Dung beetles, which navigate their poop balls via starlight, must be onto something.

Been There, Dung That: 10 Ways Excrement Can Save the World

July 23, 2013

Euphemistically known as waste-to-energy, the possibilities afforded by excrement are, well, excremental. David Waltner-Toews, a veterinarian, epidemiologist, scientist and author, wrote The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society, as well as other books about the intersection of humans and nature and its relationship to development. He recently outlined 10 ways that the use of such waste could do everything from promoting energy self-sufficiency to improving drinking water.

These concepts are not new in Indian country. Witness the technical assistance grant earlier this year bestowed by the U.S. Department of Energy on the Ho-Chunk Nation of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, to develop a one- to two-megawatt biomass waste-to-energy plant. “The plant could potentially use municipal solid waste, agriculture waste or other biomass resources to offset tribal facility energy costs,” the DOE said in a press release in May. (Related: Ten Tribes Receive Department of Energy Clean-Energy Technical Assistance)

Those dung beetles must be onto something. (Related: Insect Astronomers: Milky Way Guides Dung Beetles to Roll Poop Balls in Straight Line)

1. Energy self-sufficiency could be within our grasp if we would just compost the waste.

“If half the livestock manure in the world were used to produce energy, it could replace about 10 percent of current fossil fuels and save countries billions of dollars,” Waltner-Toews writes. This could be derived from a process that is sort of composting on steroids, which is to say, “produced from manure and other organic materials through a process of decomposition and bacterial fermentation.” The leftover compounds could also be used to make fertilizer.

2. Keep those trees standing.

People could burn manure instead of wood, the author says, which would prevent deforestation.

3. Pull Mother Earth back from her tipping point.

Create methane using anaerobic biodigesters, which would also be used for list item number one, to reign in the amount of the noxious gas that makes it into our atmosphere. “Manure-based anaerobic biodigesters create, contain and use methane as fuel to cook, heat homes and run vehicles.” Bonus: Getting rid of a greenhouse gas that’s 23 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of the impact on global warming. 

4. Better food (no, you don’t have to eat sh*t).

Manure + farming = food for animals. Fish and cattle are little alchemy machines, transforming chicken manure into protein, Waltner-Toews points out.

5. Better drinking water.

The more manure that gets processed out of the methane-polluting mix, the fewer water supplies will be contaminated.

6. A healthier public.

All those doggie fecal flakes lying around get into waterways and food supplies, Waltner-Toews notes. They spread disease and parasites and increase child mortality. “By channeling the poop through digesters and/or composters, we kill most of the pathogenic bacteria and parasites.”

7. Poop knowledge is power.

Excrement conveys information to those willing to translate. This can help gauge the health and well-being of wildlife, especially endangered species, and teach us a lot about their habits and lives.

8. Togetherness.

No, this does not entail a group bathroom hangout. But researching ways to use manure as energy could unite farmers, scientists and other industries in partnership.

9. Poop: the great equalizer

Although there are some who would appear to be more full of sh•t than others, Waltner-Toews points out that humans produce about 120 pounds of excrement annually, be they bombastic dictators or just plain old us. “Everybody produces more or less the same amount of excrement, regardless of religion, ideology, sex, sexual orientation or economic status,” Waltner-Toews writes. “If this were acknowledged, quantified and used to produce energy and fertilizer, we could publicly celebrate each person's contribution to the global economy.”

10. Jumpstart the dialogue.

Now that we understand that all that foul-smelling stuff is actually the stuff of life, we can find ways to integrate excrement production into public life via sustainable urban and rural planning—“and, yes, save the earth for another generation to explore, delight in, and wonder about.”

Read the full David Waltner-Toews on 10 Ways Poop Can Save the World at Bookish.com, a website created by publishers and industry leaders for book lovers. And see the author’s website here. He has written numerous books, all equally inspiring. 

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