Composting Toilets in Arizona

On December 10, the Arizona Sonora News reported:

A group of composting toilet enthusiasts, local non-profits and University of Arizona researchers are collaborating to find a less wasteful way of dealing with our waste. Watershed Management Group is working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to approve two home-built composting toilet designs for use in Arizona. If the designs are approved, Tucsonans will have a simple and cheap option to conserve water and energy, and enrich local soils.

The story, which it’s worth your while to read in its entirety, points out some of the issues preventing a widespread adoption of composting toilet systems. Some of these issues are legal:

Before 2005, it was illegal to have a composting toilet in Arizona, even in rural areas, unless the soil on your property wasn’t suitable for a septic system, David said. In 2005 he worked with a group of “ad hoc composting toilet enthusiasts” to rewrite the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy. “We were primarily advocating rewriting the composting toilet section of the groundwater protection rules to be as encouraging to people who wanted to use composting toilets as possible,” David said.

Others are cultural:

The composting toilet is the only bathroom at Las Milpitas [community farm]. Once people see (and smell) the composting toilet, they don’t usually have any issue with it, Lowen [the farm manager of Las Milpitas] said.

“It’s always the high school kids who you talk with about a composting toilet, and you can just watch their noses turn up. But then we go and look at it, and it doesn’t smell, and it’s nicer than some of the pit toilets that you get out in some of the parks,” he said. “It’s a culture shift.”

But not everyone sees the future so rosy for composting toilets:

David Omick doubts that composting toilets will become widespread. “Most people don’t want to deal with their shit,” he said. “Flush and forget. That’s the prevailing mindset. And until that changes, until we begin to see shit as a resource, if you will, until we begin thinking in terms of closing nutrient cycles, making better use of our water, beginning to see water really not just as a resource but a gift in the desert… until that happens, I don’t think composting toilets are going to be widespread.”

The “flush and forget” mindset, of course, extends beyond the issue of composting toilets, though perhaps not usually so literally, and it’s an apt point. Composting toilets require remembering and are almost mentally invasive in their insistence on the cyclical nature of waste and, ultimately, life. We tend to treat many things as disposable, whether it’s shoes, books or sometimes people, and here we have a thing itself, the composting toilet, which requires we treat human waste itselfuseless, dirty and to be disposed of and immediately forgotten—as enduring and beneficial. I agree with David Omick: this isn’t a cultural change that happens overnight. And it doesn’t start with toilets.


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