The real ‘Ethical Man’

When I was preparing to meet John Cossham on a hot day in May, the last thing I would have expected to see on first entering his house would have been a blazing fire. Tales of composting toilets and appearances on Newsnight with the Ethical Man had led me to believe that this would be a man that would put any of my paltry efforts to live a green life firmly in the shade.

However, this was not just any standard log fire – this was a log fire with patented ‘clear-burn’ technology. Not only did a complex air system mean that no smoke emissions were produced, it was also kept running by waste wood that Cossham had collected himself. This, he explained, would have produced carbon emissions anyway if left rotting. Add to this that the fire was warming water for washing up, bathing and the coffee he was about to brew, and I could see that this is a man who takes his environmentally friendly lifestyle very seriously indeed.

On walking through to the back of his Hull Road house, you can see the fruits of his passion. Stretching back an incredible 80 metres, his garden is divided into various areas, each with their own role in Cossham’s green lifestyle. The majority of these hold compost bins, and he admits that although he grows many crops such as wild mushrooms, yams and fennel, he “is more of a composter than a gardener.” Rubber bands, human hair, vacuum dust, even shoes – you name it, he’s probably composted it.

He also uses them for recycling fruit and vegetables and the organic shop ‘Out of This World’ pays him to remove some of their unsold fresh produce. From this and other various outlets around York he collects over 100 kilos of the stuff every week, all of which goes straight into one of his bins. Infamously he also composts a rather more unusual substance – human waste. 4 of his bins are dedicated to recycling his own personal produce and, covered in straw and left for two years, it eventually produces human manure nutritionally identical to the farmyard variety.

He tells me that he was inspired by a “book which changed my life – The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins. After reading that I had to do it, and I built my own composting toilet in 2002.” Apparently the rest of his family don’t quite share his enthusiasm. “I don’t force the kids to use it – one of them might if he’s caught short whilst in the garden, but they mainly tend to use our one indoors. The thing is I’m not into being told what to do myself, so therefore I don’t instruct other people how to live their lives although I do like to give them information.”

It was his unusual recycling methods that got him onto national television, turning him (albeit briefly) into somewhat of a local celebrity. Those of you who are avid fans of BBC’s Newsnight will remember Ethical Man – the alter-ego of journalist Justin Rowlatt who was tasked by his bosses to live as ethical a lifestyle as possible over a period of a year. Cossham watched the show and, always eager to spread his green message, emailed the producers with some of the green measures he was taking in his life. Rowlatt, understandably intrigued by the idea of a composting toilet, emailed back and eventually did some filming at Cossham’s house, and the two remain in friendly contact.

Day to day, it is the local projects that Cossham is mainly involved in. One of these is the York Rotters, a partnership project between York City Council and Friends of St Nicholas Fields. They are a network of York residents who have been trained to give help and advice about home composting. “I’m very keen on the social side of sustainability, and the idea of green communities. There’s social benefits, natural benefits and economical benefits to living a green lifestyle.”

Once we’d explored his garden, we sat down to chat about just how he got into the green side of life. As a child he was always into animals, yet a fur allergy limited his options for pets. “My social skills were crap. I wasn’t very liked, and to be honest I wasn’t that big a fan of people. Yet I couldn’t keep what you might call your standard animals, such as cats and dogs, so instead had to have pets like toads, terrapins and snails.” Considering the extent to which he has embraced his ethical lifestyle, it is not surprising to learn that he believes he suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. “I have seen some professionals who said that I had it as a child, but they can’t say whether I still have it. Some friends say I do and I’m basically self-diagnosed, but looking back I do feel lucky. I could have ended up in prison, on hard drugs or even contemplating suicide.”

At the age of 18 he began a teacher training course, yet he said he was too “anarchic” to do it for more than a year. Around the same time he started to become aware of environmental issues and became a feminist. In his mid-20s he decided to take some career advice in order to work out what he wanted to do. “I went along and answered a load of questions, and they said I should be an environmental health officer. I did a degree, and entitled my dissertation on recycling: ‘A Lot of Rot’”. Yet his current employment can be seen as a far cry from that. He says his obsessive personality manifested itself again when he began to take up the Devil Sticks, a form of juggling using a baton and two control sticks. Enamoured with it, Cossham began practicing for 6 hours a day. It was when he started busking in St Helen’s Square that he became fully aware of the possibilities that it offered. “At first it was great that people would stop and watch, as in truth I’m a bit of an attention seeker. Within a month of doing it however someone came up and asked me if I wanted to go to a party. I didn’t really get what they meant, so I said thanks but no thanks. It was only after a few times of it happening that it finally clicked – they wanted to pay me to do my tricks!” After a few small gigs, he went on a course designed to teach you how to start up your own business. His professional persona is now ‘Professor Fiddlesticks’, and he not only does circus skills but can also combine them with educational lessons. “To be honest I never set out to be an entertainer. However I am one now, and I’m very lucky to be one.”

The relentless enthusiasm which one must need to be a children’s entertainer is clearly very much a part of Cossham’s personality. His job may leave him with effectively a five-day weekend, yet he is never off his feet. Whether it is composting in his garden, collecting waste from around the local area or talking and helping others to do more for the environment, he seemingly can’t stop his passion for green issues. As a result he is one of those people that really do seem to be making a difference – not just by reducing his own impact on the world, but by working to help others do the same.


  1. Thank you for a super article. I love the way you’ve written it.

    Good luck with your journalism career.

    all the best, John Cossham

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  2. What a good read. I know John well and share many of his passions. But I learnt more reading the article. A very special person in my life and has had a great effect on my own recycling/composting/green passions.

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