Oh, poo!

Over the past few days, a link to an article on the Guardian website has been doing the rounds on Facebook (at least in the circles I mix in, which are mainly related to sustainability). It’s entitled Why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design and explains why we might not want to keep our toothbrush next to our toilet and why it’s such an environmental issue to mix the water we wash our hands in with the waste we flush down the toilet.

Basically, the issue with water disposal is that grey water (from washing) can safely be used to irrigate the land, whilst black water (from the toilet) needs to be processed to make it safe. By mixing the two together, we end up with a lot more highly contaminated water that has to be processed in some way. According to the Guardian:

Over 10bn litres of sewage are produced every day in England and Wales. It takes approximately 6.34 GW hours of energy to treat this volume of sewage, almost 1% of the average daily electricity consumption of England and Wales.

I don’t know what the figures would be if we separated the two sorts of water, but I know they would be significantly lower. The real issue in my mind, however, is that we see everything that goes down the drain as a problem – all waste water is pollution in the current paradigm. What we need to do is realise that, in fact, all waste water is a resource… faeces and urine contain valuable nutrients, and water itself is an increasingly rare commodity globally.

And if we are thinking about fertility, The nitrogen fertiliser industry is big business, closely tied in with fossil fuels… according to the International Plant Nutrition Index:

All N fertilizer begins with a source of hydrogen gas and atmospheric N that are reacted to form ammonia. The most-used source of hydrogen is natural gas (methane). Other sources of hydrogen, such as coal, are used in some regions. After hydrogen and N are combined under conditions of high temperature and pressure to form ammonia, many other important N-containing fertilizers can then be made. Urea is the most common N fertilizer, but there are many excellent N fertilizers that can be made from ammonia. For example, some ammonia is oxidized to make nitrate fertilizer. This same conversion of ammonia to nitrate takes place in agricultural soils through the microbial process of nitrification.

Because the production of hydrogen gas required for the synthesis of ammonia largely comes from natural gas, the price of this primary feedstock is the major factor in the cost of ammonia production. Ammonia factories sometimes close or open in various parts of the world in response to fluctuating gas prices. Higher energy costs always translate into higher prices for all N fertilizers. (IPNI)

The classic image of a compost toilet

The classic image of a compost toilet

So, we flush great fertiliser away down the toilet (remember a key function of urine is to expel excess nitrogen from our bodies), pay for that to be treated to make it safe and then pay even more to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere to apply to the land to grow crops. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem sensible. Why not turn the waste into a useful resource and avoid a whole bunch of pollution?

I know that most people are squeamish about composting toilets and they are currently not readily available for use in ‘normal’ houses, but technology is changing. Soon, you won’t have to deal with the waste yourself if you want to avoid the standard flush toilet, and you wont have to have a compost loo in the garden either. Take a look at Toilet Revolution if you want to see a whole range of options suitable for real homes.


Peeing in a bucket

I promise this is my last post about saving water for a while, but there are a couple of things I want to mention that have cropped up as a result of recent posts.

First, this week I decided that I would investigate a little more how much water we were using in the shower. It turns out that Mr Snail-of-happiness only spends about 3 minutes in the shower, whilst I spend about 5.5 minutes in there. Both times are much shorter than the average in the UK, which is 7.5 minutes. I also measured the water I used, so that I could find out the rate of flow of our shower. Our electric shower, it transpires, delivers about 4 l of water per minute; this is the target suggested by the Energy Saving Trust, so clearly we are not being excessive and I can stop considering changing the shower in order to reduce consumption.

Second, my friend Perkin from High Bank (a fabulous place to go for a holiday if you are looking for a cosy self-catering cottage close to wonderful places for foodies) tried to post a comment on my ‘more water-saving‘ post, but despite repeated attempts was unable to do so. What he tried to write was:

What about urine as a garden fertiliser, either neat on the compost heap or diluted on plants. It has the double benefit of massively saving toilet/flushing usage and of providing a free plant feed. Not the most socially acceptable of ideas, the fact that our compost heap faces a pub beer garden has caused surprise gasps 🙂

Well, we have a relatively private garden, but even so it’s fairly difficult for us girls to introduce urine directly onto the compost heap!

Urine is full of nitrogen and, because nitrogen is water-soluble, it’s one nutrient that gets washed out of the soil very easily. Many farmers (and gardeners) spend lots of money buying nitrogen fertilisers to apply to their land. Inorganic nitrogen fertilisers are produced by energy-demanding chemical reactions whilst all the time we flush away a natural source of nitrogen, treating this fantastic resource as a waste product.

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection.

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection.

