Flush Toilets in a Green Home?

low on TP

My daughter and I are guests in a state-of-the-art green home, and I have just finished plunging a clogged toilet on her behalf.  I feel queasy. Though I only have to do this a couple of times a year, I feel mildly traumatized.  Sure, it’s nasty, but the part that bothers me most is the toilet itself.

The way I see it, flush toilets are a relic of the past. They consume precious drinking water and produce a disproportionate volume of toxic, bio-hazardous waste. Even low-flush toilets are hybrid Hummers, a field improvement on a fundamentally bad idea.

Aesthetically speaking, does anyone dispute that flush toilets are just plain gross? Hey, other than clogging, splash-back, overflows, streaking, and sound amplification, what’s not to like?

As it turns out, the problems posed by “modern sanitation” are immense, but completely unnecessary.

The Broken Nutrient Cycle

It all starts with how that which is taken from the soil is replaced: the nutrient cycle.  Sustainable agriculture requires a sustainable nutrient cycle.

Imagine all sorts of food being grown on virgin crop lands. Pulling nutrients from the soil, these largely annual crops capture energy from the sun in food which gets harvested and trucked off hither and yon, ultimately ending up in our kitchens.

Visualize yourself and your household.  This food, presumably pretty good stuff, enters your body, gets stripped of the energy and various compounds that higher-order life forms require, mixes with your household’s particular mix of flora, and is ready for the next leg of its journey.

So far, so good.  Now, let’s say nature calls, and you respond.  Stop at this point and (mentally!) survey your handiwork.  What do you have?  Pretty much exactly what was removed from the soil beneath those crops, except in an organically processed form enriched with beneficial flora that, incidentally, pose no danger to you or your family.  These are your flora, after all.  (If you are sick, however, potentially they pose a danger to your neighbors.)  To complete the nutrient cycle, the nutrients in this material must be returned to the fields.

If you are holding your breath, it could be because the nutrient cycle hangs in balance.  More than likely, you’re looking around for a match to light.  You just made a deposit into a large ceramic bowl filled with potable water. Yuck!

Now you flush, sending those nutrients down a common sewer.  Meanwhile, your less enlightened neighbor next door has just scrubbed his kitchen sink with a chlorine-based cleaner and rinsed it — you guessed it — also down the common sewer.  Two doors down, another neighbor has just flushed an expired prescription medication.  Two blocks away, a neighbor infected with an intestinal cyst has made a deposit into the system.  Finally, baths, showers, laundry cycles and other daily household activities add thousands of gallons of water to this whole equation.
Whoa! Your past and would-be soil nutrients and a couple of gallons of clean water have now become part of something bigger: a several thousand gallon batch of toxic, bio-hazardous soup. Even if anyone had the desire to do so, the nutrients in this mix are no longer fit to be returned to the fields.  This mix has become a serious disposal problem.

The tragedy continues. Back on those fields, lacking nutrients to recharge them, we synthesize what’s needed from petroleum, consuming still more petroleum energy to achieve this.  Alternatively, we fool ourselves with an “organic” solution: feeding corn — grown with petroleum fertilizers — to cows to produce manure, and putting that manure on our soil. In other words, we fertilize hundreds of acres with chemical fertilizers in order to fertilize a single acre with manure. All this just to avoid using our own manure!

Sanitation in Developed Nations

Back to the “waste” stream: ironically, it’s somebody’s job to get the potable water back out, and detoxify and “dispose” of the other part, the sludge.  Unfortunately, because of the extreme variability of the content and the sheer volume involved, it’s a nearly impossible job.  Not through any lack of aptitude on the part of those who have this unique career, it’s rarely done as well as we’d like to think. From this stream we get back two outputs: polluted water, and that nasty sludge.

Sanitation in Developing Nations

People in developing nations also mix their excrement with water; they’re just less predictable about what they do with it.

According to professionals the world over, life in developing nations would improve dramatically if they would install flush toilets and build modern waste treatment plants.  To assess the prevailing mindset, try Googling “modern sanitation developing nations”.  According to the IFDEA website[1], “2.6 billion people do not have access to modern sanitation and have to think about where their waste will go.”  Have to think about where their waste will go?  Geez, what a drag!

