29 February 2008

Here's a toilet with a twist

When I was a wee lad, my family had a cottage in rural Ontario where we would go every summer for vacation. It was rural on a scale that makes my head spin now, but at the time it was a great adventure. We had no electricity, no running water and we had what I now know to be a pit toilet in the bathroom. It was an awful, foul-smelling affair; essentially an indoor outhouse. A pit toilet is a toilet with a large hole in the bottom of it. The toilet sits over a cistern and whatever goes into it lands with a splash after a short delay. But when you're that far from civilization and you have no access to running water, hygienic options are limited. Unpleasant to remember as an adult and the horror to end all horrors when you're nine.

Anyhow, I like to keep an eye on the horizon with regard to home building trends and sustainability is very much one of my buzzwords. What does this have to do with a pit toilet in an otherwise charming cottage in the middle of nowhere? Pay attention.

I was watching a TV show on sustainable building recently and the show's host dropped in on the Bronx Zoo to check out a new public restroom they built. The Eco Restroom at the Bronx Zoo accommodates a half million people a year and uses 3 oz. of water for each time one of those visitors flushes a toilet. The host was saying that the eco-restroom saves a million gallons of water a year using a composting system instead of the typical low-flush toilets required by building codes.

I heard "composting toilet" and flashed back immediately to the pit toilet of my childhood. But I kept watching, despite my negative associations. It turns out that a composting toilet is nothing like a pit toilet. It is an odorless, closed system that turns human waste into fertilizer. Most of them use no water at all, but the system the Bronx Zoo uses a tiny bit of water to generate foam from biodegradable soap. This foam allows a foam-flush composting toilet to look and behave like a conventional toilet. The image above and to the right is how one looks, and below is a diagram that shows how it works.

Our society expends tremendous resources securing a safe, clean water supply for everyone. Then as individuals, we turn around and flush 40% of that clean, safe water down the toilet. If that weren't wasteful enough, the resulting effluent needs to be treated at more great expense only to be dumped into nearest body of water after the solids have been removed. Yet no one seems to know why red tide blooms are so bad in my beloved Gulf of Mexico. This system, like so many other ones, is unsustainable. It's unsustainable economically as well as environmentally.

But there's a solution out there and utilising that solution will require that folks get over some of their squeamishness on the topic.

The system at the Bronx Zoo was installed by a company called Clivus Multrum  in Massachusetts. Clivus Multrum refined and brought to market the idea of a modern, composting toilet more than 30 years ago. Clivus also invented the foam-flush toilet.

How their system works is pretty simple and straightforward. Human waste is kept in an enclosed chamber and time, biology and gravity work together to turn that waste into fertilizer. There's no stink, no mess, no polluted groundwater, no expenses related to what to do with it. Not to get all granola or anything, but what it does too is return to the soil the nutrients you didn't need.

There is a whole subculture out there dedicated to composting toilets I'm learning, and a clearinghouse for information on the subject is a website called Composting Toilet World. That sounds like the name of a particularly spooky campground or something, but they have some really great information and resources.

Now I love the idea of a dual-flush toilet, but the idea of a composting toilet takes the idea embodied in a dual-flush and takes it to an extreme the purist in me loves. All Hail Clivus Multrum!

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