So, Perkin is right – if we want free plant food and to save water, we should be using our pee in the garden. And the solution to collection? As the title of this post states – peeing in a bucket! OK, you may not like the idea, but it’s perfectly practical. Lots of camping and caravaning suppliers sell ‘camping toilets’, which are, essentially, a bucket with a toilet seat and a lid that seals well. Generally, the expectation is that these will be used with chemicals, but there is no need – a nice thick layer of wood shavings in the bottom will soak up the liquid and you can sprinkle more on as required. In fact, this is a great solution because the wood is carbon-rich and the urine is nitrogen rich, so you get a good balance of these two important elements to go on your compost heap. And, all that nitrogen acts as a great compost activator, so composting should happen nice and quickly.

So, don’t be squeamish – turn your waste into vegetables and save water, money and energy.

Exotic trees

There is not a huge amount to be done in our garden at present apart from tidying. This is fortunate because the weather is currently not pleasant… wind and rain.

Earlier on in the week, however, we had some lovely clear, sunny days, with frost. We live less than a mile from the sea, so it’s rare to get really cold weather here, but we did get down to about -4.5°C overnight. The surface of the ground was frozen, but this was only to a depth of a couple of inches. And I know this because I had to dig some holes. After several months of waiting, my order from the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART) arrived. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining – the plants are produced to order and there are only limited numbers, so you have to order in the summer for delivery in late autumn/winter.

I am delighted to tell you that I am now the proud owner of three rather exotic (well, exotic for west Wales) plants: a Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens); a Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa); and a Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum schinifolium). Having just checked the ART website, I see all three are now out of stock, so I’m very glad that I ordered well in advance. But, why, you are probably asking, did I want these three particular plants? Why did I want them so much that I was prepared to order (and pay) for them so many months ago? First, I must say, that the Agroforestry Research Trust has a great reputation. Located on land on the Dartington Estate in Devon (not far from Totnes), it is run by the astonishingly knowledgeable Martin Crawford, and has an enviable reputation for the range and quality of plants available. Apart from anything else, I really wanted to support this brilliant organisation, but also, I wanted to buy good quality plants.

As for the three species I selected, well my motivations were based around producing crops to replace things that I currently ‘buy in’.

Siberian Pea Shrub may be the most talked about plant in permaculture and so I wanted to have a go at growing it. This is what the ART website has to say about it:

Siberian pea shrub. A large leguminous shrub from Siberia, reaching 6 m (20 ft) high and growing some 40 cm per year. The seeds, produced in numerous pods following yellow flowers, are edible when cooked (having a pea flavour), as are the young pods. A fibre is obtained from the bark. Bees visit the flowers and the species is a good fixer of nitrogen. A very hardy hedging and windbreak tree, hardy to -40°C.

It certainly sounds very versatile, but really my interest in it is for the ‘peas’, which I am hoping will make a valuable home-grown addition to the diet of my chickens. Of course, I will be delighted to see it fulfilling its role as a nitrogen-fixer, and perhaps adding a component to the diet of myself and Mr Snail-of-happiness, but it’s the chickens that I hope will get most out of it.

Similarly, I hope that Chokeberries will add an extra dimension to the diet of our chickens. Some months ago, I read an article that mentioned chickens’  love of Chokeberries. I now no longer have any recollection of where the article is to be found, but the information has stuck and so I thought it was worth giving it a go. Again, it may also be a useful addition to the human diet. The variety that I selected was ‘Nero’, about which ART says the following:

Black chokeberry. A shrub from North America, growing to 2.5 m (8 ft) high. It grows in any soil, in sun or part shade. It bears lots of black fruits, 7 mm across, which are edible with a good flavour when cooked in pies etc. Hardy to -25ºC. ‘Nero’ is a cultivar bred for large fruits with a high vitamin C content, and bears heavy yields.

The final addition is not destined for chicken consumption, but for humans. I am aware that the food miles associated with spices can certainly mount up. Admittedly, we only use them in small amounts, but I would like to do something to improve my self-sufficiency in this respect. We already grow our own chilli peppers, coriander and various herbs, but we use quite a lot of pepper and it would be satisfying to supply this need from the garden. A little research suggests that Piper nigrum, the standard source of peppercorns, is a native of India, grows to 10m and is not really suited to our climate. The best peppery alternatives are members of the genus Zanthoxylum :

Szechuan pepper. A very aromatic shrub from China and Japan growing 2 m (6 ft) or more high. The leaves can be used as a flavouring, but the main use is the peppercorn-like black seeds, which are used a spice (peppery and fragrant) – grown commercially as a spice crop in Asia. Grows well in any reasonable soil in sun or light shade; hardy to -20ºC.

And so, on a frosty day earlier this week I planted my three specimens. They don’t look like much at the moment (hence the absence of photographs), but with any luck they will settle in well and we (and the chickens) will be enjoying peas, pepper and chokeberries in the next few years.

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