Friday, November 4, 2011

Don't be Afraid! Composting Toilets at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

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 Dancing Rabbit (and Red Earth Farms, and Sandhill Farm) 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 (Note: I am writing a post about our rainwater cisterns and will have it up here soon!).

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.

In our home, and around Dancing Rabbit, most folks use the Humanure System popularized by Joe Jenkins. I was a little skeptical at first, while reading about this at home in Berkeley before moving to DR. How could it not smell? Could it really not be gross? I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived and actually used the system. After each use one adds a handful of sawdust or wood shavings, which really does work. How? Through the miracle of thermophilic composting, which is just a fancy schmancy way of saying that the bacteria essentially cooks itself into beautiful soil:

In many backyard compost piles... mid range bacteria do most of the work. However, if conditions are right they produce enough heat to activate the "thermophilic", or heat loving bacteria. Thermophilic bacteria work fast. Their optimum temperature range is from 104°F to 160°F. This natural heat further encourages the rapid growth of more thermophilic bacteria, until all of the original organic material is digested and broken-down into a stabilized and homogenized nutrient- rich soil product.

As a gardener, and an environmentalist, I was already a believer and great fan of compost - we had been composting food scraps and garden "waste" for years. 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.

The Humanure System is equally efficient. 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 environmentalists the options are limited. Which actually turned out to be a plus for us.

The Humanure System consists of a 5-gallon bucket, a toilet seat, some sawdust, and a compost pile outside. Handy to have for beginners is a compost thermometer. The entire book is online, as are helpful videos (see link above). Not exactly an ideal system for high-rise dwellers, but something to consider for others with a yard or some acreage.

Most houses here at DR have their own Humey toilet.

This is in the still-under-construction Milkweed Cottage. A simply constructed wood box, sized to fit a tall 5-gallon bucket. A bucket of wood shavings next to it. TP holder on the opposite wall and cat on the windowsill out of view in this shot.

Over at Bluestem is the glitziest pooper on the farm. (Please note that I did not give them any advance warning or the opportunity to sweep - I just showed up at the door and asked Tereza if I could take a photograph. Where else does your neighbor appear 
out of the blue and ask to shoot your toilet? 
Ah, life at Dancing Rabbit). 
Tom made this 17-sided beauty. Apparently it was supposed to be 16-sided, and there was much swearing and frustration trying to get all the pieces to fit. It was only after he finished and counted that he realized that the difficulty came from the extra piece. Oops. 
Regardless, it is rather elegant.

This is a peek in the door of one side of the DR Outhouse. Sorry about the poor lighting. The outhouse features a Dutch door (for viewing scenery as you, um, sit) and side-by-side poopers - bring a friend! The toilet seats are attached to the plywood top, which lifts up (on hinges) in order to empty the buckets. It's a lot easier than it sounds.

A few houses have their own compost piles, others dump their buckets in the community humey bins, which are also where the buckets from the Community Building and the community outhouse are dumped. A humey shift is one of the rotational duties that all members of Dancing Rabbit agree to do. The finished compost goes on fruit trees in the community orchard.

Hauling buckets for a couple of people in one's own household, or being part of a cooperative system with 50-something people particpating feels manageable. But when it came time to choose a toilet system in the Milkweed Mercantile, Kurt and I wanted to be spending our time talking with our guests, not emptying buckets. A commercial composting toilet seemed to be an ideal solution.

We chose 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!" We've asked them to include this info in their reviews on Trip Advisor and/or but so far no one has. Folks don't talk about toilets much...

Here's Kurt putting together the Phoenix Composting Toilet (or, Still Life with Coffee Cup). The bottom two sections are on the left, and the top section is upside down on the right.

A view of the tines inside the Phoenix.

More fun in the basement.

 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.

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:

Common sense and just the right amount of folksy humor make this treatise on feces a pleasure to read whether or not you've ever knowingly come within 50 miles of a compost heap. Logsdon writes for a wide scope: how to recognize a manure spreader for those who don't know; the finer points of old-fashioned pitchfork tines, for readers who actually use them. In addition to lots of clear DIY instructions for utilizing waste, Logsdon, 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?

Love, Alline