Composting Toilets in NYC

As a NYC composting toilet installer we are interested in the composting toilet regulations, or lack of, in Gotham City. Currently we install toilets without seeking permission from the department of buildings. Read pm for an update on the current situation of composting toilets in New York City buildings.

Or don’t read on and know that not much has changed. Composting toilets in NYC fly under the radar. It isn’t against the rules but don’t go around asking for attention either.

Rollie Jones from  the Living Building Challenge Collaborative in NYC has done some good work researching current DOB rules and he just sent me an update. Get ready, it is as convoluted as you would expect from a large city.

As with all toilet stuff, it all comes down to where the stuff goes.  The “end product” as officials call it. No city official wants people to start processing their own sewage waste and for good reason. So the general rule of thumb is that toilets need to be connected to city sewers.

composting toilet

A composting toilet we installed in a brownstone. There were several toilets and the composting collection happened in the cellar.

The Queens Botanical Garden composting toilets for example, were allowed to be installed without any code involvement because the public restrooms were already connected to municipal sewer. The parks depsrtment just installed the Clivus Multrum composting system between the toilets and the sewer, which means nothing ever goes down into the sewer because it gets turned into compost first.

Call it a silly bureaucratic game, but hey it makes everyone happy.

Clivus Multrum (CM) met with the City Building Commissioner regarding the New York Botanical Gardens and was informed that composting toilets were allowed and would be approved on a case by case basis. Again, no clear rules for or against but people are installing them.

Managing the “end product” is a very complicated, multi-department affair. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) is in charge of regulating the end product. They decide if a building gets connected to the sewer system or gets an on site septic system. In the city it is almost always a sewer connection.

The actual handling of the end product is done by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP). NYC has a combined sewer overflow system (CSO) where our sewers handle both rain water and building sewage. This causes a lot of headache for the NYCDEP because any time there is a good rain the sewers overflow into the rivers and canals.

I live near the Gowanus canal and after each rain you can see all sorts of stuff that people have flushed down their toilet – tampons, condoms, and of course big smelly turds. Nasty.

Polluting the waterways is against the law and basically every time it rains New York City violates the Clean Water Act. The city is being sued by Riverkeeper over this for example.

Then you have the New York City Department of Housing (NYCDOH). They regulate what goes on inside city buildings, including what kind of toilet you have, and thus if you have composting toilets they are responsible for regulating it. But they don’t really. At least I’ve never heard of them saying anything about composting toilets. The NYCDOH does not regulate where the stuff goes once it is flushed down the toilet..

Confused yet?

When the end product isn’t overflowing into the waterways it goes to local treatment plants where it is with other waste products (which may not be bio-compatible) to generate “fertilizer” which may not be actually useful for agricultural applications, but is used anyway. Hey, I’m just passing on this information.

The NYCDEP “treats” sewage and “recycles” as “fertilizer”, which due to the combined input of industry, rainwater and residential/commercial, cannot possibly be adequately measured for contaminants/pollutants. Doesn’t sound wholesome, but again, what do I know.

All this to say that the current system of treating sewage is overwhelmed and insufficient. You wouldn’t normally associate composting toilets with big city living, but I see composting toilets as a great way to reduce this strain on our CSO (also important is reducing rainwater and household water through rain gardens, gray water, green roofs etc).

So, the good news is that composting toilets continue to fly under the radar for the most part, and residential users don’t typically report and have not been asked to report end product usage. There are no “compost toilet police”. And why should there be. What’s the point of reporting that you aren’t using the sewer system.

Not to say we want all sort of novices composting their own waste. If done correctly a composting toilet produces a couple buckets a year of very rich and safe compost for the garden. But if not done correctly you have a big pile of crap festering in your home.

There are ways to regulate composting toilets in big cities. Lots of cities around the world do it. I look forward to when that happens in NYC. Until then we take it upon ourselves to educate our clients and regulate our installations. It’s not ideal but composting toilets are so important for so many reasons that we see no other way.

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