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Experiments with excrement

| 30 Aug 2012 | 03:12

Every morning, Tom Knaust makes a “deposit” in a bucket that sits on a third-floor porch overlooking the valley where he works as a beekeeper. When he’s done he throws sawdust on top.

Once a week, when the bucket’s full, he empties it into a bin constructed of four pallets screwed together, and fortified with chicken wire and cardboard. Then he throws more sawdust on top. When the bin gets full, Knaust lets it sit. A microscopic metropolis of bacteria and fungi goes to town on the pile of excrement, toilet paper, sawdust and kitchen scraps, destroying pathogens like the disease organisms that make us fearful of feces: intestinal parasites, hepatitis, cholera, typhoid. After a year, the pile has transformed into the kind of rich dark soil that gardeners venerate. Knaust works it into vegetable beds and uses it to deep-mulch fruit trees. “Anywhere and everywhere, it is just an excellent soil amendment,” said Knaust, 28. We know this process of bacterial digestion as composting, and plenty of us do it at home with food scraps and yard clippings. We might have a sense that we’ll get the most potent soil out the other end if we can get hold of some manure – chicken, cow, horse – to throw in the compost heap with the banana peels and cucumber ends. But most of us have never thought to look in the mirror for the source of that manure. Is it time? “I think indoor plumbing is going to be looked at by future generations as the biggest blunder of humankind,” said Knaust. “Why are we pooping and peeing in such a precious resource?” Teddy Roosevelt pointed out this very problem a century ago. “Civilized people ought to know how to dispose of sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water,” he observed in 1910. Neither our toilet nor our mindset has changed much since then. When Knaust comes home from Ashville, N.C. to visit his family in Branchville, N.J., he can’t help but preach. Praising the load, he calls it. It’s a tough sell. Tom’s parents have worked hard to achieve a comfortable way of life and they aren’t about to start pooping in a bucket, no matter what their son has to say about the travesty that is indoor plumbing. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hear his larger message. Knaust’s mom has expanded her garden to a quarter acre affair and gotten into canning and preserving. She goes to the recycling center and garage sales, where she picks out Mason jars for herself, and nice bottles for Tom, who’s into home brewing. “I do feel like I’m having an impact,” he said. “A very slow effect.” Likeminded souls willing to go the distance may be few and far between, but they are out there. An hour south of the Knaust household, in Warren County, N.J, Phil and Lorna Wooldridge have been composting some of their excrement since 2010 at their homestead, an 1835 schoolhouse. “Phil and I hate wasting things,” said Lorna. “We would prefer to totally move away from using the septic one day, but that is a ways off. At the moment we just use the composting toilet for our trips in the Airstream,” their 1955 aluminum travel trailer, whose lights – and now the fan for the composting toilet – are powered by solar panels. The turning point for them was a talk at an organic farming fair called “I Pee in My Garden” by Ed Smith, author of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. It wasn’t a huge leap: Phil has been known to don a dust mask and gloves and shovel hundreds of pounds of bat guano off the rafters of the old church across the street, which he lugs in chicken feed bags to his compost heap. Clearly, he understands the importance of poop in the garden. The Wooldridges bought and installed a composting toilet originally designed for boats in their Airstream. The Nature’s Head composting toilet, which separates urine from solids, is slightly more complex than Knaust’s bucket system, but it works on the same basic concept. After you go number two, toss peat moss into the toilet and stir a few times (like sawdust, peat moss starts the composting process and, somehow, makes the toilet’s contents smell earthy). When they get home from a road trip, Phil dilutes the urine and then adds both urine and solids to the garden compost. The Wooldridges are way past the ick factor, but they’re not sure how house guests will feel when they get around to replacing their flush toilets. “We have discussed the idea that at least one of the composting toilets has to have a normal toilet feel to it,” Lorna said, “so others would find it more acceptable.” Jeanne Elodie has no such qualms. “When [friends] come visit my house, I say, I’d like you to see my toilet,” Elodie said. An artist, she hammered out the seats of two wrought metal patio chairs, attached toilet seats in their stead, and secured buckets underneath. Her big rambling house in the woods of Mercer County, N.J., may not have running water, but it does have a master and a guest toilet. Right now, the master toilet occupies a closet off the living room, and the guest toilet sits at the foot of the stairs that lead to the guest bedroom. Elodie tops her buckets and compost heap with sawdust that she gets from a neighbor who’s a cabinet-maker. When she runs out of that, she uses the sawdust cat litter that she already buys for her cats. “We’re all using kitty litter,” she laughs. When her pile has sat for a year, she’ll use the soil to fill in holes to level her yard. On the scale of annoyingness, emptying the buckets into the compost is on par with taking your laundry to the Laundromat, said Elodie. “Sometimes I’m lazy about it,” she said. “I let the buckets pile up” next to the compost, with lids on. “Then I go out and [empty] a bunch of ‘em. It’s not the greatest job to do, but it’s not awful or disgusting.” Necessity: the mother of composting

