Sometimes I feel like the father in the original film, Cheaper By the Dozen, asking myself, what is the most efficient way to get the job done? But it’s not just about how fast I can get something done. It’s about, Care of the Earth. Care of People. and Return of surplus to Earth. No aspect of life can go unexamined, including what to do about poop, pee, and menstrual flow. I endlessly wonder how ancient people cleaned themselves effectively and efficiently, particularly in the realm of menstruation. We have some information about what methods and ‘devices’ may have been employed prior to 1800s…but the WEARING of these things is what I really wonder about. How did wearing these things affect women’s daily activities? How did they have to adapt? Why do I care? Because I want to find the best way, in modern times, and I really hate re-inventing the wheel. I love my diva cup as much as anyone, but it also feels a little creepy having silicone in the most sensitive area of my body every month. I know women get silicone implants and nothing bad happens to them (or does it?), but again, not only is it creepy, but why not ask the question – is there anything better?
What to do about poop and pee?
My first recommendation would be to use a bidet, and then family cloth, but until that day comes when I have my own home and can make those choices, here are the best options I know of to date, which are 100% biodegradable, which should be safe for septic systems, and they are also free of BPA, which many recycled toilet products contain:
- Post from blog My Plastic Free Life on new toilet paper brand Who Gives a Crap (Recycled or Bamboo). You get $10 off, and I get $10 off, if you use the following link: https://admin.talkable.com/o/ffvEna.
- Maia’s take on toilet paper choices from blog Gimme the Good Stuff. She recommends Bagasse brand.
- As a side note, if you don’t have a squatty potty, you need to get one! I like the ‘Clevr 100% Bamboo Toilet Step Stool’, which I bought for $40 at Sears, but other places sell them. If you can’t take my word for it, listen to the unicorn.
If your septic system at home is particular sensitive, we’d recommend getting in touch with the manufacturer to check whether there are any restrictions around which papers can be used. For example, some systems play nicer with 1 or 2-ply, rather than 3-ply.
And then, the biggest question,
What to do WITH the poop and pee?
This is a tough question. Poop may contain pathogens and we don’t want to underestimate the havoc it can create if it contaminates ground water, but unbeknownst to many people, septic systems fail all the time in this regard – their contents (poop!) do leach into the groundwater. According to a friend/soil scientist, septic tanks are more often than not installed in soil that is officially unsuitable, and which allows the septic exudates (poop!) to essentially flow right into the groundwater. I was astonished when I learned this — I didn’t even know septic tanks had a hole! I thought they were totally enclosed tanks!!! MY MIND WAS COMPLETELY BLOWN. In some cities in the United States, the sewage actually overflows into lakes, such as Lake Michigan, during major rain events, as the pipe systems become overwhelmed. This question of what to do WITH poop and pee is a very important one, and not at all effectively decided.
- The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins is a wonderful place to start thinking differently about human waste. It never goes away…it just becomes ‘someone else’s’ problem.
- There are videos and group discussions on www.permies.com about Paul Wheaton’s methods and his Permaculture ‘farm’, where he teaches about how to make what he calls a “Willow Feeder,” also known as the “Luxury System” (not an outhouse), that has no odor (by way of a Trombe Wall), which can be seen in this video at minute 10:32: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ptwncPImuo. It features a urine diverter as well. This is the system I believe I would install in my yard, perhaps as an addition on the house, or even inside the current bathroom, if the bathroom was up against an exterior wall facing any direction except south, but I might also consider a full composting system like the one shown here (you have to register for an account to see the video): https://www.discoverpermaculture.com/products/the-permaculture-circle/categories/182758/posts/2321877
- An Irishman named Feidhlim Harty created a business in Ireland named FH Wetland Systems, from which he designs professional systems which are mainly soil-based constructed wetlands, gravel reed bed systems and willow filters. As far he knows, “those systems would all work – with careful design – in zone 5 winters. Feidhlim says that there are successful examples built in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Minot-ND, all of which have seasonal effectiveness, but are built to cater for the lowest efficiency times of year.” Feidhelm published a second book specifically about reed bed systems, called “Permaculture Guide to Reed Beds“. He wrote a previous book called Septic Tank Options and Alternatives – Your Guide to Conventional, Natural and Eco-friendly Methods and Technologies, geared toward the homeowner, not industry. Feidhelm says “it’s quite a general overview of the options available; but whereas the EPA Code of Practice (Irish government standard for domestic wastewater systems – free to download from their website via http://www.wetlandsystems.ie/links.html) gives a good overview of most systems, including reed beds and wetland, it does not include willow systems or dry toilets. In my mind I was writing the alternative code.”
