Compostable Toilets: Pooping with Purpose (Crapping for a Cause?)

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The toilet is as good a spot for reflection or reading as it is for excretion. For those out there who might be wondering, “what will the bathroom experience be like at Rio Muchacho? How will it complement my learning and time there?” I have an answer for you. Allow me to paint a picture. You are sitting on a toilet seat, staring at the bamboo walls that surround you and shelter you from the outside elements. The tropical birds are chirping and the sun is shining. You do your business (whatever that might be), wipe, and toss the toilet paper in the toilet. You turn to flush, but instead of sending 3-5 gallons of polluted water out into the ecosystem (and conveniently out of your consciousness), you dump a cup of sawdust into the toilet and you are done. This sawdust provides a nice dose of Carbon to work with the nitrogen that you have already so kindly provided. Once the toilet is full you might have the honor of helping to move this early stage humanure to another holding container where microorganisms will feast for 6 months to a year. They will spend this time degrading and transforming the compost, and while doing so will remove all potential human pathogens with the heat they produce in this process. Finally, this humanure will be used to return valuable nutrients to the soil. At Rio Muchacho we use our humanure for pastures and reforestation, not directly on the vegetable gardens. Even though it would be completely safe, we want people to feel comfortable eating the delicious fresh food we enjoy daily.

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While the users experience is quite comparable to the typical visit to the restroom, the outcome is completely different. The moment of flushing a toilet, an action, which I have often done with apprehension only because I fear it might clog, and not that I might be directly contributing to environmental degradation, is a moment that really changes everything. The most obvious problem with flushing is how much water it wastes. The less obvious negative effects of the flush are the way in which it breaks the animal nutrient cycle. In a proper animal nutrient cycle, we grow food, eat food, gather excrement and compost it (which means we feed it to friendly bacterial microorganisms and make sure they have plenty of oxygen to work with), and then return these available nutrients to the soil to reuse and start the cycle again. By flushing a toilet we break this cycle in two damaging ways. First, we discard our precious nutrient rich fecal matter and urine in a manner that creates waste and leads to pollution. If we do not allow humanure to sit and compost, we are left with human waste. Human waste is a dream location for disease to hang out and spread. At treatment plants human waste is converted into Sewage and treated water. Sewage is full of medical, chemical, and industrial hazardous materials and is usually sent to a landfill. This buried waste and chemicals creates massive amounts of methane, and is a major contributor to global warming. Even treated water can still have high amounts of these chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, nitrates, chlorine, etc. Jenkins (2005) provides the astounding statistics that each human produces 1000 pounds of humanure per year, which is not used as such, and instead finds its way into landfills and our drinking and swimming water. The second major negative effect of the flush, and break in the animal nutrient cycle, is that because we send this aforementioned precious and nutrient dense manure to landfills and our water, we must resort to chemical fertilizers to get nutrients back into the soil while growing food. These fertilizers are nasty in many ways, one of the biggest being that the nutrient runoff due to the misuse of these chemicals is the leading cause of water pollution in our natural bodies of water. The toilets at Rio Muchacho allow us to complete the nutrient cycle, thereby lessening the impact of human waste and chemical fertilizers on the planet, and reducing water pollution and all the wasted water that flows with each flush.

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Aside from the first person experiences I have had with these awesome Johns, I got all the information in this post from other volunteers and the “The Humanure Handbook” by Joseph Jenkins. I highly recommend that you give it a read, maybe even while enjoying one of the ethical and pleasant potties here at Rio Muchacho.

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