Outdoor venues such as Quail Ridge County Park in Missouri use composting toilets.

Outdoor venues such as Quail Ridge County Park in Missouri use composting toilets. (Photo: Phoenix Composting Toilet)

By Emily Speir

As a kid watching the remains of my latest goldfish swirling into oblivion, my thoughts were a mix of horror and curiosity. Where was my dear fish going? Where did anything go that got the flush? The shiny porcelain machine in my bathroom was a complete mystery to me.

In school I learned that my body wastes were being diluted with clean drinking water, mixed with “sewage sludge” (industrial waste, storm water, and other toxic materials), then sent to treatment plants where they were presumably separated and cleaned up according to federal regulations, then released back into the environment (usually rivers, oceans, or the ground). But was this solution efficient?

According to Abraham Noe-Hays, a graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME and an expert on compost and composting toilets, the answer is no. We are taking a valuable resource (clean drinking water), polluting it with another valuable resource (human manure) and then contaminating both beyond repair with sewage sludge. Then, we spend large amounts of money and energy to attempt to undo what we have just done and put it back where it doesn’t belong.

This process has broken an important natural cycle that probably few people are even aware of, he says. It’s a common assumption that we need flush toilets to live in a clean and healthy urban or rural environment, but is that really true? Perhaps you’re raising an eyebrow and thinking, human manure a valuable resource?

Starting simply: Humans eat food. Food comes from crops that absorb nutrients from the soil which they are grown in. For soil to continue to produce crops year after year those nutrients must be replaced. To replace nutrients, farmers typically use synthetic fertilizers which contain three main components: phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium. After consuming food, our bodies excrete “wastes” which still contain roughly the same amount of phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium, and other nutrients that went in. These components are easy for plants to process, and if composted and pasteurized correctly, human manure is a safe, efficient, and renewable substitute for synthetic fertilizers.

Our waste, in other words, doesn’t have to be “waste” at all.

Which brings us to the issue of sustainability in America and Noe-hays’ ambitious plans for creating a new and more sustainable system which he believes will be superior to the current flush-toilet system. With the growing realization that the human race can no longer afford to be so cavalier with the earth’s natural resources, Noe-Hays believes its important that we stop flushing away valuable water and potential fertilizer in order to contribute daily to a more sustainable future.

Noe-Hays became interested in compost and composting toilets while attending College of the Atlantic (COA), voted the #1 green college in the United States by grist.com. He studied botany and agriculture, hoping to find the ultimate source of agricultural soil fertility and how to maintain it sustainably, and became inspired to begin his work with compost. He did an internship at a local compost analysis lab and as a senior project began researching composting toilets.

After graduating from COA, Noe-Hays teamed up with an organization called Sustainable Harvest International, to work in Guatemala and Belize installing composting toilet systems on small farms for families that have a serious need.

For poor farming families in South America, conserving water, having basic sanitation and access to fertilizer can be matters of life and death. But what are the prospects for composting toilets in the more affluent United States?

The widespread use of composting toilets in the United States could benefit not only for those who use them, but the nation as a whole, says Noe-Hays. Apart from significantly decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the energy we expend using our current sewage system, we could conserve rapidly disappearing fossil fuels and maintain clean water and the environment, he explains.

Imagining a nation that is more efficient, sustainable, and energy independent, Noe-Hays is now in the process of creating an institute that will research, collect, treat and use human manure for fertilizer. He wants to locate the institute in his hometown of Windham, Vermont and “show that human manure can take the place of artificial fertilizers as the primary source of fertility for agriculture”.

He recently took his crusade back to his alma mater, where he oversaw the installation of Advanced Composting Systems’ “Phoenix” composting toilets into the school’s new dormitories. These “Phoenix” toilets are self-contained treatment systems that fully compost all human manure before it is removed so as to eliminate any unpleasantness. These systems are reliable, waterless, odorless and have been used in several parks and rest stops across the country. They require very little maintenance, however they are not affordable for the average household because they range from $5000 to almost $7000 each. But other types of composting toilets exist, many of which cost less than $2,000 are more practical for the average urban or rural home (see links below).

“Composting toilets are practical in a lot of contexts,” says Noe-Hays. “It’s important that we are collecting this valuable resource.” Treating and composting sewage sludge removes nutritional value and does not remove all the chemicals, making it much less appealing for agricultural use. If human manure could be collected in its more pure form, it would be easier to treat at a lower cost and produce a better product, he says.

Noe-Hays envisions a public service, much like a garbage service, that would collect human manure and local treatment facilities to ensure correct pasteurization in urban areas. Similar systems are already in use in Sweden and other parts of Europe where composting toilets are more widely used.

In the United States, composting toilets could help small farms eliminate synthetic fertilizers and become self-sustaining; cities could save on sewage treatment expenses and escape the pollution produced by the sewage treatment process.
With people like Noe-Hays pushing the research and integration of a more sustainable sewage system and institutions like College of the Atlantic signing on to pilot projects, composting toilets could become more mainstream.

So the next time you flush, consider this; perhaps what you should be flushing away is not clean water and a potentially valuable resource, but a bad system that is neither efficient nor sustainable.

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(Editor’s note: Contributing writer Emily Speir also is a student at the College of the Atlantic.)

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