Do Not Add Water: the Politics of the Toilet

I dump my bucket at night, like a criminal. Lupita, my next-door neighbor, has started smoking again, sitting on the bench near our shared fence, just a few feet away from my “special” compost bins. She’s 81 and doesn’t see well, but of course I can’t assume that her sense of smell has also deteriorated. The two bell-shaped bins look like big Darth Vader helmets and when I dump the bucket it does stink, for a moment, like something from the dark side. So I wait till her lights go off.

There’s a good moon tonight so I don’t need a flashlight. I open the commode and lift the bucket out. It’s heavy, though lighter than the five gallons of paint it once held.  Outside, I flip the lid off the active bin, heave the bucket to the opening, and tip it so the slop of sawdust, shit and pee slides in.

t reeks. But I immediately throw fresh sawdust over the mound in the bin, and the odor is all but canceled. I rinse out the bucket and throw that liquid in the bin, too. Then I sprinkle the surface of the mound with a final layer of sawdust, sealing odor in and flies out. The lid is insurance. I snap it back on.

That’s it. A simple ten-minute task. A few seconds of natural, authentic stench. When I think of the skanky times I’ve had with flush toilets, it doesn’t seem so disagreeable. When I imagine my reward, the sweet humus at the end of the process, I’m excited. When I realize the fear and loathing of this small act stands in the way of solving some major global tragedies—water shortages, soil depletion, pollution, expensive infrastructure, and diseases that kill a couple thousand children every day—I feel heartsick. But also hopeful. Romance never lasts. Even our affair with the flush toilet could end.

I made the commode that holds my bucket by shortening an old dresser, making its top into a tightly fitting cover. In this I sawed an oval hole, and over this opening attached a toilet seat. Some people chisel the bumps off the seat bottom to close up that space, but I didn’t. Fifteen years later, I still haven’t had a fly problem.

When I lift the lid for visitors, some look and some don’t. What you see is rather pleasant: a layer of pink sawdust, maybe a few wisps of toilet tissue sticking up like snowy mountaintops through a fluff of rosy clouds.

It’s the sawdust that makes the elimination experience satisfying. I love filling the big flower pot with the sweet-smelling pith of pine, sometimes powdery, sometimes curly. The scent of “pine” cleaners doesn’t come close to fresh sawdust. It’s the Cadillac of turd coverings—though any fine organic material will work. A light dusting  of sawdust kills the odor of my deposits as quickly as a toilet flush. And without the splashback. We used to have a microbiology professor here at the U of A—Charles “Dr. Germ” Gerba—who would tell you the bathroom doorknob you worry about is practically sterile compared to the mist of droplets flung out into the room whenever a toilet is flushed.

It takes me a week or two to fill the bucket, depending on how much I’m home and how much I’ve eaten. Of course I postpone the bucket dump as long as possible. But there isn’t much room, literally, for procrastination. Discipline is imposed by necessity. That’s good, since I don’t have it otherwise.

Flush toilets are a hallmark of civilization. They’re easy to use. Push a lever and your excretions are whisked away. The water gives an impression of cleanliness. The satisfying swoosh is like the flourish at the end of a signature, lending finality to the disappearance of the unmentionable.

I can’t blame anybody for loving flush toilets. I was seduced by one myself once while renovating my bathroom. Disconnecting my old toilet with the unsightly ocher deposits and the frumpy square tank, I got the urge for a newer model. The store had a long row of toilets but I spotted mine immediately. The tank had soft corners and tapered gracefully toward the top; the base was lean, boldly showing the curve of its drainpipe. It was lily-white. Virginal. I bought it without comparison shopping.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. My new toilet collected uric acid buildup more quickly than the last. And because of its shallower shapeliness, a good dump left skid marks on the bowl. I was forever using the toilet brush, then returning it to its holder where it stood perpetually in its own foul drippings.

Soon the tank handle malfunctioned—I had to stand and wait, holding it down, till it flushed. Next the float mechanism failed and I had to replace that. I soon took on a housemate with a dog who would drink from the toilet, then kiss me. Nice dog, but—yuck. Finally, we had a major clog. Plunging sent sewage into the bathtub. I unbolted the toilet to plunge the pipe from floor level , but more debris only geysered into the tub. It was late, I was tired, I went to bed. When I woke up to pee, half-conscious, I went into the bathroom as usual, turned on the light, and saw sewer roaches everywhere—the big ones with the dark, greasy backs—waving their antennae at me as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” But it wasn’t over yet. I spent the next day waiting for the plumber, losing a day’s wages, then writing a check for an amount nearly equal to another day’s pay.

