Your Crap, Our Compost

Squat and the earth shall grow .

Sisi Tang

A bushel of sawdust and a low-tech composting toilet used for compost collection.


A gen­er­al­ly fecal-pho­bic soci­ety reacts to the thought with a mix of snick­er­ing inter­est and fear­ful aver­sion, all dis­patched in a sin­gle flush. But Nance Klehm, 43-year-old urban for­ager and grow­er, trans­forms human excre­ment into nutri­tious soil one buck­et at a time. 

Klehm’s Hum­ble Pile, a local do-it-your­self human waste com­post­ing project, intro­duces a back­yard alter­na­tive to the machine-churn­ing, pow­er-drain­ing waste-pro­cess­ing facil­i­ties tucked away in remote locations. 

I’m not treat­ing it chem­i­cal­ly. I trust microor­gan­isms to do it for me,” Klehm says. 

In ear­ly 2008, Klehm sent let­ters and humor­ous sur­veys to house­holds in six Chica­go neigh­bor­hoods, call­ing on poten­tial par­tic­i­pants to help trans­form waste into fer­til­i­ty, pol­lu­tion into resource, and iso­la­tion into connection.”

With no need for Com­post 101” instruc­tion, com­plex machin­ery, elec­tric­i­ty or water, Hum­ble Pile asked its 22 vol­un­teer nutri­ent loop­ers” to opt for dry buck­ets with snap-on toi­let seats when nature calls. 

To the sur­prise of Lora Lode, whose house­hold par­tic­i­pates in Hum­ble Pile, her two teenage chil­dren Kira and Char­lie were the most eager to take part in the min­i­mal­ist pro­ce­dure. The fam­i­ly of four made room for a buck­et in the bath­room and for stor­age drums on the back porch of their Logan Square apart­ment. I was inter­est­ed in this as an exper­i­ment,” says Lode, who works with artists to com­bine art, activism and envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. Her 19-year-old son Char­lie is not put off. I just think that if I didn’t have a house, this is what I would do,” he says. 

In place of the rou­tine flush, Klehm sup­plies the nutri­ent loop­ers” with saw­dust to cov­er stools after each deposit, both to dis­pel odor and to facil­i­tate composting. 

In the sum­mer of 2008, Klehm per­son­al­ly col­lect­ed the feces from the Lodes and oth­er house­holds and com­post­ed the mate­r­i­al in 32-gal­lon drums, stored at a secret loca­tion out­side the city so as to avoid pros­e­cu­tion for vio­lat­ing ordi­nances on waste dis­pos­al and stor­age. 
As an ecol­o­gist, I don’t expect law to keep up with me – it’s more impor­tant to get this done,” Klehm says. 

Nature doesn’t seem to heed law either: Shit hap­pens, and then goes through a two-year-long nat­ur­al com­post­ing process that burps out nitrate-rich soil that smells like wet base­ment. The soil will cycle back into Chica­go gar­dens, which include a 5,000-square-foot green­house at a home­less shel­ter and sev­er­al addi­tion­al gar­dens scat­tered through­out the city. 

I’m just inter­est­ed in peo­ple under­stand­ing that their body is pro­duc­ing soil all the time,” Klehm says, and there’s no rea­son not to return it back to earth.”

Accord­ing to Klehm, the local­ly pro­duced Hum­ble Pile com­post is as nutri­ent-rich as sludge fer­til­iz­er” from munic­i­pal sewage plants. Good soil is so hard to have in the city. I’m con­cerned about the state of our soil – they’re affect­ing our health, they’re deplet­ed, or they’re con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed or poi­so­nous,” Klehm says. 

Deemed a fer­til­iz­er by the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), the con­tro­ver­sial sludge is a con­coc­tion of every­thing that goes down the drain – a heavy-met­al laden med­ley of indus­tri­al, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and human waste. (In an attempt at lin­guis­tic detox­i­fi­ca­tion, the EPA renamed sewage sludge biosolids.”)

Klehm’s com­post­ing method has anoth­er home: an aban­doned World War II-era U.S. air­base. In the salt flats along the Neva­da and Utah bor­der, Klehm and oth­er artists and researchers of the autonomous liv­ing sys­tem Clean Livin’ use urine-divert­ing dry toi­lets and a com­bi­na­tion of com­post­ing and dehy­dra­tion to process their waste for lat­er agri­cul­tur­al use. 

Long before Hum­ble Pile, the waste-to-fer­til­iz­er process was dis­cov­ered inad­ver­tent­ly by our nomadic ances­tors, who flung waste onto piles that even­tu­al­ly became fer­tile soil. Lat­er, the Sume­ri­ans and Romans hired deliv­ery boys to car­ry feces in hon­ey wag­ons” to near­by fields for fer­til­iza­tion. The Chi­nese even com­modi­tized night soil” from wealth­i­er house­holds as a valu­able good – the feces of the rich being more abun­dant in nutri­ents due to their bet­ter diets. 

But now, just as the West­ern com­mode is mak­ing its wide­spread debut in Chi­na, Klehm is show­ing at least two U.S. com­mu­ni­ties that there may be a bet­ter option than the water-hun­gry mod­ern flush toi­let. Pro­duc­ing soil and fer­til­iz­er local­ly helps con­serve ener­gy and water, and where­as the com­po­si­tion of munic­i­pal sewage sludge is to a large extent a mys­tery, what goes into Klehm’s buck­ets are par­tic­i­pants’ own work. What’s more, Klehm ensures that her DIY fer­til­iz­er is safe by test­ing it for E. coli bacteria. 

For Klehm, Hum­ble Pile is not a nov­el­ty. I’ve been doing this for four years,” she says. Oth­er peo­ple think it’s crazy. I just accept it as a way of life.” 

ReSource Insti­tute for Low Entropy Sys­tems
Spon­ta­neous Vegetation

Sisi Tang, a for­mer stu­dent of his­to­ry, is now a writer and trav­el­er based in Istanbul.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue