How Composting Toilets Improve Water Quality, Reduce Municipal Overhead and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Them

Reasons for Saving Water:

As climate change continues to impact weather norms, many areas of the world are already experiencing extreme droughts. In 2016 alone, much of the United States experienced abnormally dry weather with many areas dealing with severe to exceptional drought conditions. Check out this great resource on drought data here: In the coming years, weather extremes will continue to be an issue, and gone are the days of predictable weather. It is this weather variability, along with many other factors that we cannot continue to use potable water as conveyance for our waste.

Improved Water Quality and Reduced Water Treatment Costs:

Composting toilets are a simple technology that can instantly reduce water usage in drought stricken areas, as well as create a more sustainable and regenerative type of waste disposal around the globe. In addition to saving water, composting toilets can actually improve existing water quality. Composting toilets benefits go far beyond just the building where they are installed. By reducing waste that is input into the waste stream, less material needs to be filtered out, which eases the burden on private and municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Instead of using leach fields, that have potential for groundwater contamination, composting toilets keep the waste contained until it has been broken down to a stable and safe material.

In addition to improved water quality, the reduction in volume to municipal systems, has the potential to save municipalities millions. As they operate now, municipal wastewater systems are tasked with cleaning water from every building in the local area. Depending on the age and size of the wastewater system and the location, the system will eventually need to be increased in size to handle growing populations or repaired. If even a portion of standard toilets could be changed over to composting toilet systems, cities and towns around the world could reduce their wastewater budgets and perhaps use that money for beneficial social equity projects.  Composting toilets  are a simple technology that can reduce the strain on municipal water treatment systems, reduce groundwater contamination and leave more water for drinking.

Fact: If you are thinking about pursuing the Living Building Challenge, composting toilets are one of the easiest  and least expensive ways to achieve net positive water to meet the requirements of the program.


Do Composting Toilets Smell?

You might be saying “Yes, I know that composting toilets reduce water use, but they gross me out and I don’t want a port-a-john in my home or office.” Right, there’s a stigma associated with composting toilets that we need to overcome in order to fully utilize the technology, but I assure you, it’s far from a portable toilet or outhouse, and if installed correctly, doesn’t smell any worse than your flush toilet. In fact, some composting toilet customers report less bathroom odor than they had with their flush toilets, due to the venting systems in the compost systems. Bear in mind that composting toilets have undergone over thirty years of research and development. The systems on the market today are a far cry from those of yesteryear and this isn’t just a hole in the ground.

When considering composting toilets, you’ll want to speak someone knowledgeable, and not just anyone. Some installers and so-called experts will only recommend one brand of composting toilet, however that system might have known flaws, or, just not be right for your application. You’ll want to be sure to consult with an industry professional who understands your local plumbing codes, design constraints and budget to provide you with the best options for composting  technology.

How Do Composting Toilets Work?

So how does a composting toilet actually work? It’s honestly quite simple. Instead of your typical toilet, which uses water to flush waste to a septic or city sewer system, a composting toilet uses gravity and a storage unit located in a basement or facilities area. Over time, solids, liquids, and toilet paper that are collected in the unit begin to break down into compost. Wood shavings are added as a carbon source and bulking material to control moisture, eliminate odor, and help keep the compost aerated. Some systems also have mixing levels which allow for better ventilation and quicker breakdown of solids. Most systems are also installed with ventilation fans which aid in aerating the compost, evaporating moisture, and removing any potential for odor. Some systems also separate urine (called urine diversion) which further reduces moisture and smells.

Once the compost has matured within the unit, the material can be harvested and either returned to the soil, added to an outdoor compost pile, or removed from the site for use elsewhere.  Typically, compost is harvested once a year to once every several years, depending on the type of unit and usage. When harvested, the waste has been reduced by up to 85 percent of its original volume. In addition, once fully processed, the material is stable, odorless  and resembles ordinary gardening compost. Not to mention, we loose precious topsoil every year, creating compost can help build back that soil.

Right now, wastewater treatment costs continue to rise as many cities and towns are building new facilities to keep up with increasing demand, or, they are paying to maintain old and failing infrastructure. Excess nutrients discharged through sewer systems and septic systems continues to be a major threat to water resources. The biggest contributor of nutrients in wastewater is what we put down the toilet. Composting toilets are an excellent way we can help to protect the environment, capture nutrients, and reduce infrastructure costs.


Why Should I Install Composting Toilets?

