Composting Toilets for a Sustainable Future

The great lakes make up about 21% of the world’s fresh water. Millions of people depend on the lakes for their drinking water. Yet, not enough is being done to protect this vital natural resource. Sewage problems in the states surrounding the lakes are causing major problems. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on clean-up efforts each year, but there is not enough focus on pollution prevention. There are simple solutions to this enormous problem that we can use on an individual and community level. It is vitally important that we start protecting our beautiful lakes. Composting toilets are an increasingly popular and effective way of completely elimination this form of pollution.

In April of 2013, according to an investigation conducted by mLive and the Grand Rapids Press during a record-breaking flood, city officials were frightened by the possibility of disastrous damage to the sewage plant. Serving Grand Rapids as well as many other surrounding communities, a staggering 40 million gallons of wastewater is treated by the facility per day. According to an estimate made by the city environmental services manager, it would have taken just thirty-six minutes for the plant to be submerged, had the earthen berm been damaged. The plant would then likely be dysfunctional for up to 30 days.

During the flood, the city of Grand Rapids spent $700,000 on protective techniques, including 3,400 feet of industrial-size sandbags that were set up to form a wall by volunteers. Despite the city’s victory in preventing the destruction of the sewage plant, a shocking 435 million gallons of sewage, only partially treated, leaked into the Grand River during the flood. It is estimated that, throughout the state, about 1.5 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage entered waterways that lead to the great lakes during the 2013 flood.

During the 2009-2010 fiscal year, 15 different overflows occurred adding up to 38.5 million gallons of untreated sewage entering the river. In 2012, about 58,000 gallons of sewage overflowed into the Grand River from two locations in the city where storm and sanitary sewers are still connected. The city’s environmental services manager was proud to report that it had been almost 11 months since the last spill.

When sewage enters the rivers that flow into the Great Lakes, it can cause devastating consequences. Water quality decreases significantly as outbreaks of bacteria such as E. coli and enerococci occur. When water is added to the gases that are produced as sewage is broken down, sulfuric acid is created. This acid has been attributed to corroding ships in affected waters, as well as damaging metal building as it enters the air in the form of smog.


Sustainable progress

Luckily, Grand Rapids has been working for the last two decades on an ongoing project of separating the storm sewers from the sanitary sewers at a cost of about $350 million. This helps to significantly decrease the amount of spills into the Grand River.  The sewage system separation unfortunately contributes to an increase of harmful runoff from industrial farms among other sources, as this pollution is no longer treated at the sewage plant.

The sewage plant has also been working on sustainable improvements. They have recently added three rain gardens to the property to divert storm water. They have also discontinued the use of chemicals for some of the process and invested in some new energy-efficient technology. Despite the positive changes to the Grand Rapids sewage system, most cities in Michigan still use a combined system. Furthermore, there is a severe shortfall of funding for sewage separations in Michigan, and the process takes a long time to complete.

The water level of the Grand River never reached as high as was predicted during the 2013 flood. Even if it would have, hundreds of volunteers came together to prevent a tragedy from occurring. There is something inspiring about a community collaborating in this way. During tragedies, people show their true power to make important changes.


How can we help

What if people everywhere could do something simple and incredibly cost-effective to prevent the contamination of our rivers and lakes? Instead of polluting the environment, human waste can be converted into nutrient-rich soil that replenishes the land to its’ natural state. This provides a nourishing environment for growing fruits and vegetables.

When what leaves the land is put back into it, this organic recycling process strengthens the soil considerably. The modern disregard for this principle has left our soil in a very poor state that has contributed to malnutrition worldwide. Composting human waste is an easy solution to the many major problems compounded by our contemporary waste-disposal system.
There is a variety of different systems used for human waste composting. One way is to install a system in your home that connects to a black-water tank. This tank functions to break down the material into usable substance. Most of these systems do not require any work by the owner besides gathering the materials after the process is complete. These systems are effective but can be very expensive.

The simplest compost system can be built by hand and involves a compost toilet, compost bin, and cover material. Compost toilets are sold online or can be easily constructed by the user. To build it, a wooden box is constructed with space underneath the toilet seat for a five-gallon bucket. Sawdust, rice shells or other carbon-based materials work really well for odor control and can be collected for free. When the bucket is filled, it can be brought out to the compost pile. The buckets can also be capped and set aside for later, when more buckets are filled.

It is estimated by the humanure handbook that for a family of four, the process will only require about 20 minutes, once a week. The compost pile can include kitchen, garden, and yard materials in addition. The fresh material is added to the middle of the pile to create a heated center which supports the macroorganisms such as earthworms. A cover material such as straw is used along with a wire mesh to keep pests out and to completely eliminate odor.

The compost bin can be constructed outside with wood or other materials. Specific information about this, and the other steps involved in creating this system for a home are found in the humanure handbook as well. The compost will consistently break down, so there is always room for fresh compost as needed. It takes about a year of aging before the compost is ready to be added to the garden.

Composting is a controlled aerobic process that does not cause pollution or waste. This is because all of the harmful material is broken down quickly into a useful byproduct. Research has proven that pathogens are killed due to the thermophilic environment of a hot compost pile. It also does not depend on water use, which protects this vital resource from further contamination. Another major advantage of using a compost toilet is that, if using the simple method, no plumbing, pits, electricity, or pipes are required. This makes the system incredibly cheap! The heat produced from composting can even be used as a sustainable energy source for homes or greenhouses.

Solutions for human waste pollution offered by political figures are helpful, but they do not even scratch the surface of all the problems we face. The only way to solve the major problems humanity faces is to make these changes ourselves. The amount of clean freshwater available on the planet is constantly decreasing. Composting toilets are a key factor in creating a sustainable future for the Earth and for future generations.

Brooke VanDyke

I am an environmental activist from Grand Rapids, MI. I am passionate about protecting the earth in every way possible and I am so excited for the future I am helping to manifest!

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