One of the many important problems confronting people in a SHTF situation is maintaining adequate sanitation. Clean water, soap, personal hygene, toileting, and kitchen waste will all need to be addressed. I am going to describe some of the things we do on our 1/4 acre suburban homestead to control waste and feed the plants we use for food. It seems to me that having an established system in place to deal with waste before SHTF is better that trying to cobble something together when all kinds of urgent needs have to be addressed in an emergency. A good composting program that is established before SHTF may save a few years of frustration, garbage, vermin, and despair.
I begin with a disclaimer: We live in the coastal Pacific Northwest. Winters here are cool and rainy, summers are warm and dry. Any description of how we do things may need to be adapted to work well in other climates. All biological activity in compost piles is temperature dependent. Organic matter will break down more quickly in warm weather than in cool weather, and may stop completely during very cold weather. Tailor you efforts to the environment you live in.
What is compost? My definition is that compost is organic material that is reduced by biological processes into a more stable form. By “more stable” I mean less prone to decay. Composting is a kind of directed rotting process; the end product can slowly degrade, but no longer “rots” with the associated smells and disease hazards.
What can be composted? The complete answer to this question is somewhat complicated, but generally any small, non-toxic, soft plant materials (like leaves, stalks, and kitchen wastes) can be composted without any problems. Animal products and things like paper and small tree branches can be composted too, but the process is a bit more elaborate. Simple composting of vegetable matter and animal waste is easy, clean, and safe.
How does composting work? Organic materials are arranged in a way that encourages decomposition– a process of organic substances being broken down into simpler forms of matter with the help of insects and microorganisms. What remains after these organic materials are consumed and “broken down” is a biologically stable humus called compost.
Why would anybody want to compost? Composting reduces potentially offensive organic materials such as garbage, yard waste, and animal waste into an inoffensive soil-like substance that is a beneficial source of plant nutrition in gardens, flowerbeds, and woodlots. In a SHTF situation, waste of all sorts will need to be dealt with in a way that protects public health and reduces the unpleasant effects of rotting garbage– disease, odors, rats, insects, and diminished morale.
How do we make compost? There is a lot written about composting, much of what I have read is unneccesarily complicated. Composting is basicially accellerating a natural process– the breakdown and recycling of organic material. Many sources I have read specify a certain mix of ingredients; many sources recommend physically moving compost materials to “mix and aerate” them. The purpose of all that mixing is to accelerate the decomposition process and generate enough heat within the compost pile to kill weed seeds and disease. My experience is that mixing, layering, and blending are not necessary. What those activities do is speed up the composting process by the additon of muscle energy or mechanical energy, which is not needed if enough time is allowed for material to break down naturally. If you throw all your yard waste into a heap and leave it exposed to the weather, in four years it will be compost. So, we can actively manage our compost pile by shoveling and mixing and aerating, or we can let it all sit there in a dumb lump for four or five years, and it will be ready for use in the garden, orchard, woodlot, or ornamental plant bed. Leaving the heap to break down without physical mixing is called “cold composting”, and it works just fine, only slower. I should add that leaves alone will pack down like pages in a book and be very slow to break down. This can be remedied by shredding the leaves, and/or adding other ingredients like twigs, grass clippings, kitchen garbage, straw, and plant stalks to the compost pile to improve aeration and reduce compaction.
The argument can be made that cold composting doesn’t generate the heat necessary to kill disease organisms (collectively called “pathogens”), or weed seeds. I agree to a point, but compostable materials (including feces), are not plutonium and don’t need 300,000 years to degrade. Eventually most organic materials become safe because almost everything organic is food to some living thing. Even bacteria and viruses are food for other organisms. Once a thing has been eaten and excreted, it is not the same as it was before being eaten. Obviously, do not compost materials infested with disease or parasites; burn them. If in doubt, burn.
What should be done with the finished compost? Compost is plant food. If fecal matter has been included in the compost, it may be preferable to use it on non-food crops or food crops that are neither consumed raw nor allowed to come into direct contact with the soil. Such compost would be well suited for use on woodlots or decorative plantings. If growing your own food is a life and death part of a SHTF situation, I speculate that there are far greater threats to survival than the application of properly prepared compost to food crops. In our garden, compost without fecal matter has replaced almost all fertilizer.
What are the dangers of cold composting? A properly built compost pile should not provide shelter for rodents or other nuisance animals. Kitchen waste is especially attractive to animals and should be put into the center of a hot working pile, or cold composted in containers that prevent access by rats, mice, opossums, raccoons, dogs, or any other animals. Compost that is not adequatly heated may contain viable weed seeds– a problem for the garden, but not important for the purpose of neutralizing nuisance materials. We haven’t had any weed problems with well-aged compost. Raw materials put into a compost pile may contain organisms that can cause disease to plants as well as people and animals. At our home, we do compost fecal matter from dogs, but it is isolated for three years before being added into an active cold compost pile, where it will be composted for another three years or more. Our dogs are healthy, and I believe the chance of disease is small; still, the compost containing dog feces is used for non food plants at this time.
How do we get started composting?
We have a spot (heap) about 4 x 12 feet where we toss everything compostable that has no other place to go. It is confined by wire fencing and is about 4 feet high. Leaves, grass clippings, sawdust, tree trimmings, chicken litter, and fir needles all go onto the heap. Four years into the future, the center of this heap will be ideal compost. Dog waste is composted separately in barrels for three or four years and then tossed on the bottom of the heap, where it has contact with soil for an addtional three or four years. As the heap is shoveled out from one end, the undisturbed end of the heap keeps working.
We have plastic garbage cans with holes drilled into them that we use to begin composting yard and kitchen waste before the can is dumped into the larger composting pile. Instead of hauling waste materal to one location in small loads, we have multiple cans placed around the property near where we generate and gather waste material, such as yard debris and kitchen waste.
Animal waste attracts flies. It takes a few years to establish a composting environment that limits houseflies– another good reason to start composting before SHTF. A few years ago we started managing dog waste by putting it in above ground barrels that were aerated by holes drilled in the sides and bottom. It has worked surprisingly well. Houseflies have things that parasitize them; one being a mite that will kill houseflies in astonishing numbers. I have seen flies in our dog waste barrel so burdened by mites that they could not fly. Seeing that was like watching a 1950’s horror movie. We have fewer houseflies now than we had before we started the dog barrel composting. Treating dog waste in a barrel is nearly odorless and not offensive. The waste is reduced in quantity and becomes compost– neutral, odorless, and neighbor-friendly.
In our dog waste compost barrel, the mites that killed the houseflies were succeeded the following year by a kind of grub that is the larva of the black soldier fly. These grubs look like the mealworms that one can buy as fish or reptile food in pet stores, except that “compost maggots” are a dirty gray instead of beige with tan stripes, like mealworms.
We are fortunate to have black soldier flies colonize in our yard. Black soldier flies don’t go in the house. The adult form doesn’t live long and isn’t a nuisance. The larvae eat amazing amounts of waste; I have fed them inedible meat scraps and waste grease from the kitchen (things normally not recommended for composting). The black soldier fly larvae eat it all, very quickly. I watched a piece of spoiled salt pork half as big as my fist disappear in three days, fat and all. Black soldier fly larvae migrate out of the compost, after they have matured, to seek a place in the soil to pupate and complete their life cycle. Our chickens love the migrating larvae!
Composting is safe and odor-free when done properly, and it creates a useful product while eliminating a potential source of odors, vermin, and disease. It would be prudent for all preppers to learn how to compost before the Schumer hits the fan, when they will be confronted with a waste problem that gets bigger every day.