Human Waste Management: How To Save On Water Bills With Composting Toilets

Composting toilets help city dwellers save on water bills and provide septic tank alternatives for country folks.

| January/February 1979

  • Sewage Disposal
    Human waste management is a complicated issue for urban and rural areas.

  • Sewage Disposal

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) from Washington, D.C. has been working to help urban and rural residents gain greater control over their lives through the use of low-technology and decentralist tools and concepts. At MOTHER EARTH NEWS we believe that more people (city dwellers and country folk alike) can take control of their home sewage treatment systems.

Sewage disposal is a problem shared by city dwellers and country folks alike. In rural areas, old, broken-down septic tanks (that smell every summer or, worse, contaminate the local drinking water) are the most common hassles. In the city, on the other hand, people are often hit with skyrocketing water bills ... which are "necessary" to support the construction of new sewage lines or multimillion dollar treatment plants. In both urban and rural environments, concerned groups are searching for alternatives to present human waste management issues.

City Solutions: How To Save On Water Bills

Until now, city residents haven't had much choice but to pay those budget-breaking water bills. People in Manassas, Va., for example, tried to protest the construction of a costly sewage treatment plant by not paying the $500 increase in their annual water bills. In response, the city promptly shut off the taps of the protesters ... forcing them to set up portable toilets in their back yards and to shower in other people's homes.

But other metropolitan areas have come up with more creative ways to attack their human waste management problems. In Chicago, for instance, a group of city planners and college professors has proposed a wide range of small-scale, job-intensive alternatives to a massive waterworks project now under consideration by the city. The original proposal calls for the construction of a $7.3 billion network of tunnels, underground reservoirs, and sewer-line improvements in 53 separate communities. The price tag for this program will be somewhere in the vicinity of $1,400 per household ... or over $100 million from every neighborhood in the region!

The small-scale alternatives, however, call for waste prevention rather than treatment. "Slow the water runoff down to increase percolation," says Northwestern University professor Stanley Hallett, "and start off by closing down and converting our unnecessary streets!" Hallett maintains that up to 20 percent of Chicago's streets can be replaced with water-absorbing gardens and parks, without causing traffic tie-ups. The, professor's other ideas include composting vacant city lots, and redesigning rooftops so that each will hold — and slowly release — 2 inches of rainwater. Of course, it would also be very helpful if the Windy City could reduce the amount of sewage that enters the system in the first place ... composting toilets and gray-water filters are two methods that have been suggested as ways to help realize this goal.

Many of Chicago's proposed conservation projects can — advocates say — be incorporated into regular city maintenance work, such as street regrading, rooftop repairs, and existing water conservation programs. And, unlike the massive, expensive construction proposal — which would require sophisticated equipment and trained engineers — small-scale technologies could create new jobs at a very low overall cost.

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