If there were water hook-ups at Appalachian Trail shelter sites, then there’d be conventional toilets there, too. But if you’ve ever caught a whiff of a through-hiker, you know there aren’t. That’s why the backcountry has become an early proving ground in the fledgling industry of composting toilets, which don’t require water. Out here, they call them privies. Josh Osowski, superintendent of Stokes State Forest in Sussex County, NJ, has agreed to show Dirt a couple of the new “moldering privies” that have become a common sight to hikers. Thanks to a grant from L.L. Bean and the sweat of volunteers, the NY-NJ Trail Conference has installed at least half a dozen of these low-tech composting outhouses in the past few years, at a cost of between $1,000 and $3,000 and about 100 work hours each. They’re nothing fancy, and that’s precisely why they work. “‘Moldering’ is just a fancy word for s***house,” explained Lee Mott, the trail volunteer mainly responsible for building half a dozen of these privies along the trail in New Jersey. You can tell Mott’s work because he always nails a horseshoe above the door. (“Molder,” according to the dictionary, means “to turn to dust by natural decay.”) Our first stop is Gren Anderson Shelter, where the moldering privy replaced a hole in the ground with a toilet seat on top of it, without so much as walls around the hole. “I don’t how we got away with that,” Osowski said. At our second stop, Mashipacon Shelter, the privy replaced the exponentially more expensive Clivus Multrum, which required a solar panel (which sometimes got stolen) to run a fan (which sometimes broke), and a parks employee (who sometimes grumbled) to periodically rake out the toilet’s contents. Here, the Clivus Multrum is locked, with a sign directing bathroom-seekers to the moldering privy 50 yards away. The moldering privy – shown on the cover – doesn’t wink in the sun like the solar-panel-topped Clivus it replaced. It’s just an outhouse that sits on top of a crib made of wood planks, over a pit six inches deep. After you go, you toss a handful of sawdust or dry leaves down the hole. The urine drains into the biologically active top layer of the soil, and the excrement and the sawdust form a heap that’s processed by microscopic organisms and red worms. The decomposing heap is exposed to the elements and, most importantly, plenty of oxygen. When the crib fills up, the privy slides to the side, where another pile will form while the first pile decomposes. Depending on the traffic load, the crib might never have to be emptied. Otherwise, the finished compost can be scattered on the forest floor. You might not stop to check out a moldering privy unless you knew what the facilities out here are usually like. “I didn’t use it, but I walked in there because it seemed new,” said through-hiker Mickey Severance, 28, of San Antonio, Texas. Severance, or, as he’s known on the trail, Tiny Dancer, has primarily chosen the woods over the hold-your-breath toilets he’s encountered so far on his hike from Georgia. “In Virginia, they have pit toilets. Most of the time you can smell ‘em as you’re walking up to the shelter, and you know, I must be close,” he said. His verdict on this one? “It smells of woodchips – nice.” The future of flushing There are die-hards who call their bowel movements “resources.” Then there are the rest of us. Having researched this story, Dirt is fully convinced that composting our waste makes complete sense, and that pooping into the equivalent of an office water cooler makes none. But when it comes to making the switch to some sort of composting system, well, we’re still twiddling our thumbs. And in the meantime, we’re still flushing. It’s ingrained in the national psyche. “Americans are so used to just crapping in a toilet, pressing a button and walking away,” said Joe Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook, the gospel of excrement composting. “Americans have to un-learn sanitation, whereas a lot of other countries, they