Water

One Family's Unconventional Solution to Save Water

Self-composting toilets make a lot of sense when water is already a cause of national uprisings and covert wars.

Under construction: A side view of the hammock that will hold the mass, showing the fishing net that holds palm fronds (which hold up the rest), then grasses, sawdust, and other green matter.

Thirty years ago, my husband and I fell in love with a glorious piece of land on a glacial lake in Westport, Massachusetts -- the secret unknown Westport of lobstermen and dairy farmers. The house was a tiny faux log cabin -- awful. But the land was a peninsula, beautifully forested with oaks and pines and tupelos. The view was spectacular, almost Japanese, with tall upright rocks close to shore and the constant shush of the lapping of waves. We wanted it badly.

The biggest "but" was that it had no plumbing. The family selling it had resorted to an outhouse in the forest; or, more exactly, a bucket in a shed in the forest. The owners gave us a month's option to see if a septic system was feasible. We hired a man with a back hoe who told us after many tries that the land didn't "perk." The peninsula was all granite below; liquid could not percolate down through the soil and disappear. Sigh. 

We would have given up, but a friend told me I should look at the Clivus Multrum. The system was unknown to me, but the friend was Roger Swain, whose advice on so many matters was already proving invaluable to readers of Horticulture, and who was later to host the "Victory Garden" on the Public Broadcasting System. The Clivus Multrum, he explained, was an "inhouse outhouse" except it didn't smell. It was engineered so the methane and water vapor -- 95 percent of human waste is gas -- goes up the narrow chimney-pipe that comes with the unit. Gases are sucked up by a wind-driven fan at the top that we immediately called "The Turk's hat." 

Abby Rockefeller, an early feminist and ecologist, had a company that sold it. It cost a hefty sum, but somewhat less than indoor plumbing with a tight tank needing to be cleaned out frequently. And the system required no water. This was lucky because the property possessed nothing but a shallow well. Did I say we had fallen in love? Love overcomes obstacles. 

In no time we visited Abby's house. We saw for ourselves the handsome oak pedestal and specially moulded plastic seat and lid (to keep out flies) and sniffed into the fiberglass tank in the basement to ascertain there was no discouraging odor. Abby added sawdust and leaves to the biomass, so there was no discouraging vista either. Abby was a proselytizer for the system. Forty percent of household water goes for flushing, she said, and this had no flush. Perfect for desert areas, she said. Save water, save the planet. Perfect for no-perk areas, we concluded gleefully. Thousands of dollar later, we owned it.

To play it safe, I obtained all the permits before we passed the papers. It had to be approved by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, a process that went well even then because they were up on the latest appropriate technology. 

Two town fathers -- our last hurdle -- were harder to convince. Their final objection was that after 10 or 15 years, there would be some sediment in the tight tank in the basement. "A cupful of safe odorless material," I said, "if that." Abby had said the compost was clean enough to dig into our vegetable garden, but the two men shuffled their feet and looked dubious. Fortunately, the town engineer was present. "They can put it in a can and take it back to Newton to put in the garbage," he declared. 

We built a low tower to house the unit, doing most of the work ourselves. The tower has eight steps up to two bathrooms, whose windows look out into the forest. We seeded the fiberglass tank with bales of peat-moss and quickly got into the habit of adding a handful of leaves after every use. A bucket of leaves is a fixture in each room. I tiled the floors with ceramic tile.

We have lived with this green regime for the past 30 years. Happily. 

Does it look funny? Not at all, those oak pedestals are far handsomer than porcelain toilets. For the first few years we joked that we would put in a cassette of flushing noise for people who felt the experience felt unfinished without sound effects. Now we enjoy the silence. 

Does it require a lot of maintenance? No. My husband tosses the biomass from time to time with a clam-rake. Occasionally we pour in a bucket of water, because the mass tends to get dry.   
 
The peaty-colored odorless liquid that sinks to the bottom of the tank we do put on the flower beds right there at the lake. Only a cupful of compost settles after many years and we never take it back to Newton. It's really true that the mass dissipates as harmless gases. (We never call it "waste.") Our flowers thrive. Excuse the expression, but ours doesn't stink. 
 
There are cheaper ways to build a composting toilet. Six years ago, my husband David built one for a school in our Sister City in Nicaragua: It has two rooms above, like ours at the pond. And twin-bins for the biomass below. The bins are inside cinder-block enclosures, set on a cement platform. Each has an air-intake to assure aerobic decomposition, a vent pipe to carry off the water vapor and methane, a "hammock" made of nylon fishing net to hold the biomass (leaves, sawdust, palm fronds, and of course human waste) up in the air. The bins are sealed below with roofing tar to assure no contaminants enter the ground. In the rooms above, the cement toilet seats are provided with wooden lids.   

The walls are thick clay and wattle, covered with a cement-based stucco. The rafters are of bamboo, and the roof of zinc. It's cool and pleasant inside the cement-floored toilet rooms. Elsewhere in our Sister City, the water table is dropping; farmers are unable to irrigate; women and children are still carrying water long distances. Here, the move from latrines to eco-latrines has been a smooth glide uninterrupted by the high demands of the flush toilet.   

Back in the developed world, people still shy away from the "in-house outhouse." But saving the planet's water by using self-composting toilets begins to make a lot of sense, in a century in which water is already a cause of national uprisings and covert wars.

Copyright 2012 Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of four books, including "Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America" and "Declining to Decline." She is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center. She has published on water problems in Nicaragua's daily, El Nuevo Diario.