Composting Toilets: Why We Should Give a Crap

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It’s not a sexy topic. A drain on any dinner conversation. In most cultures, it is a taboo subject if you’ve left childhood behind. Yet, we all use it, or need to use it, every day. But some 2.5 billion (one in four) people worldwide lack one, and many — especially children — suffer sometimes fatal consequences because they don’t have access to a clean one. That is, a toilet.

While most humanitarian efforts focus on the importance of clean water, the humble toilet and sanitation needs aren’t flaunted. After a turning-point trip to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, Matt Gunn, owner and founder of Eco Commode, started figuring out how to not waste our waste and improve lives here and in Haiti. His goal is to ricochet 10 percent of the business’s profits back into sanitation projects in third-world countries.

Gunn’s not alone in his efforts. Matt Damon, co-founder of water.org, is flushing out the importance of accessible sanitation for all via his “toilet strike” (announced in a spoof press conference) and bringing attention to World Toilet Day (Nov. 19), along with several other global nonprofit organizations. And just as they care, Gunn hopes we all will, too. The Eco Commode leader sat down with Earth911 for a little “potty talk” — to tell us what we need to know about portable toilets.

Earth911: The epiphany happened in Haiti; what were you doing there?
Matt Gunn:
A private donor had sent me to help build a sustainable school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, soon after the earthquake. The land was next to an orphanage, which at that point was two mud-floored tents in a field — one for girls, one for boys. Before establishing the school, we assisted in helping those working on the orphanage. The first steps were the need for well water and bathrooms. They ended up contracting with a nonprofit German company that built four pit latrines for $12,000. The cost floored me — I thought, “There has to be a more economical way.”

E911: The epiphany?
MG: While working on the orphanage, I started looking around to see what others were doing. There were a lot of NGOs at work and donated money was flowing into the country. While visiting another school, I was in disbelief when I saw, and smelled, the composting toilet they had put in. It was clean, no flies, and it didn’t stink, nor did the compost pile some 15 feet away.

You have to understand in Haiti, no one wants to use public facilities because they are so repulsive. Plus, only about 30 percent of people there even have access to toilets. And if they do exist, there is no sewage treatment. For the most part, waste just ends up in streams or running into gutters. Children and women end up getting assaulted because they don’t have a safe, private place to do what they need to do. Health-wise and safety-wise, it’s a much bigger issue than at first glance.

E911: How did these composting toilets work?
MG: They used sawdust from the husks of sugarcane (known as “bagasse”), a surplus that is generally tossed aside. This is spread in the toilet after each use and also covers the composting pile. The sawdust provides the carbon source that helps break down the nitrogen and also traps oxygen in, which is key to the process. As the microorganisms go to work, everything heats up naturally. When the heat reaches above 131 degrees Fahrenheit, harmful bacteria dies.

Someone has to maintain the toilets, moving waste from them to the composting pile each day. Then, once the matter in the composting pile is broken down and cools down, it can be used for land application. At this school, these kids already had a thriving garden with nitrogen-rich soil in a country where the ground is severely depleted and most of the country has been deforested. Once people understand the composting process, it brings it full circle. In solving one problem, we solve another.

E911: What did you do with this knowledge in Haiti?
MG: I built four composting latrines as part of the sustainable school for $1,200 — one tenth of the cost of the cost of the orphanage latrines. Prior to this, the orphans were avoiding the pit latrines just three to four months after they were built because they were filthy.

Soon, the orphans and the people from the nearby tent city started using the school’s composting toilets because they were clean. I know the school went on to create a garden.

E911: What did you do with this knowledge in the United States?
MG: I was sad when I left Haiti. The private funding came to a sudden end and I had not yet finished my full vision for the sustainable school. I felt like I left these kids hanging. After becoming discouraged looking for possible donors, I decided I’d fund it myself through my own entrepreneurial means. First came the Zion 100, an ultramarathon race I started near Zion National Park in Utah. It sold out, and while picking up porta-potties for the event, I started fiddling around with these plastic boxes, wondering how I could take this existing porta-potty system and make it into a composting one. It was happening in other countries but not here. Some national parks here had them and off-the-grid homes, but they are permanent structures.

After that event, my partner, Shawn Taylor, and I came up with a design for mobile composting latrines for events. He said, “Let’s not just make it functional, but welcoming, too.” So we busted out of the porta-potty stereotype — a plastic box — and built what you might call a pleasant experience. Our first one was a recycled wood-and-metal eight-unit trailer.

Instead of bagasse, we provide sawdust [deterring odor and flies], a trash and recycle bin, seat covers, hand sanitizer, a spray bottle full of biodegradable cleaner and paper towels. Also some reading material, The Humanure Handbook — also known as the “shit bible.” Plus, we like to say we provide great customer service, because someone from Eco Commode has to always be present to maintain the facilities.

E911: How did you know that if you built it, they would come?
MG: We tested it — first at a race in Moab, where it sat near two traditional plastic porta-potties and some BLM [Bureau of Land Management] pit latrines. People waited in lines to go into the Eco Commodes even when there were not lines for the others. We did the same thing for a Ragnar race, and the lines were longer. We estimated our eight units shouldered a third of all the people there. This prompted the Ragnar director to hire us on for future races.

E911: How do you dispose of all that … stuff?
MG: First of all, since there are no chemicals involved like in most porta-potties, it is not considered a hazardous waste. We take it and compost it in a 275-gallon container, and within two to three days, the temperatures climb high enough to kill the pathogens.

Here in the States, you can’t turn it into fertilizer for crops unless it’s for non-food crops (i.e., alfalfa), so our plan is to use it for vermiculture, letting worms do the rest of the work, breaking it down even more. Then local farmers will take it from there.

E911: Do you get a lot of crap for what you’re doing?
MG: [Laughs] It can make some people uncomfortable, but for here [in the U.S.], I see it as the biggest thing I can do to lessen our carbon footprint and change a system that uses harsh chemicals and is a drain on the power grid. Sewage plants tend to be one of the biggest users of electricity — usually in the top three.

In Haiti and other third-world countries, I see it as the most effective system to make a difference in the world, stopping the spread of disease, protecting the vulnerable and allowing for some dignity in the lives of those entrenched in poverty. It’s not sexy to talk about poop, so not a lot of people are focusing on this area, but it can make a big difference.

Feature photo courtesy of Eco Commode

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