The Legality of Composting Toilets

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The Legality of Composting Toilets
A outhouse in the woods (old outside mens toilet image by Joyce Wilkes from Fotolia.com)

While undeniably energy efficient, composting toilets raise a host of questions as to their health safety. The potential spread of disease, the relative rarity of composting toilets and the variation between models make this a difficult area to address with legal regulation. Some people choose to build illegally rather than deal with the hassle of regulations. However, there are signs that authorities are increasingly accepting composting toilets, and that they will continue to do so in the future.

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Concerns

There are concerns with composting toilets, all based on health dangers. Disease vector control (avoiding flies, rodents and other pests that can transmit bacteria) is a problem that affects both you and your neighbours. It's also crucial to avoid contaminating groundwater, which can then contaminate drinking water. Authorities may require that the compost be contained, and that the system use proper materials that won't corrode or degrade. Lastly, toilets should be safe and easy for anyone to use.

Local Regulations

Regulations vary from state to state and town to town. Certain areas do not regulate composting toilets explicitly, but have strict guidelines on waste and wastewater processing. For example, "black water" (used toilet water) is regulated differently than "gray water" (sink and tub water). Laws may determine whether or not a composting toilet can be near a dwelling, and how it can be constructed. You must research your local government's stance on composting toilets before building one.

Approved Designs

While there are several different styles of composting toilet, few are legally approved for use. To get your composter approved, you may need to get certification from a legal body such as the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). This can be expensive, and you may choose instead to order a composting toilet directly from a manufacturer. These models are expensive as well, but are designed to meet local regulations. Speak with your local government before ordering a toilet, to find out which models they will approve.

New Developments

In 2009, the city of Austin, Texas legally approved a composting toilet for use; the story was featured in Time Magazine. Time wrote that this "may be the first legal composting toilet in the U.S." The approved system, called Humanure, involves dumping waste into a compost bin and covering it with sawdust rather than leaving it to contaminate the ground. In Marin County, Calif., another group is working to replace chemical toilets in public areas.

Potential

While it's difficult to get a composting toilet approved today, public officials may be becoming more receptive to the concept. Time Magazine writes, "Wastewater treatment is much more energy-intensive than composting, which needs little more than time (about a year) for complete decomposition and pathogen elimination." By refining methods, regulating systems for safety and overcoming public distaste for "night soil," we can save water and energy while producing rich, usable compost.

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