  1. Greatly reduce potable water use
  2. Recycle nutrients
  3. Build Soil
  4. Reduce private and municipal wastewater costs
  5. Keep rivers, lakes, and oceans clean and healthy
  6. Can get your project to Net Positive Water for the Living Building Challenge


If you are thinking about composting toilets, contact us or speak with our friends at Nutrient Networks. Nutrient Networks  are an incredibly well informed and helpful group who have been installing composting toilets longer than most. Nutrient Networks have installed a variety of composting systems and are often called in to fix systems that were incorrectly installed or not properly maintained. Check out their website and give them a call, they’d be happy to speak with you.
Please contact us with any questions or comments –

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Permaculture – not just another “buzz” word.

In today’s fast paced world, with new ideas and technologies constantly evolving, it seems as though we just move from one buzzword to the next, hoping to find a saving grace in the next best thing…. “going green”, “sustainability”, “passive house”, “net zero”, “net positive”, “resiliency”, “regenerative”… Especially in the green building world, it always seems as though there is something better, something a little newer, just around the corner. There will always be room for improvement and new ideas, but maybe much of that knowledge we seek, is right in front of us, and we’re just too busy looking for the next big thing..

People get excited about a new strategy or idea and I think that’s why certain words stick, like sustainability. Although the dictionary definition of sustainability doesn’t fully encompass all the changes that need to be made, and really only focuses on “sustaining” but not “repairing”, “thriving” or “regenerating”, it’s clear that the current movement has taken to use the word to encompass all of this and more. The Sustainability Movement is in motion encompassing all industries worldwide. It’s clear that this movement is beyond just a buzz word.

So, if you are like many, who enjoy a good “buzz” word, one of my favorites is Permaculture. Permaculture is a term used to describe a design methodology, which can help create a more “permanent” form of “culture”. The term was coined by an Australian by the name of Bill Mollison in the 1970’s. Bill and his colleague, David Holmgren worked together to create a design philosophy which pulled from native cultures, time tested strategies, current technology as well as many other brilliant ideas. One of these brilliant ideas is to gain a full understanding of the system you are working with, from inside and out. For instance, when creating inputs in a system’s design, you would want each input to have more than just one use, or yield. This idea is known in the permaculture world as “stacking functions”. So, any one input, would always provide two or more outputs. A simple example might be that you have a problem in the garden with pests, instead of spraying toxic chemicals, you decide to get some ducks instead, since ducks love to eat bugs. The ducks then eat the bugs and solve your pest problem. But, ducks also provide fertilizer through their waste, and they produce eggs for food. So as many of us in the permaculture world like to say… “The problem is the solution”. Instead of spraying a pesticide to kill the pests, you took time to observe the system, and gain a better understanding of what input might make the system function more smoothly. This idea of careful observation and other strategies were pulled together by David Holmgren. Holmgren came up with twelve key design principles for Permaculture, which we can use to address many issues currently found in society in order to design a more resilient, regenerative and permanent way of life.

The twelve principals are:

  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy
  3. Obtain a Yield
  4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
  5. Use and Value Renewable Sources and Services
  6. Produce No Waste
  7. Design From Patterns to Details
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
  10. Use and Value Diversity
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

This video is from David Holmgren’s permaculture principals site. More on these can be found here:

So why do we need Permaculture?

Permaculture includes tools to address food, buildings, society, culture, the environment and more. Currently, the majority of our food is produced through the use of large scale agriculture processes which require huge amounts of chemical pesticides, toxic fertilizers and tons of oil in order to maintain production. The agriculture practice known as “mono-culture”, is where one crop is grown in vast quantities over hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. The one crop “mono-culture” not only strips the soil of nutrients, but is highly susceptible to disease and pests because there aren’t any buffers or edges to stop the spread of a disease or insect. You essential have one microclimate for miles and miles with no diversity. This makes for a very weak system. In addition, the agriculture industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change, pollution and destruction of natural ecosystems. Modern agriculture is not resilient, and when inputs run out, the system falls apart. Have you ever thought of what might happen if oil wasn’t readily available? Your local grocery store wouldn’t be restocked because the delivery trucks rely on oil. The warehouses where they pack and ship the food rely on oil, and almost all of the farmers growing the food rely on oil. You have one input responsible for all the outputs. The current reliance on oil is far from resilient and quite disturbing when you think of the true fragility of the system. Permaculture allows us to address the current flaws with the food system and make it more resilient and far less reliant on oil.

What if there was a way to eliminate the need for constant inputs and create regenerative systems that (with minimal inputs) could sustain themselves and improve the soil? Prevent the need for pesticides? Or could be done on a level that reduced or eliminated the need for fossil fuels altogether? Permaculture can help us design for resiliency and it doesn’t only apply to growing food, and like I said before, it can also be applied to buildings, people, communities and regions. Through permaculture, we can bridge the gap between the needs of humans and the environment and design with intent to minimize negative impacts and maximize yields.