- When I asked what Feidhelm would build for his home, he said “The system I would probably have selected, were I to put in a reed bed, would have been a pump-fed vertical flow gravel reed bed (c.15m2) or a gravity fed horizontal flow reed bed (c.50m2); and then followed these with a horizontal flow reed bed for tertiary treatment (c.10m2) and then a willow infiltration area of c.15-30m2. This would have ticked the local EPA boxes, and would have been pretty eco friendly too.“
- One might trial Anna Eday’s woodchip filter, (www.solviva.com)
- A homestead in Australia uses a variety of methods in their buildings. In their house they have a conventional toilet. All waste, solids and liquid go through the septic tank and through a baffle system, only lets liquid go through to a designed reedbed. All solids and fats stay in the septic tank and microbes over time ‘digest’ the solids and fats. The tank need s to get pumped out once every 1 or 2 years or so. In their teaching center, they have a Clivus composting toilet system.
- Dunton Farms utilizes passive solar to heat things up: http://www.duntonfarms.com/projects/2006_toilet_inside.htm
- Geof Lawton has a great video on his ‘wheelie bin’ – you have to sign in to view it. https://www.discoverpermaculture.com/login
What to do about menstruation?
I was fascinated by the book The Red Tent, which I read in the Chico University library in 2012 (biblical times – Dinah is allowed to enter the red tent each month with her mothers as they begin their menstrual cycles and celebrate the new moon), but again, real life….
- Years ago I discovered the menstrual cup by googling in a flurry of frustration with store-bought, toxic-laden menstrual pads (there weren’t even any organic cotton ones then!). There are many brands out there. I got started by reading women’s experiences on this Menstrual Cup Forum.
- I’m in the process of making some re-usabel cloth pads, and will post more if I’m able to finish them and then wear them. I’m sure that I will have to make several version before I find a shape that works for me. If I do, I will post the patterns online for free.
- A beautiful idea is a pad pot, like the one pictured on the http://www.mum.org/bowlsoak.htm, in which you soak the pad in cold water immediately after using, to prevent stains from setting before laundering, and the spout in the pot encourages one to water the garden with the menstrual water. The author accurately points out that we use blood meal as a soil amendment, so why waste this material that is not only nutritious, but also miraculous! Modified excerpt from Nova’s “Life’s Greatest Miracle“, shown on PBS: “On approximately the 6th day after conception, the new life (at this point a zygote), forms into a blastocyst, and escapes from its ‘shell’ (called the zona), by releasing an enzyme that ‘eat’s through the zona and the cells of the blastocyst ooze out . The blastocyst intends to land on the mother’s uterus lining, because without its shell, the blastocyst would be attacked by the mother’s immune system as a foreign invader, and white blood cells would devour it. Although the blastocyst produces several chemicals that suppresses the mother’s immune system inside the uterus, by day 9-10 after conception, the blastocyst must burrow into the uterus in search of nourishment (food and oxygen) in order to survive. This nourishing lining of the uterus, which grows anew each month in a woman’s body, provides this nourishment and environment necessary to the survival of all humans as they are forming!! While a plastic bucket with a lid would work, I would want something beautiful I could keep out in the open by the toilet, perhaps ceramic, wooden, or metal, with a lid (and a spout to be fancy!?). While some want to soak theirs for only a few hours, I would probably want a big pot that could contain a day’s worth or more.
