June 8, 2012

The Dry Composting Toilet

An efficient, dignified, and healthy system for everyone

The dry composting toilet (DCT) is a system for the treatment of human excrement capable of destroying the microbes that make us sick without wasting or contaminating water. The DCT is an efficient, simple and worthy technology, despite the fact that most people underestimate it or aren't familiar with it.

Perhaps this is the first time you've ever heard about this system, and so you've never considered it as an option. Or maybe you are one of those people who views the traditional flush toilet as the most effective technology, and although you know that other options exist, you think that you already have "the bathroom issue" resolved and the alternatives are only for poor people who lack a sewage system or septic tank. If so, then this article it is intended especially for you.

The DCT is a system for EVERYONE. It is not just a bare-bones option for rural areas, nor is it a second-class alternative for those without a sewage system or septic tank. Although a great many people are affected, the relatively few users of flush toilets maintain an obsolete and dangerous model of public "health" system. It is also clear that the continued survival of this antiquated and absurd system is not due to the lack of other methods to replace it. Other techniques existed well before the flush toilet was invented, and development of new systems for more efficient treatment of fecal matter continues. Why then do we still view flush toilets as the best (and sometimes only) option? Although I would like simply to explain the many advantages of the DCT over the conventional system and expect that this information would be enough to convince you, I think that first I should begin with some questions that I hope will alert you to the problems of the flush-toilet approach, and then you can decide for yourself with all the cards on the table.

So let's begin...

What do we look for in a sanitation system?

We all agree that an exposed pile of excrement is foul-smelling and unpleasant to look at, but above all it represents a focal point for infection of soil, water, food, and animals. If humans live nearby, they will not be able to avoid microbes that would make them sick. For this reason, all of humanity relies on some sort of sanitation system to protect their health.

But avoiding illnesses is not the only thing we consider when choosing a sanitation system; we also look for convenience, comfort, efficiency, quality, and status. Sanitation systems are also a reflection of our culture and values. It's important to emphasize that the conventional flush toilet has also become a powerful status symbol, and those who don't have one are looked down on as "miserable wretches" or "dirt poor". If humanity were to choose its sanitation systems solely based on their efficiency, the conventional flush toilet would have disappeared long ago.

What's wrong with flush toilets?

The mid 19th century, when water-based sewage systems first appeared, was the beginning of a history of enormous waste and pollution. These systems were designed under the premise that human excrement is nothing but "waste" and that the environment is perfectly capable of assimilating it. We now know from 150 years of experience that this system has not and will never be able to solve the sanitation needs of the world. It is an attractive system because it moves its unhealthy effects far away from those who are doing the excreting, but at a cost of polluting large quantities of water. It's also clear that focal points of disease are not avoided, they are simply displaced, generating a very serious problem for those at the other end of the pipes.

Less than half of humanity is connected to a drainage system, and in developing countries more than 95% of sewage is discharged without any treatment whatsoever into rivers, streams, and oceans. As they pollute these bodies of water and the nearby soil, they also transmit infectious diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, amoebic dysentery, gastroenteritis, hepatitis, typhoid, etc., causing the deaths of some three million people every year.

By combining excrement with water, we create a mixture that is difficult to treat and therefore dangerous. Purifying these waste waters requires expensive treatment, which is only performed on a fraction of the total. And even this treated water is not safe for your health. Heavy metals, pharmaceutical residues, hormones, and toxic chemicals may still be in the water that you drink.

The conventional sewage system, rather than being a sanitation system, reflects a culture of waste generation, contributing instead to many of the serious problems that confront society today: water pollution and waste, soil loss and destruction, food insecurity, and inequity in the administration of health services. Although interconnected, the threats posed by the conventional sewage system can be observed in the following levels:

Ecological degradation. This refers to the denial of every human being's right to a stable and healthy physical environment. This system represses people's age-old practices for maintaining a healthy relationship with the earth and water. The use of huge quantities of water for sewage systems drastically affects the capacity of the soil to absorb groundwater, leading to an increase in surface evaporation, and an overall decrease in soil health.

Denial. We practice a peculiar one-way linear thinking that fails to connect the dots backwards from an effect to its cause and removes it from its context. As a society, we are not ignorant of the implications of our acts; instead, for the sake of convenience, we are in total denial of them. The expansion of sewage systems combined with the increasing shortage of drinkable water is one of many examples in which the danger of this denial is palpable. The infant mortality rate can be reduced by 50%, and more than half of the cases of diarrhea can be avoided by improving water quality and sanitation. However, we continue to flush and forget, without noticing that we are connected to a network of pollution that ends up harming others.

Exalting comfort while maintaining an obsolete system. We fetishize comfort to the point of becoming individuals who demand service at a cost of the well-being of others. Abundance pleases us, and austere solutions make us feel dissatisfied. Perhaps for that reason we continue mixing our excrement with water. Even though this method has proven itself to be inadequate to the present conditions, we continue to connect ourselves to drainage systems. And if we refuse to produce sewage, then we are confronted by building codes, zoning laws, concerned neighbors, and a model of urban living that requires this type of facilities.

