History of the Toilet Part 3 Alternatives

About the history of the toilet and the search for alternatives including the clivus or composting toilet.


A Search for Alternatives

The difficult challenge is to find a workable alternative. In a publication entitled "Stop the Five Gallon Flush!" the Minimum Cost Housing Group at McGill University's School of Architecture in Montreal examined systems from around the world that are designed for home use, and cataloged 52 of them from 11 countries. In their evaluation, the group steered clear of thinking of the modern flush toilet as "advanced," compared to a technology such as the pit latrine. As the researchers point out, "under certain conditions the latter is ecologically sound, cheap, and quite safe."

The principle of using human waste, or night soil, as fertilizer has been known and utilized in some cultures for centuries, although it has been little used in the West. In the late 1930s, Rikard Lindstrom, a Swedish art teacher, began experimenting with a toilet that would compost human waste for use on his garden. He was also motivated to work on the system out of concern for the sewage contamination of the Baltic bay near his home. The product of his work is the Clivus Multrum, a toilet which successfully composts wastes without water, electricity, or chemicals. The name comes from clivus, which is Latin for "inclining," and multrum, which is Swedish for "composting room."

How the Clivus Works

The device itself is a fiberglass container about 9 ft. long, 3 ft. wide, and 5 ft. high. It contains three compartments, a top one for human waste, a middle one for vegetable scraps and other organic refuse, and a lower one which holds the finished compost. A vent pipe at the top of the composting chamber allows odors and gas to exhaust out the top of the house. The early Clivuses had to be installed in basements directly underneath the bathroom and garbage chutes, but a later model utilizes a screw transport to move wastes so that the toilets and composting chamber can be mounted at the same level. It also allows multiple toilets to be connected to the same Clivus. The Clivus is odorless, thanks to a unique design which utilizes the heat created by composting organic matter. The heated air in the chamber rises through the vent pipe, thereby creating a downdraft at the toilet stool and garbage chute. It is strong enough to pull the flame of a match downward when the match is held over the toilet.

To get the composting process started, the bottom of the container must be lined with organic material such as peat, garden soil, and grass clippings. After the initial loading, the process continues indefinitely, producing several buckets of humus per year per person. The newly formed rich soil in the bottom chamber can be removed about once a year, after a start-up period of about two years.

In Sweden and Norway, more than a thousand Clivuses are in operation, and the system has been given the blessing of the Swedish Ministry of Health. Some communities in Sweden even give Clivus owners a tax rebate, because they reduce the cost of municipal services such as sewage and garbage collection. Extensive tests by Swedish health authorities have found that no harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites can withstand the year or so of heat and bacterial action produced by the composting process. Although tests indicate that the end product of the Clivus process is perfectly safe for garden use, Organic Gardening and Farming magazine recommends, as an extra safety precaution, that it not be used on edible root crops. It can be used on other plants.

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