Could waterless toilets, such as composting or incinerating toilets be a viable option for Park County residents to help support the inevitable growth in a county with water issues?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY THEFLUME.COM IN 2016
There are many benefits to using composting and incinerating toilets, as well as challenges, including public perception and some regulatory obstacles.
Prior to indoor plumbing with toilets that use water to dispose of human waste, methods such as the chamber pot were used. In some periods of history, people even disposed of their chamber pot contents by throwing them out the window onto city streets.
Composting and incinerating toilets sometimes invoke these images. They may also bring forth images of times when only “hippies” were talking about creative strategies to dispose of human waste.
Also, since the advent of flush toilets, we typically do not handle human waste on a regular basis.
“People in today’s society may find handling human waste objectionable, but in either system that I have used, it is not a big deal,” explains Jerry Casebolt, Executive Director of the A Hand Up-Not A Hand Out Food Bank in Hartsel.
Casebolt has successfully used a composting toilet at his home for four years. Additionally, he has overseen the use of the composting toilet at the Hartsel food bank building for over 15 years.
According to Casebolt, when the current Hartsel food bank building was the Hartsel Bible Chapel, one person was designated to be responsible for monitoring the composting toilet and this worked well.
Just what is a composting toilet? The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Water Efficiency Technology Fact Sheet explains the nature of composting toilets.
“A composting (or biological) toilet system contains and processes excrement, toilet paper, carbon additive and sometimes, food waste. Unlike a septic system, a composting toilet system relies on unsaturated conditions where aerobic bacteria break down waste.
“This process is similar to a yard waste composter. If sized and maintained properly, a composting toilet breaks down waster to 10 to 30 percent of its original volume.
“The resulting soil-like material called, “humus,” legally must be either buried or removed by a licensed septage hauler in accordance with state and local regulations.”
The Environmental Protection Agency Water Efficiency Technology Fact Sheet describes the features of incinerating toilets.
“Incinerating toilets are self-contained units consisting of a traditional commode-type seat connected to a holding tank and a gas-fired electric heating system to incinerate waste products deposited in the holding tank.
“The incineration products are primarily water and a fine, non-hazardous ash that can be disposed of easily and without infection hazard.”
According to the Park County On-site Wastewater Treatment System Regulations 2014 document found on the Park County website, a composting toilet, “means self-contained waterless toilet designed to decompose non- water-carried human wastes through microbial action and store the resulting matter for disposal.”
Composting toilets, according to the Colorado Code of Regulations found on the Colorado Secretary of State website, are defined as, “unit(s) which consist of a toilet seat and cover over a riser which connects to a compartment or a vault that contains or will receive composting materials sufficient to reduce waste by aerobic decomposition.”
One of the major benefits of using a composting or incinerating toilet is that it is waterless. Also, no septic system is required.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, “the average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day. On average, approximately 70 percent of that water is used indoors, with the bathroom being the largest consumer (a toilet alone can use 27 percent).”
Park County’s 2014 OWTS document estimates that 24.8 gallons of water are used per person each day for just toilet flushing.
Susan Jones, Park County resident for almost 30 years successfully used a composting toilet on her ranch for over 20 years.
“We never had any problems with it,” Jones said. She also expressed concern about the Hartsel area becoming, “a cesspool because it is in a basin and composting toilets or incinerating toilets can be healthier than multiple septic systems for the environment and community.”
Adrienne De Forrest, a retired industrial engineer and a current Park County resident, also used a compost toilet in Ward, Colo. for 25 years and loved it.
“It takes your pee and poo and turns it into something useful,” said De Forrest.
During the entire time that De Forrest used the compost toilet, she never had any problems with it. In fact, she and her household affectionately nicknamed their compost toilet, “the microbe garden.”
“To use a composting toilet, you need the right circumstances, you need forward-thinking neighbors and a yard to bury it; I did not have a garden, but used the leftover solids on bushes and trees, which they liked very much,” added De Forrest.
How do composting toilets work?
The Letsgogreen.com website explains it this way, “composting toilets use the natural processes of decomposition and evaporation to recycle human waste. Waste entering the toilets is over 90 percent water, which is evaporated and carried back to the atmosphere through the vent system. The small amount of remaining solid material is converted to useful fertilizing soil by natural decomposition.
“This natural process, essentially the same as in your garden composter, is enhanced in commercial composting toilets by manipulating the environment in the composting chamber.
“The correct balance between oxygen, moisture, heat and organic material is needed to ensure a rich environment for the aerobic bacteria that transform the waste into fertilizing soil. This ensures odor-free operation and complete decomposition of waste.
“When human waste is properly composted, the end product does not contain any pathogens or viruses (these are destroyed by bacterial breakdown). This nutrient-rich fertilizer can then be used on plants or around the base of trees, as part of the natural cycling of nutrients, reducing your need for commercial fertilizers and preserving local water quality.”
The Howstuffworks.com website explains how incinerating toilets work.
“Instead of breaking down waste biologically, these toilets torch it. They send the waste to an incinerator, where it’s burned to sterile ash.
“The toilet sits in your bathroom and has an electric exhaust pipe that exits through your roof. To run, it needs batteries or can be plugged into a wall outlet.”
There are also incinerating toilet models that use propane or diesel or can be powered through solar panels.
A representative from EcoJohn, a company that specializes in incinerating toilets, said that incinerating toilets can be excellent options for areas that are remote and have cold climates.
Are compost and incinerating toilets legal in Park County? The answer is yes, no, and it depends.
In an email to The Flume, Meghan L. Trubee, Community Relations Liaison for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment writes, “Water Quality Control Commission regulations are limited to the areas of the commission’s authority.
“Regulation 43 covers on-site wastewater treatment facilities. As noted in the section 43.12(F), the local board of health may (or may not) permit incinerating, composting and chemical toilets.
“Permitting of an incinerating or composting toilet may also be subject to the jurisdiction of a local agency regulating plumbing or the Colorado Plumbing Board, whichever has jurisdiction over plumbing in the location.”
Park County Development Services Director Sheila Cross explained that Park County follows the state’s regulations related to composting and incinerating toilets.
Cross added that composting and incinerating toilets are not allowed due to the State Plumbing Board Code.
However, according to Cross, campers and residents of tiny houses are allowed to use composting and incinerating toilets because they both fall under camping regulations.
Chief Plumbing Inspector for the State Plumbing Board Kye Lehr said, “It’s kinda confusing. The State Plumbing Board regulates all residential, regarding plumbing fixtures. Each and every residential occupancy must have a minimum of one flushing water closet (toilet).”
Lehr added that, “the plumbing code does not address composting toilets because they are not a plumbing fixture and the plumbing board therefore does not have authority.”
“Because the regulation requires that a home must have a flushing water toilet in addition to a composting or incinerating toilet, then this is an option only for the wealthy,” said one Park County resident about the State Plumbing Board rule.
In addition to regulatory challenges, composting and incinerating toilets have some public perception issues.
“Composting toilets get a bad rap: people think they’re smelly and full of all kinds of viruses and pathogens and other bugs that will make you super sick,” writes Melissa McGinley on her website, Workshop8.
Recent comments from some residents of Park County on composting and incinerating toilets include the following:
“They are great, if you want to live with a bucket of poo in your house.”
“It’s better than going on the ground.”
“They could work well. I saw them on National Geographic and the gardens they supported were beautiful. However, people need to make sure they use them properly.”
“I never heard of them.”
“I plan on getting a solar-powered composting toilet.”
“I think more people don’t use them because they are too much work.”