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August 18, 2003

For Those About To Rot, I Salute You

As men grow older they retain one aspect from boyhood: they want better toys. For some it's fishing boats. Others have their cars. Some want the biggest house with the coolest gadgets. Me? I want a composter.

I've always thought that composting is an excellent way of diverting from landfill and recycling nature's bounty. It makes perfect sense - take what would normally become garbage, let it sit for a few months, and voilá -you've got an extremely valuable natural fertilizer for your garden and yard. So long as you follow good composting rules of thumb, there should be no smell, no infestation of insects or animals, just an ongoing flow of good earthy richness.

Living in a mid-row townhouse, I have very little in the way of yard, either out back or in front. A composter just has no place to hide, and would be a visual eyesore that would be near impossible to hide on our little patch of grass. These have been my excuses against getting a composter previously. Although I still maintain these reasons to be true, I've now discovered the motivation to find a solution around these little issues.

This past week while I was putting groceries away I discovered quite a few dishes in the back of the fridge that had been left too long, the contents of which were past their "best before" date. I stacked everything on our counter, and was horrified to realize exactly how much food I was about to throw out. The waste of (formerly) good food aside, I was sending all this stuff to landfill instead of turning it into free fertilizer and topdressing for my lawn next spring. Seeing this, and knowing how many corn cobs, apple cores, watermelon rinds, egg shells and other organics I've thrown out just this season alone, I realized that I absolutely had to start composting. First, I needed to educate myself on the subject.

I discovered that there are a number of different composting bins one can purchase today instead of maintaining an open compost pile. The kind that got my attention was drum-type composters: a cylinder that sits horizontally with a door to put compostables in and dump compost out of. Every once in a while you merely rotate the drum to aerate the compost and keep things brewing. Good old rot'n'roll. The only downside is that they are "batch" composters: you fill it up and then have to wait a couple months while that batch is done, and then start again. Meanwhile, you need to either purchase a second one to fill up while you're waiting, or you have to otherwise store you compostables. So my choices are aerate manually, or find the space for two drum composters. Hmm.

While visiting with family recently, we had a discussion about composting toilets. I had heard about these through one of my magazine subscriptions, and kept meaning to find out more. Well, with my interest in kitchen and yard waste composting burning like never before, this conversation sent me on a quest to find out what composting toilets were all about, and whether kitchen scraps and human waste could be combined into one big composting unit.

Composting toilets come in all sorts of varieties, but the general principle is the same across the board. Human waste is close to 90% water, and the rest is just organic material. Composting toilets simply remove the excess moisture, and allow the remainder to compost into a natural fertilizer: "humanure". Such systems range from single toilets that can handle modest amounts of use all the way on up to full-house systems that can handle a large family full-time. The latter of these is what interests me most, not just because I'd like a toilet to still look like a toilet, but the added ease of collection at one centralized location.

What's even better is that a whole-house composting toilet system can be used to compost food and garden waste as well. Just like in your garden composter, a composting toilet needs a certain balance to compost correctly. From what I've read, most composting toilets need a handful of wood chips, peat moss, or other dry organic material each time you use them to maintain a proper balance. I can imagine a system that has the central composting unit fed by ultra-low flush toilets (half liter per flush!), a garbage disposal in the kitchen, and from a chute outside where garden and yard waste can be included. Mix it all together, let it brew for a few months, and you've accomplished a huge list of things: You;

  1. have removed all your composting waste from the landfill.
  2. have reduced your garbage by a huge amount.
  3. have eliminated all of your household's toilet waste from your municipality's sewage system.
  4. have reduced your toilet water use by 92%.
  5. never have to purchase topsoil or fertilizer again, or even those giant paper yard waste bags.
As you can imagine, I experience what a friend of mine called a "moment of eco-freak joy" when I contemplate the possibilities such a system holds. With convincing my wife being the only barrier to this being a part of our next new house (she's open-minded enough that I'm quite confident I'll be able to convince her) I look forward to the day that I harvest my first bucket of humanure.

Meanwhile, back at our townhouse, I'm going to see if I can't get a composter working somewhere on our property. Perhaps I'll put it in a corner just outside of the garage and insulate it, maybe even route our hot water tank's exhaust under it to keep it warm. Now that I've realized the potential and exactly how much compostable material I'm throwing out, I really feel the need and desire to compost.

I wanna rot!


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