History of the Toilet Part 4 The Composting Toilet

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


The composting toilet is getting widespread use in Scandinavia, but only a few have been sold in the U.S. A firm in Cambridge, Mass., Clivus Multrum USA, Inc., has acquired a franchise for the system and is now producing them in a plant in Maine. Although costs are still high, about $1,500 per installation, this is expected to come down with mass production. Experiments are also under way to fabricate the toilet out of cheaper materials.

The state of Maine has recently rewritten its plumbing code to permit the installation of composting toilets. Some health authorities in other states are also allowing them to be installed experimentally.

Established and backed by Abby Rockefeller, the company she has created is staffed by people who promote the toilet with all the fervor that her ancestors used to sell Americans on Standard Oil. "I look at it this way," says Bob Pacheco, the installations director who, if possible, personally visits the site of each installation. "I don't like the idea of turning the oceans and rivers into open sewers. Every Clivus I install in a family dwelling could mean 40,000 gallons less sewage for Boston harbor or another body of water."

The Clivus can handle all human waste, including urine, plus table scraps and other organic material such as the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag, but it cannot handle too much water. As a result, the "gray water" produced by washing dishes or hands must go into a conventional system. But Miss Rockefeller thinks she can solve that problem. Her next project is a greenhouse adjacent to her conventional frame house in Cambridge that will utilize waste water to grow plants. She has installed a Clivus in her house and reports no trouble after more than a year of operation. To get the composting process going, she dumped into her Clivus all the organic wastes from a neighborhood restaurant. She has also added earthworms and other creatures to see if they can tolerate the heat and speed of the decomposition process.

The initial cost may appear prohibitively expensive, yet it is already competitive in areas where steep sewer hookup fees are required for conventional toilets. As mass production and alternative materials bring the Clivus price down, it will be even more attractive. In addition, a group that Sim Van der Ryn works with in California, the Farallones Institute, is experimenting with ways people may build their own composting toilet. Their initial model can be built for less than $100 out of concrete blocks.

Some may view the composting toilet as simply a throwback to the outhouses of the past and reject it, but that would be shortsighted. Its time appears near at hand, as "No swimming, fishing, or boating" signs up with increasing frequency on the banks of our rivers. With no connections to external networks, no moving mechanical parts, and its useful by-product, the composting toilet is a beautifully simple piece of technology of which a society could be proud.

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