As Joseph Jenkins, luminary and author of the seminal and entertaining Humanure Handbook points out, a “waste” mentality is at the heart of the problem.  Like trash, waste can’t be recycled.

The Solution: Composting

The only logical replacement for the flush toilet is composting.  It’s familiar to many people, but widely dismissed as unhygienic, impractical, or (in Jenkins’ words) “downright disgusting”.  Although the composting toilet may be a victim of poor timing and backlash — much like the solar hot water industry in the wake of the 1970s boom-and-bust solar rebates — there’s something more sinister to the ferocity behind this push-back.  A basic human prejudice is at work.


Humans have a natural disgust reflex for some things: death, decay, bodily fluids, and excrement.  It’s probably an effective survival trait, or it wouldn’t be with us still.  However, as with most reflexes, it’s not always useful.  For example, getting dizzy at the sight of blood interferes with our ability to render first aid; similarly, gagging at poopy diapers definitely doesn’t make one a better parent.  Jenkins calls the irrational fear of poop “fecaphobia”.

Our failure to diagnose and manage fecaphobia causes incredible damage to our planet.  It also stands between us and the possibility of sustainable agriculture.  Fortunately, fecaphobia, like other phobias, is readily conquered by individuals who care.

Composting Humanure

Part of the reason that few people question modern sanitation’s lack of progress in the past few hundred years must be that people are unfamiliar with just how effective composting is.

Like cow manure, humanure already contains the thermophilic (heat-loving and producing) bacteria needed to “pasteurize” itself, destroying all known human pathogens in the process.  (For complete details of human pathogens and the minimum composting temperature and time needed to destroy them, see Jenkins’ book.)  As my parents, their neighbors, and people throughout the world have demonstrated, as long as the input is of plant, animal or human origin, the process is pretty forgiving: even a poorly managed compost pile kills all pathogenic organisms in due time.  Contrary to folk lore, properly composted humane is safe for direct addition to soils for all food crops.
As Jenkins notes, if you’re skeptical about you or your neighbors’ ability to compost safely, consider this: food-born illness is just as deadly, but somehow, billions of amateur cooks the world over manage to handle food safely and avoid killing each other.

Flush Toilets Have No Future

The IFDEA is undoubtedly a noble organization and the point wasn’t to ridicule them.  Obviously, the problem in developing nations is not that people are being inconvenienced, it’s that their water sources are contaminated with feces.  But equipping the world’s population with toilets, even low-flush toilets, would exhaust available fresh water in many areas.[2]  If for no other reason, the “modern sanitation” solution is a non-starter.  The major sanitation and sustainability crisis facing developing and developed nations alike is this: feces is still being introduced into water.

How do we convince humanity to compost humanure?  Like everything else, it takes leadership.  If FDR were alive, he’d say:  “We have s**t to fear, except fear of s**t.”  More realistically, it will take grass-roots action.  We must ask ourselves, as my daughter once asked, “what’s wrong with the composter?”

Those neither offended nor disgusted by this post are encouraged to look for an upcoming article on building your own inexpensive composting sawdust toilet system.

End Notes:
[1] From the IFDEA website: http://www.ifdea.org/ghr/Pages/AccesstoCleanWaterandSanitation.aspx

[2] The world’s annual fresh water supply is 12-14,000 cubic kilometers per year, which works out to about 70,000 gallons per capita for a world population of six billion.  Arbitrarily assuming it’s safe to tap into about 50% of this for environmental reasons, a low-flush toilet then uses about 12.5% of per capita annual water.  Given the inequitable distribution of water and the vast demands of agriculture, this is significant.

Image Credit: Johnny Lye– Fotolia.com 

  1. Chris

    Excellent points in this article. The general public is slowly coming around to composting toilets. Unfortunately it is very slowly. Home Depot and Ace Hardware are even carrying the BioLet line of composting toilets in the United States.

    If anyone is interested take a look:


  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    Composting toilets are excellent. You can even go ultra-simple and use a 5-gallon bucket! (Adding a toilet seat on top makes this even more realistic an option–there are instructions for this on the web if you go searching.)

    The key with humanure, though, is the composting part. As with all animals, human feces has to “mellow” for a while before being applied to soil as fertilizer. Otherwise you run into issues with contamination–the infamous “night soil.”

    Thank you for this entry in the annals of excellent excrement–and check out my In Praise of Poop series, too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *