I was first exposed to the concept of composting toilets while searching tiny homes. There is an inspiring builder out of Nelson, BC called Nelson Tiny Houses who have put together a few videos, one of which focused on composting toilets (check it out here). The idea sounded feasible if you had some land, but unattainable for us as we were at the time renting an urban dwelling. I understood how a composting toilet would look and function, but I didn’t fully comprehend the need. It seemed like a novel idea that the tiny-home movement had adopted due to it’s ability to fit into an ‘off-grid’ system. Having lived on Hornby with a composting toilet for 3 months I am beginning to see why it’s such a great idea.
Toilets are super hard on water! Low efficiency toilets are capable of burning through 7 U.S. Gallons of water per flush. Whereas more efficient systems can use 1.28 Gallons per flush. That’s between 4.8 and 26.5 L per flush! If you take an average of 5 flushes per day (estimate by the American Water Works Assosiation. Don’t ask me who they are or how they estimate how many times people deposit their liquids/solids) that’s between 8,700 and a staggering 48,000 L/year! With droughts and forest fires popping up all around us, you’d think it difficult to justify flushing that water down the toilet. I won’t even get into the fact that toilet water in Canada/US is drinking standard, which just seems wrong considering there are people around the world who don’t have access to proper H20, but that is a topic for another day. Toilets high use of water became super apparent to Lana and I last year when a water main broke forcing us to live without tap water for a few days. Before heading to St Albert to stay with my parents (thank-you!) we attempted to make due with a couple 20 L (5 Gallon) jugs of water from the grocer. Within two flushes of the toilet we were through one jug and thought ‘holy shit’ that’s a lot of water.
Another negative of conventional wastewater collection and treatment is that the infrastructure is expensive and doesn’t adequately deal with the sludge; placing it in landfills, down injection wells or incinerating it. Or worse yet, as in the cases of Halifax and Victoria, wastewater is dumped directly into water bodies, which has a glut of negative consequences.
One last negative of toilets and wastewater treatment is the concept of “peak fertilizer“, which is that there is a finite amount of resources such as phosphate and nitrogen. Undoubtably some of the nutrients we ingest are being returned to the system, but largely we require fertilize to grow our plants. Fertilizer, like fossil fuels, are finite. We are depleting the earth of the nutrients required to grow the food that sustain us. We should strive towards having a closed system where the nutrients we consume stay in the system.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of how our composting toilets work and how we convert the manure into humanure (sawdust, air, moisture, time), I will say that it serves us well. Hornby Island, amongst much of the world, needs precipitation. Through composting toilets we can conserve water while keeping nutrients in the system. We need to reintroduce our waste into consciousness and thereby bring us closer to self reliance.
Here is a video that sort of speaks to what I’m talking about by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Except, the reinvented toilet they speak of is geared more toward densely-populated developing nations. But I feel like they’re essentially describing a composting toilet without saying it 🙂