Mechanical problems I can’t fix myself drive me crazy. I hate being dependent on repair professionals. I find the simplicity of buckets and bins liberating. The humble bucket doesn’t aspire to be fine porcelain. This appeals to my inner housekeeper. Best of all, I’d cut my umbilical cord to the city. The system doesn’t need a supply of water coming in or sewer pipes going out. It works in remote, exciting places. It’s my personal declaration of independence.

But it’s more than personal. The pipes that feed and drain flush toilets are long and convoluted, connecting us to the world, natural resources, and each other. Disconnecting has consequences.

Good ones.

Toilets swallow more water than anything else in the home—30 to 40 percent of the total household draw. This is water pure enough to drink. It’s been monitored for contaminants and spiked with chlorine. Here in Tucson it comes from an underground aquifer, parts of which are fossil deposits: No refill. Sixty years ago our aquifer was healthy enough to float rivers on its back. Then the pumping started. The Santa Cruz River died before I was born. I’ve seen photographs, though, showing the green ribbons of billowing trees that used to line its banks—cottonwoods and willows. You could see deer and coyotes winding through the bosques and hear the multiplied chatter of birds. The cut of the river was narrower then because plant roots hung onto the dirt and slowed the current. Now the water-loving trees are gone and the banks have collapsed into the dusty channel, widening it and calling attention to its emptiness most of the year.

As the rivers disappeared, Arizona politicians went to great lengths to ensure Tucson’s future water supply—336 miles, to be precise, the length of the Central Arizona Project canal to Tucson. Arizona tapped into the Colorado River at Lake Havasu, spending 20 years and four billion dollars to bring the water here through a system of aqueducts, pipelines, a tunnel, and some energy-hungry pumping plants. From Havasu to Tucson, the water gets pumped uphill a total of three thousand feet. About five percent is lost to evaporation and seepage along the way. A growing percentage of Tucson’s water now comes from the wondrous but costly CAP.

The cost must include paradises lost. The Colorado River delta became an expanse of salt flats, where jaguars once prowled along rich lagoons. The Yuman river people lost their lifeblood: waters that enriched their traditional floodplain farms are held back these days for agribusiness. Fish that have populated the river for eons float toward extinction. The Cucapa of Mexico, who drank the river and ate its fish, struggle to find food and buy water in bottles. Recently, pulse flows have been released in an effort to restore the delta, but cottonwood and willow seedlings have to be planted by hand, and the re-greening of the river bed will take years at best.

The Sonoran Desert is dry to begin with, but variations on these themes of water scarcity are emerging throughout the world. Of course it’s not only home faucets, showers, hoses and toilets that suck water. It’s swimming pools, golf courses and water parks—luxury siphons—along with mines and cotton fields. But what toilets use, that third or more of household water, is no drop in the bucket.

I’d use a composting toilet for that reason alone—to save water. But there are other rewards. Consider the other end of the flushing system: output. Few people do! I had no idea where my excrement went until I came across a map of my valley inscribed with delicate, branched veins like a hand. The veins represent many miles of sewer pipeline, where organic matter from toilets and kitchens mix with more dangerous substances dumped by homes and industries. In this way, huge volumes of purified water and natural material become contaminated. Then the whole mess has to be decontaminated and dewatered for disposal. This is the job of the treatment plant (shown on my map as a nodule on the “wrist.”) Treatment is complex. It may or may not include screening, settling, flotation, flocculation, filtration, centrifugation, anaerobic digestion, evaporation and other processes I won’t mention because I can’t pronounce their names. Where do the final products of the sewage treatment plants end up? Tucson’s sludge is given to farmers as fertilizer. The effluent is used, to a small extent, to irrigate golf courses and fields, but most of it (more than 80 percent) gets released into the desolate bed of the Santa Cruz and percolates into the ground, carrying whatever pollutants remain in it. About 95 percent of the dumped effluent will eventually reach and blend with the water in the aquifer.

Theoretically, treatment renders the sludge and effluent harmless. In reality they may contain medications, heavy metals, pesticides, asbestos, petroleum products, even radioactive materials. With scientists developing hundreds of new chemicals each year, how can treatment and monitoring procedures possibly guarantee safety?

