Guest Column - July/August 2005
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Compost Happens

Outdoor Restrooms

By Alex Linkow

Just about everybody understands composting on a basic level. Most people have at least seen a backyard bin, and anyone who's ever set foot in the woods has witnessed composting in action. The composting process, during which organic matter is broken down, is nature's way of recycling. And in the process, waste volume is greatly reduced, and nutrients are returned to the soil.

What many people don't realize is that the same concept can be applied to human waste. In our hunter-gatherer days, humans avoided defecating in their drinking water like every other land mammal. Human waste was scattered, and it composted naturally. But when humans started living in large communities, things changed. Eventually, flush systems became the gold standard. Now, Americans alone are flushing an average of 4.8 billion gallons of water down the toilet every day, and polluting aquatic ecosystems in the process. But there is a simple solution.

Composting toilet systems are an environmentally sound, practical alternative to flush, vault and portable facilities. There's no water wasted for flushing, pollution caused by sewers and septic systems is reduced, and composting toilet systems allow you to put nutrients back where they belong, in the soil, not in the water.

Myth vs. reality

Those that have heard of composting toilets are likely familiar with some of the myths about them. If you think these systems only are appropriate for remote locations, can't handle heavy use, or smell like an outhouse, you have been misinformed.

Composting toilet systems are certainly useful in remote locations. They have been used successfully for years, in back-country locations such as the huts of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Alaskan wilderness and in the Grand Canyon. But they also have been used with success in highly populated cities such as New York City; Boston; Vancouver; Winnipeg; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Ann Arbor, Mich. For example, a composting toilet recently was installed to serve visitors at Manhattan's "Ballfields" at Battery Park City. And in Vancouver, even though sewer lines were readily accessible, the University of British Columbia installed no-flush composting toilet systems to save water, reduce waste, and provide learning opportunities for students and the wider community.

Facilities such as those in New York and Vancouver need to be able to handle steady use. So don't let anyone tell you that these systems are only appropriate for part-time vacation homes or low-traffic back-country outposts. In fact, some modern composters can handle upward of 150 uses per day or more than 50,000 uses per year. At Wawayanda State Park in New Jersey, the bathhouse, using composting toilet systems exclusively, can handle nearly 500,000 uses per year.

Of course no sensible park director wants a half-million visitors complaining about smelly restrooms, and one of the main reasons that people hesitate when considering composting toilets is the idea of odor. But the truth of the matter is that a properly designed composting toilet system incorporates a ventilation system that keeps odorous air circulating through the composter and out of the building, not through the restrooms. Fans are designed to run continuously, and as long as the fans are running, there is no odor in the restroom. That's the reality.