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Composting Toilets Demystified

When you flush a toilet in America you have every expectation that whatever just went in there is going away forever, no questions asked.

So why would anyone want a toilet that takes your dirty business, stores it right where you put it, and hands it back to you again after a few months??

But that is what a composting toilet does. A composting toilet is exactly what it sounds like.  It takes your waste and stores it in a tank, where a combination of bacteria, heat, and time slowly turn it into “delicious” compost for your landscaping projects.

Walk through the objections with me.

That sounds inconvenient.

To help the waste break down you need to add small amounts of carbonlicious material: sawdust, dirt, popcorn, etc. and crank a handle to mix everything up nicely.  You have to do this weekly.  It’s not as much work as having a cat and cleaning out its litter box.

Wouldn’t installation be a hassle?

Nope, individual units are completely self-contained.  Put one in a closet and you’ve got a bathroom.  If you want several units that lead to a central tank, you’d have to put in some pipes, but it’s simpler than dealing with wet plumbing, sewage, and/or a septic tank.  Space considerations are minimal because waste loses most of its volume when water is removed.

They’re probably expensive.

The initial investment is more expensive, but you can save in the long run.  For current models they can range about $1,200 for a single unit SunMar unit to $6,000 for a large house Clevus Moltrum system. Overall you save money on water (composting toilets either use very small amounts of water or are dry flush) and plumbers…not to mention gardening stuff.

What if you poop more than they can handle?

Composting toilets come in many sizes.  A small stand-alone unit would be better for a vacation home, or  a couple of people.  A system with a central tank can handle constant use by multiple people.  Pick a tank capacity that meets your anticipated need. Clevus Moltrum systems handle thousands of people a day at the Bronx Zoo.

Most importantly…What do they smell like?

Nothing.  They’re vented like normal toilets.

And finally, aren’t there sanitation codes against this kind of thing?

Yes, unfortunately.  They vary widely depending on what state you live in.  Florida, for example, encourages the use of composting toilets while Nevada doesn’t approve them at all.  Most states have vague regulations somewhere in between.  New York building code currently stipulates that new construction must include a plumbing system, and we weren’t allowed to install them in our Harlem passive house.

The objection the DOB gave us when we applied to install a composting system legally was fraught with  misconceptions. Basically, they didn’t know enough, so they gave us some random excuse and rejected it outright. Hopefully as the NY DOB continues to learn about green building techniques they will become less scared of them. So for now a composting system in NYC has to be installed illegally.

In NY state composting toilets are permitted in remote or arid areas, but the processed compost must be either professionally hauled away or buried a safe distance from food crops and water sources.  Having to destroy the compost defeats the convenience and purpose of having a composting toilet  in the first place. This is another example of a lawmaker not understanding the system and imposing incorrect restrictions on it.

Who uses composting toilets, you might wonder?  These days, mostly people in remote or very dry places, where the lack of wet plumbing is beneficial.  They also show up in public spaces like roadside rest stops and national parks. And was we mentioned, the Bronx Zoo uses them. As ecological awareness continues to rise, though, they’re appearing in more urban and personal settings.

compactprod Composting Toilets Demystified

Composting toilets, gray water, storm water management, low flow toilets and sinks all play an important role in NY ecology. New York City has a single plumbing system, meaning when you flush the toilet and when it rains it all goes into the same pipes. The sewer system is woefully under sized for New York so a lot of the sewer is dumped into the waterways.

This is a real problem. Eco Brooklyn is increasingly becoming a water management expert in this area. Through the use of living walls, green roofs, dry wells in the gardens and rain garden we make sure that not one drop of rain leaves a parcel of land, thus greatly reducing the burden on the sewer system each time it rains.

In the building we implement gray water systems where all the water from sinks and showers are collected instead of passed to the sewer. The gray water can then be used to flush the toilets, which is currently illegal in NYC, or to water the outside plants.

A composting toilet greatly adds to this equation by diverting water and waste from the sewer and turning waste into a valuable food for gardens.

We strongly believe that these water management techniques are the key to having NY waterways that you can swim in and eat from. As NY buildings have their plumbing upgraded it costs relatively small amounts to implement these water diversion techniques. They can be done in stages as well.

Eco Brooklyn is always on the lookout for new and innovative ways to turn New York buildings green, but actually a composting toilet is neither new nor innovative.  Composting toilets have been around for thousands of years. Unfortunately building codes and social acceptance have yet to catch up.  We hope to one day legally offer composting toilets as an environment-friendly option for our ecologically minded clients. We offer composting toilet installation now but unfortunately it falls into the real of what we call civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience is non-violent refusal to follow laws that you believe do not benefit the common good. We strongly feel composting  toilets in NYC would benefit us on many levels.

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