Within Permaculture, buildings, nature, landscapes and communities can be seen as one. Permaculture brings a sense of wholistic design, which incorporates elements of sustainability, biomimicry, biophilia, renewable energy and regenerative design to in order to mimic natural systems, maximize yields and create a truly resilient living environment. By looking beyond just the four walls, ceiling and floor, buildings can clean water, harness sunlight, grow food, provide habitat and adapt to changes in the environment. Instead of growing lawns, we can grow food. All your hard work in the yard on the weekend could end in more food on the table, lower grocery bills, less spent on gas for the lawn mower and happier people! Did you know studies have shown that those who garden are typically happier? (See article here)  Imagine neighborhoods where grocery stores were much smaller and only reserved for specialty items? What if the vast majority of food came right from the land in your neighborhood. The idea of Permaculture isn’t just a utopian dream. It’s happening. People all over the world are studying Permaculture and transforming their homes and neighborhoods one plot at a time.

As the push to “buy local” grows, and people’s awareness of the need increases, it makes more sense to grow food close by, and move towards resilient food sources. Much of the food we eat here in the United States is grown in the mid-west and California, so if you live in on the east coast, the majority of your food is traveling thousands of miles to get to you. So, if food is local and plentiful, there is less reliance on shipping food from far away places and the food system becomes more resilient. This same concept can apply to buildings as well.

Buildings can now be designed to produce more energy than they demand, so they essential can become energy providers to buildings close by. What if all roofs captured and filtered rainwater and were covered in solar panels? It is possible to design human environments that work with nature and are truly resilient. It helps to determine how to “stack functions” during the design process. In addition to protection from the elements, roofs can capture water, grow plants, provide a space of relaxation, produce energy, etc.  In order to get to true resiliency and a regenerative culture, we will need to change our idea of what is beautiful and what is important, as permaculture designs won’t typically look like the straight lined buildings and English style gardens we are used to. As we push to design more resilient buildings, we’ll find ourselves slowly changing our design priorities and I believe designs will maintain beauty, but become much more practical.

We are just now realizing the potential for permaculture and other strategies in the grand scheme of addressing climate change and the many other problems with our society’s current operation. As we push to improve our current system, there is much to be learned and a long road ahead. The key to making change, is education and knowledge sharing. When possible, keep your findings open source and let others learn from your mistakes so they can move over those hurdles and discover new obstacles. If information is made available to everyone, we will have the tools we need to create a future that works with natural systems, instead of against them. Our schools at all levels need to start offering classes on permaculture, gardening and to get children excited about growing their own food and understanding how to create resilient and regenerative systems. The systems exist to create a better future, we just need to spread the knowledge and use it.

Signature Sustainability provides Permaculture designs, discussions and presentations. If interested, contact us today: or 201-788-7963.

The Living Building Challenge – Beyond Sustainable and into Regenerative Design

living-building-challengeThe Living Building Challenge (LBC) is a rating system similar to LEED as it uses a holistic approach to green building and it covers many different aspects of the built environment. However, LBC is much more rigorous as the requirements go far beyond standard green building and high performance design. The program requires each project to achieve net positive energy as well as net positive water, there is also a specific “red list” of chemicals/materials that can’t be used at all. So even in a basic Living Building Challenge project, which may be an oxymoron, the building needs to produce more energy than the building consumes, all water consumed by the building needs to be sourced on-site, and all grey and black water must be treated onsite (both of which are possible and push the limits of what current sustainable design looks like). The program goes far beyond the current “standards” for green building and moves into what is known as “Regenerative Design”.

The Living Building Challenge is broken up into seven credit areas called “petals” focused on areas which go beyond just the standard site, energy, water, materials, indoor air quality and look at place, beauty, equity, and health and happiness as well.

Petal Categories:

  • Place
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Health & Happiness
  • Materials
  • Equity
  • Beauty

The Living Building Challenge is a push to move not just the building industry, but human society to the next level of living a more integrated life with the natural world. Looking at nature, we can learn a lot about how to create new technologies and design strategies which work with the natural world, rather than against it.  Subject ares such as biophilia, symbiosis, permaculture, and beyond have us looking at the way plants, animals, and native cultures thrive and allow us to use this information make our designs better, while not giving up many of the comforts we are accustomed to. As LEED was far from where the building industry was twenty years ago and brought sustainability to the masses, LBC along with new versions of LEED continue to propel designs to the next level.