Poop or fruit: an Indictment of the Flush Toilet

I’ve been dealing with water as a scarce personal resource for about four months now, and it has really opened my eyes to the extreme wastefulness that is institutionalized throughout our society. What I mean by a scarce resource is that while on the motorcycle journey, I was only capable of carrying 3 liters of water on me at most times, through the use of my camelback.

We had a 5 gallon collapsible water jug that we used, but due to space limitations, it had to be packed empty for travel. Many of the camp sites we had were completely primitive, with no water for sometimes as much as 45 miles round trip to ride to go fetch our 5 gallons. Sure, there was a “limitless” supply behind the tap that we filled up at, but it now cost an hour of time per 5 gallons we needed to use, and that is substantial. So, you only cook with as much water as you really need. You only do dishes with the most minimum amount of water you can get away with. Since we spent the first three weeks of that journey primarily in the desert, using clean drinking water for anything other than drinking just seemed wasteful.

This pattern has continued in my current living situation. I currently occupy a converted school bus parked on some land near the river. There is a house on the property, about a half mile away from where I am parked, and we have a 5 gallon water cooler, and a 7 gallon jug, that we can fill up at the house, and haul back down to our camp. This still works out to at least 30 minutes to an hour of labor in order to gain access to 12 gallons of drinkable water. In addition, due to the lack of plumbing or power in the part of the lot we occupy, I have constructed a simple composting toilet to use instead.

The composting toilet consists of a 10 gallon steel trash can, which I line with a bag. At the bottom of this bag is deposited a few inches of biodegradable pine cat litter, as a moisture absorbing layer. On top of this is placed perhaps 5-6 inches of wood-chips, an abundant resource on the property we occupy. I purchased a basic toilet seat from a local hardware store for $6. This is placed on top of the can. It works pretty much how you figure. You sit on the seat, crap in the can, and cover your business with more wood chips. Repeat this process until the can is full, then move your bag of wood chips and shit to the larger humanure pile. This process uses no water, surprisingly doesn’t produce an undesirable odor, and after about 6 months to a year, will yield you some incredibly rich fertile soil. While it is considered safe to use this compost soil to fertilize food crops, many people understandably remain hesitant to use it there, for fear of contamination by the nastiness that is human feces. Now, the inside of a compost pile will reach a temperature of 145 degrees through the activity of beneficial microorganisms that break down the organic matter in the pile. Sustained exposure to heat of this degree will actually kill nearly all pathogens one might find in feces, but I actually do fall on the side of people remaining skeptical about eating food grown out of my own shit. Instead, it can be used to fertilize landscaping plants, shade trees, and flower gardens, all of which will happily absorb the bountiful nutrients of your processed waste.

However, the production of high nutrient soil is something I really consider only a secondary benefit of this system. The more important aspect is how much it can reduce your personal water usage. Currently, the standard in most of the developed world is to fill a porcelain bowl with clean drinking water, defecate in that clean drinking water, and then flush that water down a tube that will carry it miles and miles away to a large processing facility that will use all kinds of ridiculous potentially harmful chemicals to remove this feces from the water, and re-clean and sterilize the water to make it usable again. Using water to remove urine from the house is equally wasteful. A standard toilet can use up to 3.5 gallons per flush, and even so called “water-efficient” toilets use a full gallon per flush. I personally take an average of one good dump per day, and probably need to take a leak about 3-4 times per day, depending on how well hydrated I stay, and how much I’m sweating, etc. So, we’re looking, optimistically, at about 4 gallons of water used for waste removal for just me. And that’s on only efficient toilets, on a below average day. That’s 28 gallons of water a week. 124 gallons a month.

Think about how much could be done with 124 gallons of water over a month, instead of just flushing it down the toilet. First, you could drink it. One adult should consume about 1 gallon of water per day during the summer (at least here, where it’s regularly over 100 degrees). So, 31 of those 124 gallons could just be consumed directly by you. 93 gallons left. My suggestion? Plant food. Water scarcity is definitely the limiting factor on agriculture in my climate. If you plant a new fruit tree, it will need about 10 gallons of water a week, or 40 gallons a month. So, you could plant 2 fruit trees and keep yourself nice and hydrated instead of flushing the toilet. Or you could irrigate a vegetable garden, or fuck, if you were so inclined, you could probably even keep that ridiculous grass lawn of yours nice and green to impress the home owners association. I personally do not advocate that last option.

Taking this a step further though, it’s still ridiculous to use drinking water to irrigate. Drinking water has a fairly high embodied energy, in terms of what has to be done to the original source to render the water suitable for human consumption. There is a level of water between drinking water, and the black water that contains our still virulent feces. That level is greywater. This is water that goes down your sink when you wash dishes, that goes down the drain in your shower, from washing your hands, etc. As long as you use biodegradable soaps, available in every major grocer and from a variety of major brands, this water is perfectly fine to use for irrigation, though not for drinking. As a human, water that has a large amount of dirt and food particulate dissolved in it is undesirable for your consumption. However, for plants, this is just extra nutrients they’re getting simultaneously. The organic matter dissolved in the water will only add to the richness of the soil it’s poured on. Greywater irrigation can be done in a variety of ways. Ideally you would probably keep a greywater reservoir onsite to collect all this, and then have it irrigate your food crops in your yard automatically through buried soaker hoses, to minimize losses to evaporation, as well as minimize the human effort required to water the plants. However, the simplest implementation I’ve seen is just placing a bucket under the sink for it to drain into, and then taking that bucket outside to water the garden. Not as elegant, but ultimately still pretty effective.

This shouldn’t be your guide on water efficiency. There are lots of better sources for that on the internet, and I would encourage you to do your own research on humanure, rain-water catchment, and greywater systems. My composting toilet system is incredibly primitive, because I had $20 to build it with. How nice yours is will depend on how much time and resources you’re willing to devote to it. This is just me reminding you to really think about the resources you use. Next time you flush a toilet, think about the basket of fresh picked fruit you could have had instead.

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