Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Lavatory Laboratory: How sanitation is following the cell phone model (nautil.us)
43 points by dnetesn on Nov 24, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 13 comments

We used compost (sawdust) toilets in our house for a few months before we had indoor plumbing. Before I read "The Humanure Handbook" I thought the very idea was some kind of awful hippie bullshit. However now I have realized something that is really obvious when you try it:

Some machines and designs have been perfected for centuries. The toilet however is not one of them! Because it took us so long to discover how germs make us sick, our toilets were really horrible things.

In fact, it has taken us so long to understand sanitation, composting, and the environmental impact of using fresh-water flushing toilets, that the entire human race has become used to an activity (flushing toilets) that is astoundingly wasteful (you're not only wasting drinking water, but you're wasting excellent nutrients in your own shit which is then lost to sewage sludge, which itself takes huge resources to purify)

The thing is, you can totally recycle all human (and food) waste without much of an inconvenience and really no smell at all. Yes, let me repeat that - no smell at all. You crap in a bucket of sawdust, cover it completely with more sawdust, and the bucket does not smell.

The fact that our civilization has taught itself that flushing our shit away with drinking water is "the right thing to do" is really very troubling and wrong once you realize the vast resources that could be saved by some very, very basic stuff like sawdust toilets and composting.

I am aware that achieving this on an urban scale would be a challenge, but it can certainly be solved.....

You don't seem to have thought this through.

Most importantly, smell is not the only reason you might want to get rid of shit quickly, systematically and far from the hands of humans and animals. It is a major carrier of disease.

> I am aware that achieving this on an urban scale would be a challenge, but it can certainly be solved.....

It probably can - but can it be solved to a degree that gives a better net result than the current system? Water is expensive[1], but so are the trucks required to ship sawdust in and shit out of the urban areas that most people live in (>80% in the US) and the rest of the infrastructure required to safely turn it into compost.

1: In some places. In many places water is really quite abundant.

Edit: Also, a cursory reading of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sewage_treatment suggests that there are several paths for processed sewage to be either, indeed, composted or turned "into fertilizer pellets. This product is then sold to local farmers and turf farms as a soil amendment or fertilizer".

Yes, the sawdust-compost toilet works, but is it a viable option? I'd like it to be, but whenever I come across something like this, I put myself into the imagined mind of whoever is the pop-tart of the day (say, the One Direction kids or the girl who hates streaming...can't think of her name). Are they going to go through with the sawdust-on-poo ritual? Probably not.

Any solution that displaces the modern toilet will need to be at least as easy and thoughtless to operate as the current setup. I think a half-way solution is to outfit houses with a greywater circuit that could be used for the toilets. That would make a tremendous cut into the amount of drinking water that toilets are using.

There's commercially available composting toilets which automate much of the required work. My parents use a compact Sun Mar toilet which is compact and very low maintenance. It looks like a really oversized toilet. The same company build larger units which do most of the composting in the basement - these look very similar to normal toilets.


Modern flush toilets originated in the UK, where water is in plentiful supply. It literally falls down from the sky, with depressing regularity.

Yes they're not very good in dry climates, but they were never designed to be.

Are there not issues with all of the, ahem, crap we eat? Apex predators accumulate high concentrations of pollutants (Silent Spring and all), and I imagine that closing the loop by using human poo to fertilize crops for human consumption would only worsen this issue.

where are you getting all this sawdust from

Obviously he is growing trees in all the compost he is creating.

When toilets were invented, sawdust was expensive and water was cheap. Its easy to dismiss it all as foolish without knowing where it came from.

The only problem is these Alternate methods are qute good for small low desity vilages but tend not to work very well at scale like the rapidly growing cites in china and india.

I am sure there is no way to bypass infrastructure development. You could bypass building phone infrastructure by a mobile phone, but that won't work for broadband internet (too little bandwidth in the air physically for everyone to have a decent connection). You will have to dig ditches and lay fiber optic cable, and have government, law and order, and institutions well-developed enough to allow for that.

Same with sanitation, whatever your toilet is you can't really get rid of disease without running water. Having running water it is straightforward to build sewerage using same underground collectors.

It too much reminds me of futile attempts of commies 100 years ago to build communism by killing all capitalists: there is no shortcut here, you've got to have per capita GDP high enough to have communism first (so far, 100 years later, we're still not there), then it comes naturally and you don't have to kill anyone.

I read a PopSci article about a design firm that had created a pet waste disposal reactor at a public park, as it digested the poop it lit a park light. We saw how successful the 'gravity light' was (and its recent big brother is making news) so why not human manure digesters? [1] Sure we don't produce as much as herbivores but it seems like you set up a "power station" at a village, collect peoples donations and dispense tokens, and then can take tokens to enable an outlet where they recharge their phones. Or perhaps just provide a lighted area?

[1] http://www.mda.state.mn.us/renewable/waste.aspx

I am an MEP coordinator. Poop keeps me awake at night.

Applications are open for YC Winter 2020

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact