sawdust and piss
Saturday, May 19 2007
A large aspect of human wastefulness is that we insist on making large swaths of our environment perfectly comfortable when all that is needed for our comfort is an ideal environment in the volume of space we specifically occupy. For example, instead of heating and lighting the laboratory, I could fashion myself a little space suit heated to the appropriate temperature, casting light from a little LED headlight only in the direction I happen to be looking. If I had suits like this for both me and Gretchen, as well as the dogs and cats, the energy needs our our house would drop precipitously. Obviously, there are problems with such a plan, such as the bulkiness of a suit capable of providing the ideal environment. A good compromise, though, would be to wear winter coats indoors and strap miners' lamps to our heads. I have a feeling we'll be doing a lot more of that sort of thing as energy prices continue to rise.
Another aspect of our environment-reliant wastefulness is the way we dispose of our bodily excrement and urine. Typically, Western people are only comfortable when they can wash their wastes away with gallons of water, using elaborate plumbing networks to concentrate it in toxicly-enormous quantities where professional waste disposal experts actively treat it using a combination of energy (particularly as represented by chlorine) and anærobic biology. This whole network is a wasteful luxury, of the kind that will have to be sacrificed once cheap energy recedes into history.
A better way to look at bodily waste is to see it as food that has been depleted of energy and enriched with chemicals and micro-organisms no longer of use to a particular human's biology. The three square meals a day that a person eats averages to about 2500 calories, and is capable of supporting a continuous human metabolism of 100 watts (the order of magnitude of a conventional incandescent bulb). Our excrement is rich in minerals and biologically-available nitrogen and carbon. All it needs is the miracle of photosynthesis to turn it back into food for another trip through our gastrointestinal tracts. Traditional off-grid cultures (including all natural ecosystems) depend on this principle, and it would be good (and theoretically sustainable) to somehow get this working in my own life. As a side-benefit, it would greatly cut down on my personal need for water (for flushing away excrement) and the long-distance transportation of foods.
With this in mind, a year ago I built myself a flushless urinal on the laboratory deck. In this urinal, the urine flowed between two different chambers, the first containing relatively-odorless fresh urine and the second full of fragrant stale urine. The stale urine wasn't exposed to the atmosphere but vented gaseous ammonia and excess stale urine through a waste hose into a dry well near the house. Except in the coldest weather (when the unit freezes into a solid yellow cylinder), the urinal has been my preferred place to piss. It's a little awkward that the north deck faces the road and that, until the trees leafed out, I was mostly urinating in public. But it's been good not to depend on flush toilets for that particular function. It's also been convenient; the urinal is much closer to my main computer than any of the house's bathrooms.
Recently I began making actual biological use of the gallons of urine I generate every week. Instead of venting the urinal to a dry well, a couple weeks ago I began collecting the stale urine in a five gallon bucket full of sawdust. (I have a lot of sawdust as a byproduct of scrounging firewood.) Sawdust is comprised mostly of cellulose, a polysaccharide that contains no nitrogen. To break it down, the few bacteria and fungi capable of doing so require enormous amounts of nitrogen, one common source of which is urine. Stale urine mixed with sawdust makes a nutritionally-complete environment for these creatures, some of which are capable of acting anærobically. Given enough time (how much, I'm not sure), urine and sawdust eventually decay to form a nutritionally-rich fertilizer for gardens. One of the most striking things about a five gallon bucket full of urine and sawdust is how little odor it gives off, indicating that little is being wasted as gaseous byproducts.
From my experience with my deck-based urinal, I'm confident enough to build a simpler unit inside the laboratory itself. This unit won't have the large fermentation chamber of my prototype but will instead feature a simple plumbing trap to keep air from blowing up through it from the sawdust-filled container collecting the urine, which will be just downhill from (and outside of) the shop. In such a system the liquid filling the plumbing trap would normall be urine, and this might give off unpleasant odors, especially as it goes stale. To prevent this, I'll have mineral oil in the trap. The mineral oil will want to float on top of the urine, keeping it from touching indoor air. Additionally, I'll have a cover to isolate the entire thing when it isn't being used. Because of the convoluted route the urine will need to follow to get outside to the sawdust bucket, I'll be able to put a second urinal down in the shop.
This evening Gretchen and I carpooled to a party on nearby Eagles Nest Road with Susan the German translator (who, in the aftermath of a divorce, is still temporarily living on nearby Stone Road). The party was being hosted by the usual hosts of Eagles Nest parties, two quirky National Geographic photographers who live in a cube-shaped house with a spectacular view to the southeast. As always, there was lots of wine to drink, food to eat, and a slideshow to watch, though tonight marked the first slideshow I'd seen here that was done with a computer instead of a slide projector. The slideshow featured digital photographs from a trip a year-and-a-half ago to South Georgia Island. Most of these were of King Penguins, various seals, glaciers, ice, and the rusting artifacts of a Norwegian whaling outpost that was abandoned in the 1960s (due to the absence of whales from over-whaling). On a few occasions Gretchen read some outdoorsy poems she'd been asked to bring, although none of these had much to do with the Antarctic.
Before all that, though, one of the other photographers in attendance narrated an unrelated set of slides he'd taken of the coins recently salvaged from a 17th Century shipwreck. When he first saw the coins, they were all in plastic containers, each labeled by weight and individually strapped into the seats of an airliner. Unfortunately, though, this photographer was sworn to secrecy about many of the details of the photoshoot and could not answer many of our questions.
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