What We Waste When We Flush the Toilet

Composting toilets keep waste out of the water cycle. But have you heard about the phosphorus cycle?

Ricky Baruch and Deb Habib put environmental justice into action at their off-grid, sustainable Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center. In this excerpt from their new book Making Love While Farming: A Field Guide to a Life of Passion and Purpose, Habib talks turkey about flush toilets and the water cycle. She and Baruch don’t flush on the farm, and that’s just fine.

Many years back, we were at my sister-in-law’s house in Connecticut, hanging around the kitchen counter getting ready for Thanksgiving. The turkey was in the oven preparing to commingle on the buffet counter with many Baruch family traditions: artichoke dip with mayo and breadcrumbs, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and canned jellied cranberry cut with a knife that makes cool ridges in the slices. As I opened a cabinet to get crackers for the dip, I spotted another turkey. It was the kind that third graders dutifully complete by coloring in the feathers and writing what they are thankful for on the turkey’s belly (a most bizarre perpetuation of the glorification of a dominant myth). Our niece Allie had written in her bold new cursive: “I am thankful for my family. And I hope there are no more starving children. And that my Uncle Ricky and Aunt Debbie get enough money so they can buy a real toilet.” Cracking up, I realized that it was easy for this 8-year-old and most of our other family members to miss our intention in having a composting toilet.

My partner Ricky’s elderly father had grumbled a question several times during the house construction on our farm: “How much would it cost you to put in a real bathroom?” “We’re fine JB, this is a choice,” was our reply. “What is it, about twenty grand?” he insisted on knowing. “It costs the water cycle, JB.” “What the hell is the water cycle?” He was perplexed and unmoved. Around the world, women and girls are the ones primarily responsible for feeding their families and gathering water, sometimes spending hours a day doing so. While first world moms might stop at the market after a long day at work before picking up a kid up from school, millions of women are returning to their village home or refugee camp with the critical ingredient for cooking, washing, and hydrating to ensure their breast milk doesn’t run dry. Precious water carried in a clay jug on their head or a leftover vessel reclaimed from a USAID project, perhaps lifted from a village well resounding with the gossip of the day. Here in the United States, in rural counties in the heartland, women are most often the ones running water from their tap knowing that the gas wells for hydro-fracking are leaking into the earth that feeds the waters on which their family or farms rely—but they have no other option. 

We are blessed to receive our water from a 270-foot-deep well. It was beautiful to follow the water dowser around our land as his work-calloused hands gently cradled a forked branch that sensed water far below. The water that rises from our well is clear and pure. When we began to create a life on our land, the well was one of the first infrastructure pieces. Before we had the funds to put up solar electric panels, we affixed a hand pump to the top of the well casing. Ricky would get his daily bicep workout pumping for an hour while I held the end of the hose over tiny lettuce seedlings. While the solar electric system has long enabled us to turn on the tap, it still feels like a miracle to have it flow. We taste the sweetness whenever we return from places where the water is chlorinated or mineral-rich. Indigenous people throughout the world give power to the phrase “Water is Life,” and so, our resolve to conserve and treat this precious cycle with care is strengthened. That is why we don’t shit in our water and then flush it away to a septic tank. When the tank is full, the water would be sucked out, brought to a sewage plant, and treated with chemicals and microbes before being discharged into a river, to then make its way back through evaporation to the earth, more polluted than before. That is why when someone raises the lid at our house, there is a pile of wood chips to which they add after using our composting toilet, rather than a white bowl offering up a pool into which to defecate. Our teenage son is not crazy about it, but he understands.

Outside, “humanure” composted for many years has filled the holes of fruit trees when they were first planted. Like most of what we do, the ideas are not new or original, but rather old and time-tested. Our friends and mentors Earle and Hilde, ever on the path of ecological sanity and creativity, created an eco-toilet center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Locals can learn that providing homeowners with an alternative would eliminate the need for a new multimillion dollar  treatment facility that would ultimately still dump feces-polluted water into the bay of this beach community. Their work and our work becomes increasingly interested in separating out urine, making humanure even more compostable while reclaiming this vital resource rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. The Omega Institute where we teach channels all the water on campus—from low-flush toilets, showers, and the kitchens through an Eco-Machine (designed by New Alchemy co-founder John Todd). Up to 52,000 gallons a day of domestic sewage is purified as it moves through an aerated system rich with plants and microbes. In recent years, we have especially realized the great benefits of urine. While the general population is not yet talking about this in the same way that we do fossil fuels, “peak phosphorus” is a critical issue. Essential to plant growth, phosphorus is a nonrenewable resource that is being steadily mined and depleted. Urine is rich in phosphorus. It is sterile, and adults produce between 100 to 150 gallons of urine each year. This contains enough fertilizer to grow nearly a year’s supply of food, according to the good folks at the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont, who are researching methods for safe and effective urine reclamation.

We now save our urine (because we are healthy and take no medications). Urine is generally free of pathogens, making collection, storage, and reuse quite safe. We have a container that is connected to our waterless urinal, plus discrete 5-gallon jugs into which we offer our golden contributions throughout the day. Diverting urine from our composting toilets reduces any smell significantly. Filtered through a massive, layered barrel with wood chips clad with beneficial microbes, our urine is transformed into a fertilizer that we can spray on foliage such as garlic greens and seedlings. We witness their remarkable growth from this free product that keeps the nutrient cycle close to home. Once urine—and the valuable nitrogen and phosphorus contained within—enters the waste stream, it is hard to reclaim. Reclaiming it at the source can become an easy and natural part of the day. When we show visitors the odorless jars of nutrient rich “microbe juice” that emerge from our simple urine digester, they are impressed. Our relationship with the Rich Earth Institute has blossomed into an exciting step for the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival held annually in Orange, Massachusetts. It has achieved a sustainability goal of 10,000 people diverting urine in specially designed portable toilets. Through festival committee member Bruce’s diligent work with the departments of agriculture and public health, that pee, instead of being lost into a tank of blue liquid and ultimately to riverside “waste treatment” plants, was applied onto the festival hayfields and others across the border in Vermont to fertilize land, and in doing so, fertilize hope for closing the nutrient cycle rather than flushing it away. This edited excerpt from Making Love While Farming: A Field Guide to a Life of Passion and Purpose by Ricky Baruch and Deb Habib (© 2019) appears with permission of the authors and Levellers Press.


Ricky Baruch started Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center in 1996.
Deb Habib started Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center in 1996.

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