Re-thinking “Waste”

Re-thinking “Waste”

The Cape Cod Eco-Toilet Summit at East Falmouth Elementary explored alternatives to sewering.

By Sarah Moon | Email the author | March 23, 2011

Many residents know that the town of Falmouth has some serious waste to deal with: the kind that goes through our plumbing and ends up in our waterways, emitting too much nitrogen into our estuaries and leading to algae blooms and generally bad water quality.

Because those living on Cape Cod can literally see the effects of our human waste, it makes sense that we may be on the cutting edge of changing the way we handle it.

Enter the Cape Cod Eco-Toilet Summit at East Falmouth Elementary School, which took place on Saturday, March 19. Organized by Hilde Maingay and Earle Barnhart of the Hatchville Green Center and moderated by former State Representative Matt Patrick, the Eco-Summit brought together some 200 attendees for presentations and discussions, including town selectmen, interested citizens and eco-toilet experts.

The first presenter, Don Mills of Clivus Multrum, Inc., took the audience back in time to ancient Egypt, a culture which valued the fertilizing qualities of human excrement. He shared the common wisdom that “you can judge a culture by the way they treat their soil,” and explained that fertilizing our soil with human waste is actually very good treatment.

Mills pointed out that in our country today we are already spreading human waste on fields — but we do so after that waste has gone through a sewage treatment plant, where it gets mixed with toxic substances.

“7 million dry tons of sludge are produced in America per year,” Mills told the audience. Half of that is sprayed on fields, or even sold in garden centers as fertilizer. Handling the waste at its source instead, Mills suggested, allows for more controlled and beneficial use.

The new trend in composting toilets is to separate the two waste streams with what is known as a urine diverter. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, all contained in urea, are all good for plants. Urine can be effectively turned into a resource by re-directing its nutrients to a farm field, where it will help crops grow, instead of into a septic tank where it will seep into our sandy soil, then into our ponds, estuaries and bays.

“It does require a change in behavior,” Mills said about the switch to composting toilets. “[We would] no longer be seeing the toilet as a garbage can. There has to be a re-education.”

Earl Barnhart introduced another benefit of eco-toilets and managing the products they yield: local jobs. “All these processes,” he said, “require people to do them. These are jobs, these are professions.”

Case in point: Carol Steinfeld of Ecovita Eco-Toilets showed the audience a system called an “eco-carousel” that was installed at founder Jeff Taylor’s house in Chatham. Later, Steinfeld introduced the man who serves as maintenance provider for the system, who told the audience with a modest shrug, “It’s just another appliance that serves your home.”

Abe Noe-Hays, who spoke about the Phoenix Composting Toilet, said of human excrement, “I don’t call it waste, I call it a resource.” Noe-Hays assuaged one key concern about composting toilets by describing the Phoenix as “a lower-odor toilet than a typical flush toilet.”

Hilde Maingay concluded the Summit, telling the audience, “I think Falmouth is right on the cutting edge… we can really be a transition town.”

“Eco-toilets,” Maingay asserted, “can be installed, operated and fixed by the community. These systems are predictable. They work by gravity and use almost no energy. This helps build stable communities.”

The audience responded with enthusiastic applause, suggesting that this is one potential solution to Falmouth’s wastewater problem.