The lowdown on composting toilets: A (belated) report from World Toilet Day 2019

Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers members Helen Goche and Fred Pitts attended the World Toilet Day event at Whirled Pies in downtown Eugene last November, organized by the sustainability nonprofit Greywater Action. They compiled such an info-packed report that I wanted to share it more widely. For those new to greywater, I have added some background on the impressive lead organizer and organization, whom we are fortunate to have in Eugene; greywater pros can skip the first several paragraphs to get to the report.

Laura Allen is a founding member of the nonprofit Greywater Action – For a Sustainable Water Culture. A longtime Bay Area resident, she now lives in Eugene. She authored The Water Wise Home: How to Conserve and Reuse Water in Your Home and Landscape and Greywater, Green Landscape. She has a BA in environmental science, a teaching credential, and a master’s degree in education.

Laura leads classes and workshops on rainwater harvesting, greywater reuse, and composting toilets. She has participated in state greywater code developments in California and Washington state, was featured in an Ask This Old House episode on greywater, and was the 2014 recipient of the Silicon Valley Water Conservation Award of Water Champion.

Greywater Action was founded in 1999 in California as the Guerrilla Greywater Girls and has evolved over the years. It is now (from its website):

a collaborative of educators who teach residents and tradespeople about affordable and simple household water systems that dramatically reduce water use and foster sustainable cultures of water. Through hands-on workshops and presentations, we’ve led thousands of people through greywater system design and construction and work with policymakers and water districts to develop codes and incentives for greywater, rainwater harvesting, and composting toilets.

We were thrilled to learn about yet another amazing person living in our town, and another resource for building a #SustainableEugene!

* * * * *

Laura hosted the event, opening by explaining that poor sanitary conditions sicken and kill many people, especially children, around the world. The World Health Organization has declared sanitation as a health goal.

Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission representatives Tod Miller and Michelle Miranda explained what MWMC is and how it strives to clean wastewater, with the goal to return it to the Willamette River clean and cool. Fred was interested to learn that the grove of poplars along Highway 99, across from the airport, uses the product of the plant, biosolids, as fertilizer. The wood is harvested every eight to ten years to be used in multiple ways. 

There was a short discussion about what to do in the event of a catastrophe such as an earthquake, which would shut down the MWMC sewage treatment facility. Laura pointed to the book A Sewer Catastrophe Companion as a resource for preparedness.

She also displayed two five-gallon buckets, which make up the “twin-bucket” system for emergency sanitation. It keeps “pee” separate from “poo,” which controls odor. Solids are covered with dry, light materials. The pathogens, other than worms,  stored with a cover on the bucket will die in a few days. Since urine is sterile because it contains no living organisms it can be spread around on the ground among trees.

Ron Davis, a science teacher who moved to Oregon 40 years ago, spoke about his experience. After being denied a permit for a composting toilet by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), he found the right people to open the door for a conditional use permit. Because of his actions, it is now legal to have composting toilets in Oregon. He concluded by noting that it is still economically challenging to certify a composting toilet in Oregon; because of this, many manufacturers don’t, so their products are not legal here.

Pat Lando, executive director of Recode, a Portland-based nonprofit that works to address regulations that are barriers to sustainability, spoke about Recode’s success getting greywater reuse included in the Oregon plumbing code. Lando is also a landscape architect and green infrastructure consultant.   

Tao Orion teaches permaculture at OSU and Aprovecho, based in Cottage Grove, a 40-acre sustainable living education and demonstration center. She explained how various types of composting toilets and systems work — some well and some not so well. Her own home toilet’s waste is piped into a wheeled trash can one floor below. The can is then moved for composting or processing offsite. 

In closing, Laura led us in a game of Toilet Trivia Pursuit, for which we divided into small groups. We named ourselves the Micro——- and were one of the three groups that tied for first place, which earned each of us a prize of a gift card for pizza at Whirled Pies or Laura’s book, The Water Wise Home.

If you would like to know about and attend events like this with others, join Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers — it is a Meetup group that is free to join, and is becoming a hub for people in Lane County interested in small affordable living and sustainability.

Published by Sherri Schultz

Writer & change-maker exploring micro-dwelling in Eugene, Oregon. Founder of Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers: https://www.meetup.com/Micro-dwellers .

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