Since the mid-1970s, I have been affiliated with a nonprofit educational corporation located in drought-stricken Southern California. Our headquarters has long been afflicted with a troublesome sewer line that would occasionally back up. After an intensive investigation, our founder, R. White, deduced that the plumbing problem invariably arose after a guest used liberal, nay, exorbitant, amounts of toilet paper. Instead of investing in costly sewer repair or replacement, White decided to try a different approach. He placed a 10-gallon plastic clothes hamper next to the toilet (used regularly by about a dozen people) and hung a sign on the wall commanding that, henceforth, all paper matter be discard in the hamper. Use as much as you like.
Presto! No dirty clogs. No plumber’s friends. Every few months the contents of the hamper was buried, and it quickly decomposed.
As time went on we began conducting experiments with the hamper-turned-compost-box. We added a layer of soil to the bottom and introduced a few earthworms for good measure. The worms loved it in there. Apparently, it created an amorous atmosphere for them: They bred profusely. Best of all, there was never any “outhouse odor” from the hamper. Rather, when the lid was lifted, the hamper smelled earthy, like rich soil.
Eventually it occurred to us to carry our experiment to its logical conclusion: to see how long we could go without emptying the hamper. To start, we added a small amount of soil to the bottom of the hamper, accompanied by 85 earthworms and 17 wood lice (also known as sow or pill bugs). We returned the hamper to the rest room and the test was on.
Days turned into weeks, then into months, as roll after roll of paper was fed into our voracious hamper. It was never emptied, never moved; occasionally, the paper contents were lightly compacted and small amounts of water were dribbled in for the creatures entombed there. Yet the hamper never seemed to fill. Nor did the atmosphere around it suffer. Instead it released the same fresh, earthy smell as always. Time, effortlessly, rolled on.
Four years later, we decided to release our findings to a small and unsuspecting audience attending our company gala. In preparation for the grand event, we’d stopped adding toilet paper to the bin a month earlier and covered the top with a layer of soil.
When we displayed the hamper to our guests and explained what we’d done, many were amused. Some were even excited. Several were actively revolted.
To add suspense to our unveiling and to create a visual aid, one member of our group, Timothy Hall, brought a large cement-mixing tub into the yard and told the crowd that, as part of the experiment, he was going to empty the bin and count the worms and wood lice that had managed to survive in dubious captivity.
The audience was breathless with anticipation. One woman, when she realized we were actually going to empty four years’ worth of accumulated used toilet paper at her feet, finally found her voice: “Oh, no. No …PLEASE don’t empty it!”
Hall, undaunted by her cries, slowly poured out the contents, while the crowd watched in grim fascination. The first identifiable object to emerge was a foot-long avocado seedling that had sprouted from a seed inadvertently tossed into the bin. Gradually, the rest of the contents flowed into the tub, and as the crowd pressed forward, it began to move, writhing and turning like a living thing. As everyone gazed at the spectacle, Hall declared, “There are thousands of worms here—more than I can count!” Along with immature and adult earthworms, the tub contained countless eggs, wood lice, and may other bugs and insects that we couldn’t identify. An entomologist’s dream come true! The odor was fresh and claylike. At the very bottom of the hamper was a dense layer of material that was devoid of worms or life. But the rest was like rich potting soil. There was no sign of toilet paper anywhere.
Our experiment was an overflowing success. Not only did we no longer have clogs, but, without the paper, we were able to flush the commode by pouring recycled water into the bowl, thus increasing our water savings.
Now that we’ve endured five years of drought here in Southern California, I think of that hamper often. Hard times require innovative measures.
Read more: Want to make your own bathroom compost box. Follow the diagram for making a compost box.
Christopher Nyerges, formerly an outdoors columnist for the Pasadena Star News, is the author of three books, including Urban Wilderness.