(This page is an excerpt from Ecovillage Musings)
Oh, my. Just what is it about composting toilets that get folks in such a tizzy? It's the one thing that always gets commented on by guests and visitors, and the thing that most new people are most anxious about.
I suppose it's because it is much easier to flush and never think about where everything is going. To actually enable our "waste" to turn into a valuable resource requires us to think outside of the proverbial box, veers into the icky and sends the squeamish into paroxysms of phobic over-reaction. Even my own mother, when learning about our toilet system, put her hand dramatically to her forehead and sighed "oh, Alline, we worked so hard so that you would have indoor plumbing." Sheesh.
So let's get down to business. As the book title says, Everyone Poops.
Here at the Milkweed Mercantile we do have indoor plumbing. We have running water and everything. We just choose not to mix our beautiful, pure, clean drinking water with our waste.In his book The Toilet Papers, Sim Van der Ryn says:
Throughout this book, you will find the word "waste" used to refer to those raw materials - feces and urine - your body passes on to make energy available to some other form of life. This is what you give back to the earth. The idea of waste, of something unusable, reveals an incomplete understanding of how things work. Nature admits no waste. Nothing is left over; everything is joined in the spiral of life. Perhaps other cultures know this better than we, for they have no concept of, no word for, waste.
As gardeners and environmentalists, we were already believers and great fans of compost - we had been composting food scraps and garden "waste" for years before moving to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. The rich black soil created from what had previously been potato peelings, apple cores, coffee grounds, paper napkins, dried leaves, grass clippings and egg shells was astounding. What a great, free resource! And it also alleviates the guilt that often comes from harboring "science experiments" in the fridge a bit too long - we're not wasting food, we're recycling it! Additionally, it is a great way to reclaim nutrients from your garden - both "green" and "brown" garden debris (leaves, grass, deadheaded flowers, etc.) stay out of the landfill and boost future garden productivity.
Here is a brief explanation of how compost happens:
In nature, the aerobic composting process is most common in areas such as the forest floor, where droppings from trees and animals are converted into relatively stable organic matter. This decomposition doesn’t smell when adequate oxygen is present. High temperatures destroy pathogenic bacteria and weed seeds, which are detrimental to health and agriculture when the final compost is used on the land. Aerobic oxidation does not stink. Aerobic decomposition or composting can be accomplished in pits, bins, stacks, or piles, if adequate oxygen is provided. To maintain aerobic conditions, it is necessary to add oxygen by turning the pile occasionally or by some other method.
Composting Toilets equally efficient as forest floors and backyard compost piles. Here in Northeastern Missouri the soil is clay-y and dense, and not suitable for septic systems. There is no county sewage system to hook in to. So even if we weren't gung-ho composters the options are limited. This actually turned out to be a plus for us. When it came time to choose a toilet system in the Milkweed Mercantile, we went with the Phoenix Composting Toilet from Advanced Composting Systems. A pdf of a cutaway drawing of the toilet can be viewed here.
We like it a lot - it is easy to maintain, holds a lot, and is fairly innocuous, as toilets go. Guests have confessed (after spending the night, getting to know us a bit and becoming comfortable here) that they were nervous about the toilets. Then they go on to tell us that the toilets were great, and exclaim "...and they (the toilets) don't smell at all!"
Gene Lodgson wrote a book called Holy Shit; Managing Manure to Save Mankind, where he makes the case for composting toilets. Publisher's Weekly had this to say about it:
Lodgson, a blogging farmer in Ohio, draws from his boyhood experience during the days of the privy, his Amish neighbors, and his understanding of how ancient China saw agricultural productivity rates the likes of which we've never had in the U.S. Ultimately, the real coup here is that this book overcomes the yuck factor and illustrates how, as with many things American, we've taken a natural, healthy, efficient system and replaced it with something expensive, toxic, and marketable - in this case, chemical fertilizers. As food locavores gain visibility and popularity, so too should the rear end of sustainable farming practices.
So consider getting over your yuck factor. Think about how things really work. Maybe composting toilets aren't such a crazy idea after all?
The upstairs Mercantile bathroom. "Scary" toilet on the left. Antique dresser revamped into a sink on the right. In the center - 18" thick straw bale wall.