But in regards to the methods used in the past, I would be remiss if I didn’t share a few things with you….I was astonished to find a website called http://www.mum.org/insideMUM.htm, which is the digital version of The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, the only museum in the world “devoted exclusively to the culture of menstruation.” It is a fascinating website. “MUM has copies of old Greek and Hebrew inscriptions also describing the use of tampons for contraception, which possibly means that women also used material as tampons to control menstruation.” On the same website, I read a well-cited paper by Petra Habiger stating that “Today we can probably assume that both tampons and pads were used in ancient Egypt. There is no evidence as to which was preferred.” I read that papyrus may have been used, as well as flax fiber, cotton, and wool.
Contrary to the somewhat romantic or at least sacred-feeling vibe of the menstruation tent described in the book The Red Tent, by Diamant, the sad reality is that in some cultures even today, women are completely restricted in their movements during their periods, as described by this page from the MUM website. where the women must “stay in the cow shed without changing their clothes for an entire week.” in Uttar Pradesh, India, and on this page, where “during menstruation women in the mountains of Nepal are regarded as unclean. They’re banished from society and must sleep in exposed, bare huts…at the mercy of the weather and wild animals. Women may not enter houses and temples during Chaupadi (a religious time). In 2005, Nepal’s highest court forbade the Chaupadi custom, but in some regions women are still outcast like in the village Legudsen in the Achham district.” Here is a CNN story about girl who was killed by unknown causes as she was in the menstrual hut to which she was banished during her period. NPR reported a story regarding menstrual huts, as well as the New York Times.
On the flip side, the MUM website also published a letter from a Hawaii resident, who said “Women rekindled family and friendship ties (ohana) while she was given a needed break from homelife and children within the hut [during menstruation, or kahapouli]. Kahapouli took precidence over all other womens kapu. For example, when it was her kahapouli time, a nursing mother placed her child with a nursing relative. The menstrual blood that collected on fine wood fiber and such was then buried and a kapu of sacredness placed on the spot.” This is a much more appealing version of what the time of menstruation can be like and could have been like for primitive women in various parts of the world.
Fascinating information regarding menstrual huts is easy to find, thanks to the internet, like this study conducted by Beverly Strassmann, of the University of Michigan, about the traditions of the Dogon people of Mali, Africa. She found that men were able to track their wives cycles easily as the women used the menstrual huts each month, thus discouraging infidelity of their wives.
A google search revealed beautiful pictures of menstrual huts from all over the world….
On the same fantastic MUM website, I read about women in Uttar Pradesh, India being taught to make pads that are essentially sifted wood ash wrapped in a cloth.
The MUM website also states “Until about the 1880s women in America and Europe probably either made their own menstrual pads (see Norwegian pads), bought washable pads (here) or wore, um, nothing (read about this).
Women’s Health Mag has a page dedicated to the “bizarre history of period products throughout the years.”
And finally, the other day I saw a Facebook advertisement for a new line of underwear called Thinx. the absorbs it all, no pads, tampons, or cups needed. With 4-micro layers, it absorbs everything for many women. I don’t know what fibers they are using, but although I love the concept, it DOES NOT meet the Care of the Earth ethic. This post from blog My Life Without Plastic, explains how significant amounts of micro plastics (microfibers from synthetic fabrics) are washing down the drain from our laundry into our water, and significant amounts bypass our wastewater treatment systems. The Patagonia company is leading the way by funding research to find out more about micro plastic pollution from laundering synthetic fibers – their post is comprehensive and extremely informative. I also liked NPR’s coverage of the topic: Guess What’s Showing Up in Our Shellfish? and Are We Eating Our Fleece Jackets? Convenience and technology can be so alluring, but we NEED TO STOP MANUFACTURING GARMENTS WITH SYNTHETIC FIBERS. I like food, and I want my food to strengthen me, not make me sick.