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Saturday, May 7, 2011

5/7/2011 - composting toilet revisited

First, let me explain why I keep writing all these articles about our composting toilet, containing what to some of you may be TMI (too much information). If you're a boater who spends more than a few hours at a time on your boat, waste disposal is a pretty big issue. Boaters are often looking for alternatives to the standard holding tank approach to waste disposal. Composting heads are one of the alternatives that come up during these considerations. But, until recently, there hasn't been an awful lot of info available about how they actually work. Lots of info from manufacturers about how they're supposed to work, but we all know how objective manufacturers are. So, I'm trying to put a little more first-hand info out there. In case the subject doesn't interest you at all, just look for the word "compost" in the header. If you see it, don't bother proceeding.

Okay, now to the subject at hand:

As you may remember, we have been getting about 3-1/2 weeks of use out of our solids (composting) tank before it's time to dump it. That's with 2 adults using it full-time. This last time, we thought that we might be able to extend that time by not including toilet paper in the mix.

The question of toilet paper comes up in almost any honest discussion of marine heads. People with conventional heads eschew flushing toilet paper because, if anything is going to clog the pump, that's what will do it. These folks put their used toilet paper in a wastebasket or zip-loc bag or something and dispose of it separately. Now this always seemed really gross to me. But that was before we came to Mexico. Down here, we've found that this is the norm. Ran into it first in Ensenada at the Baja Naval marina. There was a sign very explicitly explaining where the TP was supposed to go and there was a wastebasket sitting right next to the toilet. Strange thing was, it wasn't gross and it didn't stink.

In La Paz, we ran into the same practice and again, it wasn't gross and it didn't stink. I think that's partly because of how the people use the wastebasket. When you wipe, one side's dirty and one side is where your fingers are, right? Well, you just deposit the paper in the wastebasket dirty side down. So, little or no poop is ever visible. Everyone does it, and everything's fine. Why doesn't it stink? Beats me. Maybe it's because there's actually very little poop in the wastebasket. Anyway, we decided to try this on Siempre Sabado. No zip-loc bags as are occasionally recommended in the letters section of Latitude 38 magazine. Just a small open wastebasket lined with a Chedraui shopping bag (got a gazillion of those). The thinking was that, with that volume of paper, albeit biodegradable, removed, we'd have that much more room for poop.

So, how did it work? Well, even with no paper at all, the compost bucket was still full and ready to be dumped at the end of 3-1/2 weeks. What the heck happened?

If you're familiar with composting, you know that some fibrous organic material is needed in addition to the poop. This helps absorb moisture and fluff things up so that air can pass through easier keeping things aerobic. We add coconut fiber for this although some use peat moss and I've even heard of sawdust being used. Everything started out hunky-dory but as time moved on we noticed that we had to keep adding handfuls of coconut fiber to keep this mess from turning into poop pudding. At the end of the 3-1/2 weeks we had a somewhat more objectionable, and much heavier load to dispose of than before. Our conclusion: the fibrous toilet paper was helping to do what we had to rely on just the coconut fiber to do during this experiment.

Now, we don't want to overload the mix with paper so we still use the absolute minimum amount we can. But now, we have the luxury of mixing practices if we want. First wipe a little too messy to do comfortably with just 2 or 3 squares? No problem. Just grab a handful of paper and then deposit that one in the wastebasket. Then put the subsequent small pieces in the composter. Best of both worlds.

I'll let you know in about 3-1/2 weeks how this approach worked.

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