By Emily Speir

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

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.