As publisher of a group of plumbing magazines, I confess I’ve been struggling with ideas I heard some months ago in a presentation on composting toilets. My problem is that these systems do not use water or traditional plumbing; they do, however, make a great deal of sense.

The concept of using the earth instead of water to dispose of human waste certainly demands a different mindset. In fact, the words “dispose” and “waste” are not even correct because these systems reuse our bodies’ organic material to enrich soil.

Bob Boulware, P.E., M.B.A., ofDesign-Aire Engineeringin Indianapolis, presented the case for composting toilet systems last summer at an IAPMO Green Technical Committee meeting near Chicago. Along with being a member of that committee, Boulware is president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association. So, his green credentials are strong.

As is his sense of humor. He began his presentation with a photo of two bears in the wilderness, and then asked the age-old question about why they did their business in the woods, as opposed to a stream or lake.

To answer that question, Boulware pointed to the shortcomings of conventional water-carriage sanitation, which aren't so funny. These include:

  • Unsatisfactory purification or uncontrolled discharge of more than 90% of wastewater worldwide, which results in water pollution and health risks;

  • Consumption of precious water the for transport of waste;

  • High investment in energy, operating and maintenance costs;

  • Loss of valuable nutrients and trace elements contained in excrement when it is discharged into water; and

  • Problems with contaminated sludge in combined, central sewage systems.

    What Boulware says is a better idea would be to redirect our organic material away from bodies of water. After being treated, feces and urine would be transported for either agricultural use or to restore soil’s fertility.

    This ecological sanitation approach would include these benefits:

  • Improve public health by minimizing the introduction of pathogens from human excrements into the water cycle;

  • Promote the safe recovery and use of nutrients, organics, trace elements, water and energy;

  • Preserve soil fertility and improve agricultural productivity;

  • Conserve resources; and

  • Replace disposal with a material flow cycle.

    This “ecosan” approach addresses a concern we’ve discussed in this space. Two years ago, in commenting on a World Toilet Summit, we cited facts from that 1.1 billion people are without access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion people - 42% of the world’s population  - do not have a secure place to use a toilet or otherwise lack safe sanitation.

    Still, I couldn’t help but wonder about ecosan’s impact on the plumbing industry. So, I asked another Green Technical Committee member who leads the water conservation efforts of a major plumbing manufacturer.

    As it turns out, he believes the future of plumbing is heading in this direction. What’s important, he added, is that composting toilet systems are designed, produced and installed properly, so that they function as intended.

    While I don’t foresee the end of traditional plumbing anytime soon, I do believe the potential benefits of ecological sanitation make it worthy of your consideration.

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