19 February 2011

The Composting Toilet

For most of my life I have been deathly afraid of outhouses. As many can contest who have accompanied me on camping trips or at rural roadside pit stops, I would be the one screaming with the door open, and hopefully someone standing guard, should the dark and dank odors from below incarnate into groping hands while I squatted hovering above, convinced I could at any moment be pulled to my doom; a nightmare of filth and flies and rotting mess. The deeper the hole, the darker my fear, and so marked my complete experience and knowledge of outhouse and pit toilets until a year or two ago.

When we moved off-grid, the sewer lines were left behind and all basic human needs were pulled into sharp focus. Without a constant source of running water, the concept of a flushing toilet for the seven or more humans regularly inhabiting Los Brujos (not to mention guests) was not feasible, and we learned that we enjoyed depositing our human waste in the fresh outdoors, directly into the ground. But digging a small hole each visit and keeping the dogs away from the growing piles became tedious if not impossible. Still I harbored psychological fears against the obvious solution and when we were blessed with flowing water pumped from the stream, we quickly installed septic systems; an urban solution, ignoring the inevitable future of what happens when the hidden underground chamber finally fills up.

Waste flushed away even as our consciousness expanded in the realms of self-sufficiency and sustainability. We recycled gray water from dishwashing in order to keep the toilet flushing even during summer droughts or times of water scarcity; using creativity to justify avoidance of the hypocrisy in our midst, the psychological barrier that plagues the modern, Western mind in regards to our waste. Every day our bodies were producing nutrient-filled material that could potentially feed our fruit trees, flowers or other plants, but instead we were hoarding all that material in a wet environment of concentrated toxic sludge that would some day overflow and contaminate the surrounding forest and water with its active bacteria. We were wasting water, losing nutrients, and filling a time bomb. Eventually our conscious awareness of the error we were actively committing several times a day overpowered the psychological desire to change the subject: we needed a self-contained solution to our human waste disposal.

Of course, overcoming life-long traumas is not an overnight process. Although we openly recognized the need for a solution, the final design and building of a composting toilet would only come after a couple years of research in the matter; spikes of enthusiasm sketching out potential structures or purchasing key materials followed by months of distraction in other projects as the reality of a drastic change in waste management eased beyond tolerance toward embraced acceptance. Like any transformation, the actual moment of change was much easier than anticipated, natural really, and was charged with the positive feelings of active measures.

Today in Los Brujos guests and residents are welcome to use our dry, composting toilet with outlined instructions in Spanish and English with accompanied drawings. Our toilet sits on a platform suspended between two trees above our solid waste containment and composting vessel: a 125 liter plastic garbage bin. Liquid deposits are funneled through a pipe to a natural drain rinsed with a little water after every use, easily absorbing back into the forest. Solid deposits fall directly into the garbage bin and are dusted with ash and sawdust; leaves and other organic matter diversify the mix. When the bin fills, it is to be capped and left to compost naturally for 6 months to a year in which time the harmful bacteria found in human waste will die off, leaving behind a nutrient-rich soil fertilizer for fruit trees, flowers, and other plants. A new bin is replaced under the dry toilet to fill while the other rests and such is the rotation of the composting and the recycling of waste, adding more bins as need arises. Separating the liquid and solid waste controls odor and helps speed the composting process, drying out the bacteria. We adapted our simple design for Los Brujos from a variety of composting toilet designs, tying the project into a tree-house to avoid having to build pillars in order to elevate the toilet over the bin. The rest of the structure housing the toilet is covered with colihue (a Chilean bamboo which grows rampantly in our forest) and panels of opened and cleaned Tetra-Pak boxes (used to contain juice, milk, and wine), a handy material that we readily consume and which Christine’s students, when prompted, happily collect and donate to us.

Forming an active and positive relationship with our human waste is just one aspect of our physical and spiritual transformation here in Los Brujos, but an important test in our commitment to face fears and take responsibility for our physical presence on the Earth, especially within the vibrant ecosystem which is our forest home. I find using our dry, composting toilet to be a pleasant and easy experience. I am very sensitive to odor and I do not find the toilet to be smelly. Sitting up in the trees, looking out at the forest, knowing where my waste is going and imagining how it will be recycled healthily into my surrounding environment, one forgets to worry, does not even think of this space as an outhouse. Because part of me still harbors a mistrusting fear of poorly managed, traditional outhouses: those groping hands that just might crawl out of the slime, bacterial time bombs in waiting, too many unknowns for the imagination, fears to truly ponder.