don’t. Because we’ve learned that sanitation means dumping waste into our drinking water supplies, and a lot of other countries, they never learned that because they didn’t have the ability to do it.” If clean water stops flowing from our taps or grocery stores run out of food, we will all be forced to turn a scrutinizing gaze at our toilets. In the meantime, an inventor is hard at work developing other sustainable ways of dealing with our numbers one and two. Understanding that there is no such thing as waste in nature, Dr. John Todd started bringing together thousands of species found in all different environments to create communities that work together to break down our waste. The result was the Eco-Machine™, a wastewater treatment system that mimics wetlands in order to purify water. Darrow School’s Samson Environmental Center, in New Lebanon, NY, houses the first generation if Todd’s invention, which was called the Living Machine™ in 1998. In a sunny greenhouse, turtles and Japanese koi swim beneath a footbridge. The greenhouse is filled with large, cylindrical tanks, half of which support tropical and subtropical plants that have grown so tall they almost reach the glass ceiling. Canna lilies burst out in orange, flame-like bloom, and Hawaiian ginger imparts a spicy scent to the greenhouse. It’s not a smell you’d associate with a sewage treatment plant. And yet, the water that supports these aquatic creatures and plant life comes from the toilets and sinks of the school’s dorms, apartments, academic and administrative buildings, athletic facilities, and dining hall. The sewage is pumped through a series of settling tanks and open tanks where bacteria and growing plants feed on nutrients in the water, before tiny aquatic invertebrates prey upon the bacteria that have consumed the waste throughout the process. Clean enough to swim in, the water enters a fish pond and a wetland that supports vegetation from cacti to carnivorous plants, which help take care of the bugs. A bullfrog croaks its endorsement from somewhere under the surface. After demonstrating the process, Craig Westcott, director of the Samson Environmental Center, grabs two beakers from the science lab adjacent to the greenhouse. He fills one from the first open tank and one from the last tank before the water enters the wetland and fish pond. The water from the first beaker is murky and brown, a few unidentified objects floating at the top. The water from the last tank is clear. “This,” said Westcott, “is the future of wastewater treatment.” A decade after the Living Machine opened at Darrow School, the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY built the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, which would become the world’s first certified living building. The building produces all of its own energy through solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling, utilizes recycled materials, and has a living roof, but the best part is the Eco-Machine™, the fifth generation of Todd’s design. Dirty water from the campus toilets, showers, kitchen, and café flow through outdoor wetlands of native plants such as cattails, bulrushes, and sedges, before entering an indoor lagoon of tropical plants like a dwarf banana tree, Egyptian papyrus, and elephant ear. Bacteria are introduced in all stages of the system to break down nutrients, and imported white flies aid the process. Japanese koi swim in the indoor lagoon, where the gardener is always cutting back the plants because they grow so fast. The sewage is cleaned within 36 hours, and then percolates back into an underground aquifer. In a science lab inside the greenhouse, students watch and learn. “Nature has solved all of the environmental problems we face now,” said Jeffrey Reel, the Omega Institute’s sustainability manager. “It’s just shy of insane to use drinking water to flush toilets.” “Change is coming fast and furious,” said Reel. “We are hopeful for the future.”

By Becca Tucker and Jenna Gersie