for urban society, the underlying effects are also causing some major environmental problems. Some of the main problems associated with traditional waste management include fresh water pollution and the exhaustion of soil nutrients used in agriculture. Sunita Narain, author of the article “The Flush Toilet is Ecologically Mindless,” supports this argument by communicating how the current practice for waste management and disposal is inefficient and leads to various forms of pollution. In addition, Joseph Jenkins, an expert in the field, stipulates in his book The Humanure Handbook that flushing human waste “disrupts the natural human nutrient cycle”, and in the process, depletes the soil of essential nutrients for agricultural development.

We as a society need to become more sustainable, and the reality of the matter is that we need to change what we are doing. A potential solution to these environmental issues, which are primarily caused by flushing human waste to waste water treatment facilities, is the act of composting human waste by using a composting toilet. As noted, countries are already implementing composting toilets to dispose of human waste, because they are an ecofriendly way to dispose of human waste when water supplies are limited. However, composting toilets should not only be used where water is scarce, but also everywhere else to ensure the protection of our natural resources while they are still plentiful.

Some argue that the problems associated with traditional urban waste management are trivial compared to the health concerns associated with an open sewage system. However, composting human waste is safe and sanitary. The authors of “Guidelines for the Use of Urine and Feces in Crop Production,” Hakan Jonsson et al. , verify how composting can be a safe and sanitary method of waste disposal if done through thermophilic composting. This process is an “aerobic process which relies on the heat from the degrading organic matter to reach the temperature desired.” Therefore, as long as human waste is composted and allowed to heat up, it is completely sanitary just as the traditional urban waste management systems.

Although the concept of composting human waste might seem like a radical notion, our society needs to change in order to become more sustainable. Therefore, next time a toilet is flushed, it should be considered how much of a strain it makes on the environment, and how our environmental impact can be lessened to restore vital nutrients to the earth whether through composting, or another environmentally sustainable method.

Madison Martin is from Madrid, Iowa, and is currently attending Des Moines Area Community College on the Boone campus. After she graduates in May 2017 with her associate’s degree in science, she plans to transfer to the University of Washington to study Civil and Environmental Engineering. After graduation, her dream is to own a company where she can focus her efforts on making cities and towns more sustainable.