Off the Grid: Homegrown waste management
Compared with the rest of the nation, the Bay Area is an easy place to go green – many restaurants will give you take-out with biodegradable containers and silverware, trash cans have a section for recyclables, and San Francisco, along with other Bay Area cities, even offers compost collection
But there’s on arena of eco-consciousness that some people – even in the Bay Area – often choose to ignore: the toilet.
The average high-efficiency toilet uses 1.28 gallons of water per flush – on average, it’s what consumes the most water in your household. Oakland based water rights activist Laura Allen noticed this, and she decided to come up with an alternative.
Reporter Mwende Hahesy from KUSP in Santa Cruz went to speak with her about how she created a toilet that turns human waste into something called “humanure” – it’s part of our series called Living off the Grid.
MWENDE HAHESY: A waterless or non-flushing toilet is usually cause for alarm – not to mention unspeakable smells. But Laura Allen wants people to know that it doesn’t have to be that way. Her toilet is in the basement of her house, and it’s both waterless and non-flushing. But it’s not broken: it’s supposed to be this way, because it’s a composting toilet. It’s raised a few feet off the floor, to make room for the collection chamber under the house.
Next to the toilet is a bucket of sawdust. Taped to its lid are simple handwritten instructions.
LAURA ALLEN: “After your deposit, please use a scoop of sawdust to cover. Everybody needs to sit to use the toilet to pee or poo.”
Now let me back up a second – because Laura didn’t just wake up one day and decide to do away with traditional toilets. For Laura, it started when she was in college. She was living with seven roommates, and they noticed their water bill was getting really expensive.
ALLEN: When we got our first bill it was quite shocking to see how much water we used. And none of us had any idea where it came from, or where it went. We realized we were completely ignorant about that. So that was kind of an awakening, where I thought, “Wow, I don’t want to live this way.”
This led Laura and her roommates to divert and recycle all the water they could.
Dishwater. Shower water. Laundry water. It’s all known as grey water, which means it’s safe enough to be reused. Later, Laura helped form a water rights group called Guerilla Greywater Action Girls. Their M.O.: educate and empower people to use water more sustainably.
But grey water wasn’t enough for Laura. She thought of her toilet, and found out that toilets alone can take up to a third of household water use.
But you most definitely can’t reuse toilet water, because it isn’t safe. So how do you reduce a toilet’s impact? Eliminate water from the equation.
ALLEN: The first time we harvested, when it was finished – I was surprised. We knew what went in there. And then you see it: it’s just earthy soil, like great earth. That hummus-y, forest-y smell. And it’s completely transformed.
And yes, by “harvested” she means the collection of human waste. Feces transformed into what some call “humanure.”
The process is pretty simple: the poo bucket is under the house. It gets emptied once a week into a larger rain barrel. Once it’s full, Laura covers it and lets nature take over. And in one year, voila! You have humanure.
And you might be wondering – what about the smell? Well, the sawdust, coupled with an air vent, creates an anaerobic process: it doesn’t smell. Laura’s bathroom actually smells clean, with a hint of cedar wood, thanks to the sawdust. And the urine? Laura collects that too, in a separate container which she uses as a fertilizer for her garden. Human urine is rich with nitrogen, which plants need to grow. She almost gets more excited about urine diversion than composting.
ALLEN: You’ll get the closet urine recycler who’s like, “What? I do that too! I never knew it was a thing!” They’ll have figured out it was good for their plants. They don’t want to tell anyone, but then when they find out about other people they’re like, “Oh yeah!” Because I think more people do it than you would suspect.
In Laura’s bathroom, there’s a large photo of a few ears of corn. Some were fertilized with urine harvested from her toilet; some were not.
ALLEN: You can see in the picture that the zero-urine corn is tiny – like two inches tall. And the cobs that received the most urine are big, yellow, and, like, eight to 10 inches long. So it’s very visual, how well it works.
Composting toilets are gaining traction – slowly. When you look at the average American, they probably wouldn’t want to get so up close and personal with their poop. And logistically, composting toilets currently can’t work for everyone. There has yet to be a design that would fit multi-story buildings in dense urban neighborhoods.
Laura and many other water rights activists are more than aware of the challenges.
ALLEN: Well you have to meet people where they are – learn what people are comfortable with, and go with what works for them, at first. Usually when people take one step in one direction, they get comfortable with that. Then they can do another thing and get comfortable with that.
Laura says grey water is an easy first step for most people. Millions of Americans already use it. In the meantime, she works with Grey Water Action to modernize plumbing code and hosts compost toilet workshops. Ultimately, she wants people to realize it’s as easy as one, two, three. Or at least one and two.
In Oakland, I’m Mwende Hahesy for Crosscurrents.
This story originally aired on July 26, 2011.