I developed an open source composting / vermicomposting toilet design based on an ordinary flush toilet

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  • WendyHoward
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  • Biologist/ecologist/educator running a permaculture centre in Central Portugal. Came across vermicomposting/vermifiltration in waste management in 2013 and developed an open-source DIY system based on one pioneered by Anna Edey in the 1990s and using conventional flush toilets. Passionate about restoring life and health to the planet's ecosystems.
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Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

Comment by moderator: This post was originally in this thread:
"Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations please"

forum.susana.org/241-composting-toilets-...dations-please#25547
+++++++++

For anyone who's interested ...

I developed an open source composting / vermicomposting toilet design based on an ordinary flush toilet. It's inspired by Anna Edey's vermicomposting flush toilet design which she constructed in the 1990s. It needs little more than DIY skills to install and the materials can mostly be sourced from the industrial waste stream. It can also be retrofitted to existing septic tank systems.

It's very cheap to install, requires no proprietary equipment, no input of energy and no special ventilation. It DOES produce compost, although it never needs emptying so it's a matter of choice whether you use it or not. It doesn't require urine separation, it doesn't smell and the only maintenance necessary is to top up with organic material from time to time.

In water-sensitive locations, it could conceivably be used with a dry toilet provided handwashing water were also directed through the tank (to dilute urine and maintain required moisture levels). All up for experimentation ...

Full details on the website , where there's also a forum for discussions/questions/experimentation reports, etc.
Quinta do Vale - Permaculturing in Portugal
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www.vermicompostingtoilets.net/
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

Hi Wendy,
Welcome to the SuSanA Discussion Forum! I am just wondering if your post should be moved to the sub-category on "vermicomposting toilets" or if it's better that it stays where it is? Do we see "vermicomposting toilets" as a subset of composting toilets or as two distinctly different things?
You probably know that we have a sub-category on vermicomposting toilets here:
forum.susana.org/290-vermifilters-for-bl...ts-tiger-worm-toilet

Also, since you wrote about the historical developments, would you like to add that information into this thread which Dean has started?:
History of vermifilter toilet and wikipedia article
forum.susana.org/290-vermifilters-for-bl...nd-wikipedia-article
It could be useful to have it all in one place and there might also have been parallel developments in different parts of the world.

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Elisabeth
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  • WendyHoward
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  • Biologist/ecologist/educator running a permaculture centre in Central Portugal. Came across vermicomposting/vermifiltration in waste management in 2013 and developed an open-source DIY system based on one pioneered by Anna Edey in the 1990s and using conventional flush toilets. Passionate about restoring life and health to the planet's ecosystems.
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

Hi Elisabeth

Thanks for your response. I didn't know you had a section on vermicomposting toilets to be honest - I guess because it uses the words vermifilters/vermifiltration and it didn't occur to me to use those terms when I was trying to find my way around here.

Personally I wouldn't refer to this as vermifiltration because there is far more going on in that ecosystem than just filtration. It's a full aerobic cold composting process, especially if - as in mine/Anna Edey's systems - it's based on a wholly organic substrate. Which perhaps answers your question.

It's not just the worms but the entire bacterial community associated with them. In fact, the nitrate removal from the liquid component of the waste (which, according to Anna Edey's work, can take place in as short a throughput time as 10 minutes) is primarily a bacterial process. The worms' role relates far more to the solid waste. But they're also processing the organic substrate at the same time, which is very much part of any natural composting process which converts dead and decaying organic matter into soil.

This is why I posted my comment here. I see a lot of discussion of expensive commercial proprietary systems. To me, converting any conventional flush toilet system to one of these involves far more expense, unnecessary work, resource extraction, manufacturing processes, etc, etc, compared to what it takes to retrofit a DIY system based on recycled components from the industrial waste stream. Given the context to install a gravity-fed system, a setup like mine (or Anna's) is a no-brainer as far as I can see.

Let me be clear here. I don't come at this from a commercial angle. I don't think this planet - not to mention a large part of its human population - can afford that mentality any longer (one of the reasons I open-sourced my system).

It's just the permitting angle ... which is a whole different can of worms, if you'll excuse the pun. I'm working with my local municipality on that one. They currently give my system the nod if people specify "septic tank with drainage" in their building project proposals, but we're aiming to get a university involved to test the system and produce the requisite data for it to be permitted here in Portugal in its own right. The wheels of local government turn exceedingly slowly however. This will be a long process.

Ultimately it's up to you what you want to do with posts on your forum so I will happily accept your judgement on this. But at least now you have my reasoning.

I have posted on the History of vermifilter toilet and wikipedia article thread as you requested.
Quinta do Vale - Permaculturing in Portugal
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  • WendyHoward
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  • Biologist/ecologist/educator running a permaculture centre in Central Portugal. Came across vermicomposting/vermifiltration in waste management in 2013 and developed an open-source DIY system based on one pioneered by Anna Edey in the 1990s and using conventional flush toilets. Passionate about restoring life and health to the planet's ecosystems.
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Re: History of vermifilter toilet and wikipedia article

I also came across Anna Edey's work (and Dean Cameron's during further research) when I was researching worm toilets in 2013. This led to some experimentation - Anna Edey is not very specific on the detail of her system - and eventual open-sourcing of a low-cost gravity-fed DIY variant I developed here in Portugal based on a one cubic meter IBC tank/tote (food grade) easily obtained from the industrial waste stream. It's now being used by many people in this country and elsewhere.