Oh, well. We’ve always got public relations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actually formulated guidelines for when to use “aggressive” versus “passive” PR on its taxpayers. Disposal is no longer a problem because sewage products now have “beneficial use.” To clean up the public image of sludge, the EPA enlisted the help of the sewage industry’s primary PR organization, the Water Environment Federation (they dumped their nastier-sounding name, the Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associations). The word sludge, of course, had to go. A call sent out by the WEF for alternative names brought in more than 250 suggestions. My favorites are sca-doo, nutricake, and the end product. But this was no laughing matter. The Name Change Task Force chose biosolids. And what followed wasn’t funny at all: When the EPA started using the new term in 1992 it also eased up on the rules regarding the application of sludge to farmlands. The same sludge that was once designated hazardous waste was reclassified as fertilizer. Laws written for sludge could be circumvented. “Sludge victims,” mostly in rural areas, have come forward with claims of damage to health, soils and livestock. But profits give the sludge purveyors the upper hand, so it’s hard for victims to win their cases.

No technology on earth—or river, sea, or farmer’s field—can sanitize the output of a public sewer system.. There’s nowhere to put it. Creative labeling is all we’ve got.

* * *

Natural, unadulterated shit is a different matter, though we humans (at least as adults) have an aversion to it. I suspect the evolutionary reason for this is that it harbors pathogens: bacteria, viruses, worms, protozoa and amoebae. These can cause sickness, pain, diarrhea or even death in people with weak immune systems. Fortunately, most of the microorganisms don’t survive very long outside their host. Containment, a little time, some air and the right temperatures will kill them. Composting can provide exactly these conditions. Studies show it’s a good pathogen-slayer. One researcher claims it even kills the polio virus.

The climate here provides killer temperatures every summer. Thermophilic bacteria, preferring temperatures between 113 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, are probably at work in my heat-holding black bins. But composting is an essential part of the cycle of life, and nature can’t afford to limit the process to this 47-degree range. So mesophilic microbes are active from 68 to 112 degrees. Below this, all the way down to biological zero at -41 degrees, psychrophilic organisms—including the bacterium that gives us the antibiotic streptomycin—thrive. Composting takes longer at colder temperatures, but most inhabited places on earth have at least one season warm enough to support it.

Composting microbes prefer their home somewhat damp, like a wrung-out sponge. Too much water, however, will drown them. Anaerobic bacteria—the smelly ones—will move in. But adding lots of water to excreta, as with flushing, can create much bigger problems. It’s the opposite of containment. It increases the volume of pathogen habitat. It multiplies the danger of disease. This happens in places where there are no sewers and children play in water downstream from open latrines. It also happens where there are sewers, in the wealthiest of cities, when pipes break or storms cause sewers to overflow.

Composting kills pathogens. But it does more. It transforms feces, urine, toilet paper, and sawdust into something useful: food for starving soil. With a composting toilet I no longer have to drive to the store to get my soil amendments. And I don’t have to pay for them.

* * *

One night I dump my last bucket into the active bin. It can hold no more. It’s time to check out the other bin, which has been stewing for about ten months.

The next morning I open the little door at the bottom of the bin. What spills out looks like loose, dark soil. There’s no odor till I go in close. And then what I smell is the exact scent of the damp black dirt I used to find under leaves in the woods where I played as a kid. The transformation is miraculous. I mean, Jesus started with water when he made wine—not the rank slush my poor microorganisms had to work with.

I fill up my first wheelbarrow—it looks like there are seven or eight loads still in the bin—and dump my new soil onto a patch of the pale, dry dirt my yard is made of. I rake it flat. Suddenly, it’s no longer desert ground. It exudes fertility. I feel like a legitimate gardener. (Maybe I’ll grant an interview to that garden show on TV…)

In late September I plant snow peas, spinach, chard, onions, garlic, dill, beets, radishes, arugula, and cilantro. When I’m done I stand for a while with my chin resting on my planting stick, watching the layer of compost as though sprouts were due up any minute. I’m thinking about sewers and effluent-dumping and contaminated sludge. I’m thinking about the toilets that use drinking water and about dead rivers, disappearing birds and thirsty people who really can’t afford “mountain spring water” in bottles. I feel small and alone. My personal practice is pathetically insignificant. A few thousand people will die today because the only water they have is polluted. If I live to be ninety, the water I save will barely supply an eighteen-hole golf course for a single day.

I know five-gallon buckets won’t become popular as toilets anytime soon. But commercially made dry toilets are an option now. They look like flush toilets. No bucket dumping, just a drawer of finished garden compost, or houseplant potting soil for those without yards. You pay for the convenience—between one and two grand, plus electricity to run the fan and temperature control. I prefer the simpler technology. But the methods don’t matter. Mostly I just hope that common sense and compassion will someday triumph over fecophobia.

In the meantime, I like being part of an ancient cycle set spinning by whatever force moves the Universe. To remember it, to participate in it, restores the soul. At least I think that’s why I feel so happy, in spite of everything, as I pick my dinner from the coffee-colored earth.