Composting Toilets

“If I urinated and defecated into a pitcher of drinking water and then proceeded to quench my thirst from the pitcher, I would undoubtedly be considered crazy. If I invented an expensive technology to put my urine and feces into my drinking water, and then invented another expensive (and undependable) technology to make the same water fit to drink, I might be thought even crazier. It is not inconceivable that some psychiatrist would ask me knowingly why I wanted to mess up my drinking water in the first place.

The “sane” solution, very likely, would be to have me urinate and defecate into a flush toilet, from which the waste would be carried through an expensive sewerage works which would supposedly treat it and pour it into the river-from which the town downstream would pump it, further purify it, and use it for drinking water.

Private madness, by the ratification of a lot of expense and engineering, thus becomes public sanity.

[The composting Toilet] springs from an elementary insight; it is possible to quit putting our so-called bodily wastes where they don’t belong (in the water) and to start putting them where they do belong (on the land). When waste is used, a liability becomes an asset, and the very concept of waste disappears.

This of course, is the commonest of common sense.”

-Wendell Berry in the forward to The Toilet Papers by Sim Van der Ryn

The average US household flushes about 160 gallons of water to handle three pounds of poop and a gallon of urine each day. An equation that imbalanced is hopelessly inefficient.

“It’s absolutely insane the amount of water we use to flush toilets in the U.S.,” says former Naval officer Todd Foret, who is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reclaim wastewater for irrigation. “It’s sad. We commingle super-contaminated stuff with greywater from your dishwasher and shower that’s easy to treat. It’s just crazy.”

Mark Buehrer, a civil engineer based in Bellingham, Wash., doesn’t even like to use the word “waste.” “There is no such thing,” he says. “I look at human waste as, really, a resource. We can’t just keep flushing our nutrients into the oceans and rivers.” [i]

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In the Elder Creek watershed, where we have a water crisis, this is a simple, low-tech way to save a lot of water and fertilize a few plants really well. At ECCFTL, we have been using composting toilets for 10 years. Our favorite system is quite simple–a box with a normal toilet seat with an easy to handle bucket underneath. We use mulched dry grass or saw dust to keep the smell at bay. We bury the feces in shallow trenches and let the soil microbes turn it into compost. It is simple, efficient and water-wise.

For more information on composting toilets, we recommend looking at Greywater Action.