Full details are on my website .

The website also has a section on the history of the development of this system.

Please note for whoever wrote the Wikipedia article that neither Anna Edey's nor my system ever need emptying. In at least 15 years of continuous operation, Anna Edey has never emptied her system .

These vermicomposting ecosystems are based in a wholly organic substrate. Not only do the worms also process the organic material (as they would in the normal process of soil formation), the entire ecosystem makes use of the carbon contained in it to process nitrates, etc, in the waste. This means that far from needing emptying, the system must be topped up from time to time with more organic material.
Quinta do Vale - Permaculturing in Portugal
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Websites - www.permaculturinginportugal.net/
www.vermicompostingtoilets.net/
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  • KaiMikkel
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

Yikes! Wendy, with all due respect, how is the following anything other than a recipe for disaster?



[Source: www.vermicompostingtoilets.net/wp-conten.../complete-system.jpg ]

I ask because there doesn't appear to be any allowance for preventing the constant input of fresh pathogen rich material nor a method for preventing it from contaminating the abundant volume (thanks to the pedestal toilet being a standard flush-type) of effluent produced - the latter of which is then permitted to freely contaminate soil and, no doubt in practice, groundwater. I view this flawed design as little more than another in the long line of, to borrow a term popularized by Joe Turner, "magic black box" toiletry - a fatally flawed sanitation system which does far more harm than good.

Or am I missing something?
Kai Mikkel Førlie

Founding Member of Water-Wise Vermont (formerly Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge)
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  • WendyHoward
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  • Biologist/ecologist/educator running a permaculture centre in Central Portugal. Came across vermicomposting/vermifiltration in waste management in 2013 and developed an open-source DIY system based on one pioneered by Anna Edey in the 1990s and using conventional flush toilets. Passionate about restoring life and health to the planet's ecosystems.
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

Hi KaiMikkel

I think you're seriously missing something. Did you read through the site and how the system works? There is an entire ecosystem in that tank processing the waste. I hardly think the environmental engineers at my local council - some of whom specialise in sanitation systems - would have approved this system for use and commissioned an installation to replace a failed septic tank if it didn't do what it's supposed to do! Or that several proprietary systems would exist on the market at present based on very similar principles.

This system is based on Anna Edey's original development of the 1990s which she had extensive testing done on and showed the system to remove upwards of 90% of all pollutant measures in a throughput time of as little as 10 minutes. No trace of any pathogens were detected in testing.

Most of the serious pathogens which develop in association with effluent do so because the effluent is in an anaerobic context - usually suspended in water for considerable periods of time. Here, with the processing taking place onsite, the amount of time faecal material is immersed in water is a matter of seconds - the time it takes to travel from the toilet to the tank. The system in the tank is aerobic and remains so under normal operating conditions. Processing time for the worms to deal with the solids is usually less than a week.

My original secondary processing area (the 'greenfilter') was designed to show up any nutrient making it through the primary processing area. After 7 years of operation now, there is no evidence at all.

Anna Edey's original site no longer exists, but these are her test results ...

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  • KaiMikkel
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

"My original secondary processing area (the 'greenfilter') was designed to show up any nutrient making it through the primary processing area. After 7 years of operation now, there is no evidence at all." This is all well and good - but what about the release of pathogens? They are my main concern.

Considering one (1) gram of wet feces contains ~100 billion bacteria (among numerous other pathogenic organisms) and that your system is designed to pass feces-contaminated liquid through quickly (thus minimizing the amount of time which microbes might otherwise have to digest/render safe pathogens) then I'm still unsure about the safety of your system as presented.

Also, FWIW I don't much care that your local council approved the design - they approve septic tanks, sewers and centralized wastewater treatment plants all the time too, even in full light of the fact that they are woefully inadequate, failure prone and destructive (given that they rely on the long outmoded "dilution solution", require heavy inputs of energy and contaminate otherwise "clean water).

Your thoughts?
Kai Mikkel Førlie

Founding Member of Water-Wise Vermont (formerly Vermonters Against Toxic Sludge)
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  • HarryTams
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

Thank you Wendy for the data.
Laboratory test results speak for themselves if there has been due diligence when taking samples. Are there other substances that one should also test?
Kai, It would be good to get data from local sewage treatment plants. How would they compare with the data Wendy has provided?
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  • WendyHoward
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  • Biologist/ecologist/educator running a permaculture centre in Central Portugal. Came across vermicomposting/vermifiltration in waste management in 2013 and developed an open-source DIY system based on one pioneered by Anna Edey in the 1990s and using conventional flush toilets. Passionate about restoring life and health to the planet's ecosystems.
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

My thoughts?

My first thought was to try and get my head around your way of thinking to understand where you're coming from and why you appear to be so aggressively fearful about human faecal waste entering the environment. The impression I get from what you wrote is that human faeces are something to be handled in much the same way as nuclear waste. And that bacteria in general are something to be feared. I have difficulty understanding this attitude so perhaps you'd like to explain?