Inequality and monopoly. As with other institutionalized services, sewage systems polarize society by providing privilege to a minority while the costs are born by the majority. 1.1 billion people in the world lack access to potable water, while we continue polluting and wasting this vital liquid in order to deal with our excrement. When you translate the necessity to defecate into a demand for a flush toilet - no matter what the circumstances might be - and you demand that an institution provide you with the only solution that you can imagine, you are relinquishing your autonomy to the whims of a control apparatus. It is important to recognize that systems like the flush toilet deny us the possibility of controlling our own tools and transform us into a society more and more dependent on an authoritarian, abusive, and controlling power structure. Access to clean water and the protection of our health is a fundamental human right, and we should not allow anyone to appropriate it. You and your community are capable of meeting your own needs effectively and autonomously.

Why do we still consider flush toilets to be a healthy sanitation system?

Aside from the sense of status that goes along with it (which we have already mentioned) we trust our flush toilet because seemingly it has worked for us at domestic level, it fulfills a need for comfort, and it's extremely easy for its users to operate. Another important factor is that we let our noses instead of our conscience make the decision. Although we may have heard of other types of toilets that don't use water and are totally safe for your health and the environment, we still reject them because we are unable to tolerate the smell of our own excrement. It seems that we are not willing to consider another option if we suspect that it implies unpleasant odors or would appear to be "counter-culture" - that is to say, outside of what is identified as the "progress" and "development" for which we all strive. The sad truth of the matter is that our noses are only able to pick up certain things, and they are generally unable to perceive the most dire effects generated by our way of living.

A lot could be said about the existing power structures and the way that they maintain themselves at a great cost to the majority of the population and the environment. The requirements and value system of the current model of "development" continue to cause inequality, injustice, and waste, with an overall increase in social suffering and environmental degradation. Rather than denying this context, we should see it as our starting point, and I propose that the DCT can be a form of resistance to it. Along with other means of struggle, the manner in which you treat your excrement can be a political activity - a habit that puts into practice our commitment to equality, justice, and the well-being of all people in a way that is sustainable.

Let's share the benefits of this technology that many people are already using.

What are the advantages of the DCT?

The Dry Composting Toilet system helps to resolve many of the relevant issues that we have already reviewed: infectious diseases, environmental destruction, water scarcity, the need to recover nutrients for the soil, and the importance of relying on tools that are chosen and controlled by their users.

The DCT is HEALTHY because it eliminates the microbes that make us sick, transforming potentially harmful human excrement into a stable substance that is no longer dangerous to our health or that of others. Diverse laboratory studies and many thousands of experiences all over the world have demonstrated that the compost produced by the DCT poses no threat to our health or to the environment.

We call it dry toilet because it SAVES WATER. Not only does it reduce the sources of water pollution compared to sewage systems, but by not using water it attacks this problem at the root, respecting the biological equilibrium of the environment. We don't need to waste this precious liquid in order to treat the excrement of the world's 6 billion people. In fact, we never should have started doing it, and we certainly shouldn't continue to do so.

It is COMFORTABLE and ODORLESS. If you have not yet had the opportunity to try out a good DCT, perhaps you imagine that since they don't use water they must be like pit latrines, which are generally regarded as smelly, dirty, and technologically backwards. Thanks to the effective treatment process of this system and proper maintenance by its users, your nose will be in for a surprise when it starts sniffing around suspiciously and can't find any unpleasant smells.
It is an ALTERNATIVE for EVERYONE. The DCT is inexpensive, and there are a variety of models to match everyone's needs and wants. It functions in zones with high or low temperatures, in dry or humid climates, in rural or urban areas. All over the world there are examples of the DCT working in diverse contexts - not only in places where there is no sewage system, but also where the possibility of connecting to one exists, but the people who live there decided instead to treat their excrement in a more responsible way. Some DCTs are freestanding independent units located outside the house, while others prefer to have their toilet indoors. They are commonly found in homes and workplaces and in tall buildings as well. They function in private homes as well as in public places, such as schools, hotels, etc. In summary, the DCT can adapt to any circumstance or desire.

Taking advantage of natural biological cycles set in motion by the user's own energy, the DCT creates a SIMPLE SYSTEM that is able to transform excrement into a nutrient-rich and innocuous compost. Nowadays we can choose from among the many commercially-available models or we can easily build our own using local labor and materials. The DCT encourages local autonomy and reduces our dependence on centralized services because it is a tool that we and our communities can control.

Building and operating a DCT is economically inexpensive. Regarding its ecological cost, we can be proud that the DCT takes advantage of the biological cycles of the environment to treat human excrement, which is essentially nothing more than organic matter - the same as the leaves of a tree - and which can be broken down into a nutrient-rich compost for the soil. The DCT is an excellent SUSTAINABLE TECHNOLOGY, ideal for treating the excrement of the six billion inhabitants of today's world.

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