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jackiewheeler | Apr 10, 2012 06:00 AM

All this serious, recent talk (also see this) about Western water shortages and new pipelines gets me thinking again about a not-so-serious but related subject: poop. Granted, there are many very serious aspects of poop such as its disease-carrying properties.composting toilet The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is so concerned about poop that it is partnering with the German government to invest in innovative sanitation systems to help underdeveloped regions of the world. Laudable outcomes could involve not only disease prevention and water savings but possible recycling of the waste into energy sources and eco-safe fertilizer.

You may be aware that some of these benefits are old news to Joseph Jenkins, author of the cult classic The Humanure Handbook, now in its third edition. Jenkins advocates the use of composting toilets (and their by-product, human-waste compost), which are rapidly gaining popularity not just in national and state parks but with individuals. A Google search for composting toilets reveals dozens of manufacturers and retailers eager to sell you one. Publications like Tree Hugger and Mother Earth News cover the subject frequently, as do local blogs, like the one from my local Phoenix-area Valley Permaculture Alliance.

Still, we’re talking about poop. Few who join the composting toilet conversation can resist throwing in a few scatological gags, even Bill Gates. Visitors to my rustic little cabin in the Utah boonies are usually ready with a pun within moments of learning that we have one there. After reading up on them (and saving up; they’re pretty costly), the spouse and I were eager to try this waterless, off-grid fixture, and so far it’s done its duty (hee hee) and passed the smell test (literally, no joking here).

But all is not sweetness and light when it comes to humanure. There’s a legitimate zoning debate about the use of composting and other alternative toilets in urban areas; one worry is possible incorrect installation and unsanitary disposal. Also, the very squeamish may have difficulty adjusting, particularly if they have trouble with pit toilets. Let’s just say that there’s a visual element. A good sense of humor helps, and a belief that even small individual “contributions” can nurture the earth. Sorry. 

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Image courtesy Flickr user Brian Fey.

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