Mammalian faeces are not designed to be decomposed in water or any other anaerobic environment. The human digestive tract is an anaerobic environment. Pathogens which thrive in this environment will thrive to a far greater extent if you maintain anaerobic conditions after they leave the body. What better way to do that than to drop them into water? Further, the rate of decomposition in an anaerobic environment is so slow that accumulation rates frequently exceed decomposition rates so septic tanks have to be emptied and the contents otherwise disposed of, so I agree with you that septic tanks are a less than optimum system.

Like all mammalian species, humans evolved as part of an interdependent natural system to contribute to pedogenesis by adding our faeces to the top layers of the soil. The soil is precisely where a huge diversity of organisms exist (in healthy soil at least ...) who have evolved over millennia for exactly this purpose. If you want to deal sustainably and naturally with faecal pathogens, then there is no better place than the soil to find the organisms to do it.

This is part of a natural process and, as such, is far superior in design to anything humans can come up with. Not least for the fact that it's been tested and refined over literally millions of years ...

What is contained in these worm tanks (and other similar systems) is the soil ecosystem on steroids. And on steroids because we are providing optimum conditions - comfortable temperature range, optimum moisture levels, aerobic environment, plentiful supplies of organic material, a large number of "microbe nurseries" (worms), and a system depth many times greater than the average depth of the detritus layer in soils - for it to operate at maximum efficiency.

Which is what it needs to do. Because what is 'unnatural' about the system - and any system of human waste management - is the constant deposition of faecal material in the same location.

By replicating the same system in the secondary processing area (albeit more open so without as great a level of optimisation), you are again providing the conditions to ensure you're maximising opportunities for pathogens to be dealt with by the soil biota. Which - given the extent of degradation of soils and soil biology brought about by our catastrophic lack of understanding of soil ecology - is these days pretty essential.

As for the water used in the system, it's only a temporary carrier medium and the volumes involved are very small. The system is, and remains aerobic. That water has ample opportunity to be acted on by the biota it has to pass through. Consider this: if upwards of 90% of nitrates can be removed by the bacteria present in the primary processing tank from solution in a throughput time of as little as 10 minutes, you can be confident similar dynamics are applying to any water-borne pathogens.

These are some of the reasons why, as a biologist/ecologist, I was excited to find Anna Edey's system and continue her work.

So perhaps you'd like to explain your thinking in turn?
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  • joeturner
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

WendyHoward wrote: My thoughts?

My first thought was to try and get my head around your way of thinking to understand where you're coming from and why you appear to be so aggressively fearful about human faecal waste entering the environment. The impression I get from what you wrote is that human faeces are something to be handled in much the same way as nuclear waste. And that bacteria in general are something to be feared. I have difficulty understanding this attitude so perhaps you'd like to explain?


Excuse me for butting in, but are you not aware that the pathogens are lethal? Why would you want to spread them around?

Would you eat cheese that had been started with lethal microbes and went through zero microbiological testing before it arrived on your plate?

Would you rather trust magic or microbiology?
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  • WendyHoward
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  • Biologist/ecologist/educator running a permaculture centre in Central Portugal. Came across vermicomposting/vermifiltration in waste management in 2013 and developed an open-source DIY system based on one pioneered by Anna Edey in the 1990s and using conventional flush toilets. Passionate about restoring life and health to the planet's ecosystems.
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Re: Which composting toilet to choose - recommendations, please?

Excuse me for butting in, but are you not aware that the pathogens are lethal? Why would you want to spread them around?


Pathogens are lethal?! That's a complete nonsense without qualification! A bit like saying humans are lethal.

That statement is utterly meaningless without reference to context and circumstances.

You can only say that some pathogens have the potential to be lethal in certain contexts. Context is everything. Disease is always multifactorial. A pathogen which can produce a fatal outcome in one context can be benign in another. Nothing in any living system acts in isolation.

Given that context is everything, it then becomes necessary to study the detail of the pathways and interactions which lead to various different outcomes. Having done so, you can then devise effective management strategies. So yes, I trust the microbiology thank you very much. There's nothing magical going on here.
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  • Ecowaters
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Re: History of vermifilter toilet and wikipedia article

You might go visit Anna Edey's system. I lived nearby on the mainland and visited there. The system folks usually talk about was dismantled years ago. What she emphasizes is using a shallow rootzone distribution system for leachate. The system you see in her book from the 1990s was no longer there. She had a simple urine-div system with bucket in place for her own use.
There are some misunderstandings among people who read about it but have never seen it.

About the large translucent 250-gallon tanks, I find the people who try them end up abandoning them because they are too difficult to empty.
I know some people are promoting these for event use, some with the assertion that they won't have to be emptied for a decade. However, when I talk to their hired help, I hear a different story about how long they've been in use and when they were last emptied.
It's true that two people using one with leachate drainage and active aeration might not see it fill for 5 years+. But when it does, it will be interesting to empty it.....
The worms will stay happy as long as they can escape from the urine. We see this in all composting toilets.
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