The Green Revolution gets Personal: Pushing Hard for a Dry Toilet

Flush and Forget technology is simply not sustainable. That was the message from Jack Sims, founder of the World Toilet Organization, at the recently held World Toilet Summit in Macao. Mr Sims said a culture where people flushed their loos but disregarded the thousands of liters of wasted drinking water each year was one of sanitation's greatest challenges. "This 'flush and forget' attitude creates a new problem which we have to revisit," said Sims.

Potty Perils: The Dangers of the Flush Toilet

You have to admit, the flush toilet has been doing a pretty good job of separating people from their waste for a very long time. It was a vast improvement over the chamber pot, the privy and the proverbial woods, removing the waste and taking the smell—not to mention the associated scourges of cholera and typhus—with it. What's the problem with it?

The problem is water. It takes water to flush away the waste and from there it has to go down into sewers where it is washed down to sewage treatment plants that clean the water and reintroduce it into the environment. According to dry toilet advocates, a family of five who uses a water toilet contaminates more than 150 thousand liters of water to transport 250 liters of excrement in one year. Because of this contamination, they say, groundwater, lakes and rivers are made dangerous.

The Solution: Dry Toilet Technology

Let's face it, the dry toilet is not new, but it does improve on the simple pit and you don't have to throw the contents out the window each morning as with a chamber pot. Here is how it works:

The basic principle of an ecological toilet is to separate urine and feces. Urine, which is almost completely free of pathogens, is diverted through the use of urinals or special pedestals or squatting slabs and then collected. Feces are collected and stored in a secure vault where pathogens are broken down. If the feces are kept dry, pathogens die within a short time as the feces undergo decomposition (composting), a biological process in which bacteria, worms and other types of organisms break down organic substances to make humus, an excellent soil conditioner.

Great, you get fertilizer! If you are an avid gardener, or live in the country, that might be a benefit. For city dwellers, that isn't such a selling point unless you plan to sell or donate your compost. You still need to do something about it, and this is one of the real downsides to dry toilet technology. After allowing the waste to compost for a time, you need to empty the containers. And if you don't keep everything as dry as needed, you also get flies and smell and a new admiration for modern plumbing.

That, of course, doesn't mean that city dwellers are not going to buy dry toilets. We have seen the market for all things green grow like weeds so there is every expectation for that to continue. In times of economic turmoil, people will look for all things sustainable and this technology has been declared sustainable. What's more, there are certainly models available for all kinds of homes, plumbing and sewer arrangements, and most budgets.

Countering the Compost Crowd

There are, however, staunch defenders of the modern toilet and they are not going to be flushed away without a fight. According to Dennis Avery, Director of Global Food Issues for the Hudson Institute, "It's one of the greatest public health advances in the modern era. It's not only convenient, but it is also safer." As for the water issue, Avery holds that the flush toilet is not even responsible for significant water usage since about 70% of all water used is for agriculture, about 23% is used in industry and the rest is used by people for all sorts of things including toilet flushing.

So, in the face of all the good that flush toilets do for humanity and their tiny “water footprint,” what is it that drives people to raise the idea of dry toilet technology year after year? The same thing that makes people buy carbon credits, recycle their newspapers and cans, buy a hybrid vehicle or sit through An Inconvenient Truth and actually stay awake—a deep and abiding desire to cut waste and save the planet.

The Bottom Line

I am all for saving the planet, and if a consumer thinks that a dry toilet can be their contribution to a sustainable biosphere, then there should be nothing stopping small business from providing such a product. Think about it: Green products are popular, they are profitable and selling green goodness makes a lot more sense then buying carbon credits to offset you last midnight run to Wendy's. More than that, with the changes in Washington, you can bet there will be a lot more green mandates and initiatives to manage. Will you be ready for those? Will your business be positioned to take advantage of them?