Right Under Our Noses: the Virtues of Dry Toilets


untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

I remember hearing a rumor many years ago that the rather eccentric Yoko Ono shared the litter box with her cat. I don’t know if it’s true, but apparently she claimed it was a better way to deal with human waste than flushing gallons of wasted water into a septic system and that the resulting melange could eventually be used as compost to grow vegetables. She claimed that if we weren’t careful, water would become precious and perhaps even scarce. She was concerned about the environment way before it was a hot topic, which of course, at the time, placed her in the category of alarmist, tree-hugger, hippie and in the minds of many, just plain crazy. I myself didn’t give the rumor much credence. I did however succumb to a vivid mental image of this petite, almond-eyed woman squatting over a litter pan while humming “she came in through the bathroom window”, much to the dismay of the feline patiently waiting it’s turn.

We have two cats here in Africa and no litter box, because, well, they go outside in the dirt. However, we do have what is known as a dry toilet system. This would be the moment, if you are feeling uncomfortable, to hit the back button on your computer and see what your other Facebook friends are up to. I won’t be offended, I swear. However, if you are even slightly intrigued, you might learn something. American culture, in particular, has placed a big taboo on any reference to the fact that all living things eliminate what they eat and drink. While browsing the children’s literature section in Barnes and Noble while pregnant with Jamie, I remember being shocked at seeing a book called, “Everybody Poops,” not because of it’s contents, but because someone finally had the courage to write about it. The need being served by this book– to help children understand that the process is nothing to be ashamed of– is indication enough that somewhere along the line, we dumped (no pun intended) our bodily functions into the “we don’t talk about that . . . EVER” column and it has stayed there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not espousing bringing it up as a topic at cocktail parties or rotary club, I just want to share what I’ve learned about the entire cycle as it relates to energy.

Those of you who are familiar with our project in Senegal know that we live bill-free in a house constructed with earth, get our water from a well, our electricity from a wind-turbine and solar panels, and grow our own organic vegetables. We’ve recently added a chicken named Ratatouille and a turkey named Gusteau to the picture, but not for consumption purposes. The chicken gives us eggs and the turkey acts as a natural anti-pesticide, spending his days picking at termites and other predetors to our produce. He occasionally steals a lettuce leaf or two, but we forgive him this. Although they don’t have much personality, I’m not ready to raise poultry that will end up on our table. I still prefer to purchase it from our local chicken farm. Much to my surprise, when I didn’t know what to make for dinner the other day, Sunny very plainly said, “why don’t we eat the chicken.” She’s five and understands perfectly where her food comes from, which could easily lead me down another path or up onto my soap box with another topic, but let’s get back to dry toilets.

Joseph Jenkins wrote a book, first published in 1995, called “Humanure” in which he details the virtues of dry toilets (see link below). The title itself may be off-putting, but the concept is simple. You place a receptacle, ok, a bucket, under a standard toilet seat (he gives you the plan for building it) and when you’ve done you’re business, you cover it with a layer of saw dust, straw or any other natural material. When the bucket is full, you place the contents in a compost retainer (also detailed in the book) and layer it with food waste, i.e. fruit and vegetable peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, plant trimmings, anything biodegradable. The only stipulation is that you don’t use dyed toilet paper. After about a year, enough time to allow any toxins or harmful bacterium to dissipate, you have one of the richest composts imaginable with which to grow organic produce. I skimmed the book cursorily when Richard first suggested that we adopt this system (since we don’t have running water, we didn’t have much choice) and promptly threw it at him while launching a tirade about the numerous ways in which he has ruined my life as I knew it. When we moved into the house, I was told I had two options: I could walk outside in the brushland and hide behind a bush, if I could find one, or I could try the dry toilet system. To his credit, he built a handsome throne of concrete, spent a fortune on a lacquered wooden seat and promised to be the “emptier.” To the unsuspecting eye, it looked like every other toilet, minus the handle and water tank. We used a mix of peanut shells and millet shucks as our choice of coverage. To my begrudging surprise, there was only one pungent odor eminating from our bathroom–it smelled like fresh ground peanuts. We’ve been using this system for almost a year and, like most routines in my life, it now seems natural. Richard laughs when he hears me touting the virtues of dry toilets. Once addicted to creature comforts, I am now, you might say, a convert. In general, our project has opened my eyes to an array of “green” choices, some I was already familiar with, others completely new to me. Read on.

We recently called in a specialist on renewable energy, Pierre-Jacques, a frenchman who has lived and worked in Senegal for the past 26 years. We needed help finding a way to power our cold production, having considered both solar and gas-powered refridgerators, and wanted a professional opinion on which was the most energy efficient and cost-effective. After he asked us a myriad of pertinent questions and toured our house, he said, “you’ve had the solution all along, right under your noses. You just haven’t been harvesting it properly.” He went on to explain that by placing our dry toilet waste in an air-tight cistern along with a small percentage of cow, pig or horse manure, we could produce enough methane to power a full-sized refridgerator/freezer and our gas oven! He said this so matter of factly and non-chalantly that I asked him to repeat himself. “Sure,” he said. ” It’s called Biogas. I have all the plans because it’s what we do at our house and I can tell you it works.” By running gas tubing from the cistern to the two appliances, we can produce cold and heat by recycling our waste. He went on to explain that by “harvesting” the methane, we were also preventing it from dissipating into the environment, which is what happens when it’s placed in an open-air composting unit. I immediately thought of all those problematic cows out there in the world shamelessly releasing their gas into the universe and wondered aloud if there wasn’t a way to harvest it. Imagine the energy problems we could solve! Pierre-Jacques laughed, but explained that, in fact, China, India and Brazil are already doing it, on a large scale basis as well as individual (see attached link). The best part about his suggestion is that our composting efforts won’t be lost because what remains in the tank after the methane is distilled can be emptied periodically into our compost, making use of all the elements of the system.

I was curious about the person to output ratio. In other words, would the four of us be able to produce enough methane to keep the appliances running constantly? Pierre-Jacques, who spouts out statistics and technical information with the finesse of a poet, told us that output is usually proportional to the needs of the family. However, because I like to cook and entertain for others, we’ll add a small percentage of animal manure to augment our methane production. We’ll be installing our new system in a week or two and I, for one, don’t care how the fridge gets cold, I’m just looking forward to popping open an ice cold beer!

I’ll admit that our project is an extreme one. Not everyone is willing or able to implement what we’ve done, particularly a dry toilet system. But here in Senegal, we may be able to at least raise awareness and at best provide solutions to real energy problems, not to mention financial instability for a population that suffers from extreme electric bills, frequest power outages and the high cost of gas. And of course we hope that those who can afford the “tradtional” methods will want to go natural because of the environmental benefits. Who knows. For now, it’s actually fun being a part of this crazy project of ours. After all, it really is a working lavoratory . . . I mean laboratory.


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