This has got to be the latest wacky entry in the increasingly-visible movement to deny the benefits of modern civilization to underdeveloped nations.

It was bad enough when various eco-Nazis and junk science apologists like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth contributed to the mass starvation of millions of people in Africa by convincing those people that the donated bio-engineered grain from the United States was “poison” (in spite of the fact that Americans have been eating it for 20 years).

But apparently famine isn’t enough for these people. Now there’s movement afoot to discourage the development of indoor plumbing and modern sewage infrastructure through the discrediting of the flush toilet.

What do they advocate instead? The so-called “dry toilet”, recently hailed in the first ever International Dry Toilet Conference (even the Onion couldn’t make up stuff this good). This dry toilet is a contained unit that requires no plumbing. It collects urine and feces and must be emptied by humans on a regular basis (which can conveniently be used as compost, for those of you who live in homes that actually have a need and a space for such a thing).

Y’know, even a hole in the ground in the back yard is better than that.

The argument goes that installing flush toilets in countries where they don’t already exist is prohibitively difficult and expensive due to the lack of a general plumbing infrastructure. That, of course, is a weak argument since the civilized world seems to have adapted fine to the concept.

The more relevant argument is, I think, the assertion that this use of water is wasteful and harmful to the environment.

I’m not entirely sure what harm is meant here. The flush toilet is part of the modern phenomenon of running water and sewage treatment. Water doesn’t vanish from the Earth when you flush the toilet. The Earth is a closed system, and that water will wind up somewhere.

So then they argue that not all societies have access to such plentiful water.

Duh? That’s what pumping stations, reservoirs, and desalination plants are for.

In the article I cited above, Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute takes vehement exception to the concept of the dry toilet and the motives of the people who advocate it. He states: “The toilet and indoor plumbing and indoor sanitation generally have greatly assisted in elevating the life expectancy and disease mitigation of the developed world. . . [Advocates of the dry toilet] are ultimately seeking to subject people to undeveloped standards of living.”

I agree. I cannot see a legitimate reason to promote the dry toilet as a universal substitute for a flush toilet, nor can I see any justification for removing flush toilets to install these stupid contraptions. Sanitary sewage and flush toilets are one of the most significant factors in modern disease control, especially in dense populations.

And let’s face it, if I had to empty my own toilet, where would I put it? I don’t have a yard. Urine and feces qualify as biohazardous waste, and the disposal of such waste is heavily regulated. You can’t just dump it in the trash, not to mention how bad for the environment THAT would be.

Still, I think there is humor value in an International Dry Toilet Conference (read: conference of people from everywhere except the United States). And I don’t think it’s realistic to expect people to give up their flush toilets, voluntarily or otherwise. I mean Jesus, I have relatives and friends with living memories of moving up in the world by finally having indoor plumbing.

But I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

49 Responses to “Depriving the Third World of Flush Toilets”
  1. akaky says:

    i will never surrender my flush toilet, come hell or high water. this is yet another attempt by europeans to end american predominance in the plumbing supplies market [the u.s. is the world's leading maker of bidets--you can look it up] and have all of us use their cheesy toilets. first, toilets, then socialism: is there no end to their evil?

  2. Gramps says:

    You can have my flush toilet when you pry it off of my cold dead ass.

  3. Thomas Stewart says:

    Isn’t using human waste as compost/fertilizer unsafe over the long term? I seem to remember that human waste is high in heavy metal content, which would then get taken back up into any crops grown in it, and then consumed again by the people. Leading to a cycle of buildup.

    Back in my childhood, the local authorities convinced some of the plain folk farmers (either Amish or Mennonite, don’t remember) to give that a try with treated human waste, since they don’t use modern fertilizers. Got a good crop, and were fairly happy with the experiment until, extremely late in the game the same authorities popped up and said “too bad you can’t use those crops for human consumption.” Whoops.

  4. Mr. Bingley says:

    i trust that at this conference in finland, after they enjoyed their opening cocktail reception, they all used dry toilets instead of the flush ones?

  5. Susan says:

    Another sign that the secret agenda for eco-terrorists is world domination and colonization.

    Be damned if anyone gets in their way.

  6. JSAllison says:

    Hell *IS* high water, someone bring me the plunger.

  7. jim m says:

    environmentalism = racisim

    The lives of third world people are nothing to these people.

    GreenPeace = MEChA = KKK

  8. FrancisB says:

    Damn you Gramps!

    Now my monitor has spewed coffee on it! :-)

  9. Hiawatha Bray says:

    Gee…is it just me, or is this not such a bad idea? There are lots of Third World places where there simply is no running water available. Dry toilets might be the way to go in such circumstances, and I can see no reason to dismiss the idea out of hand…

  10. skirwin says:

    Give up my flush toilet?
    From my cold, dead derrier…

  11. Patrick says:

    My favorite alternative toilet is the Storburn Natural Gas Fired Incinerating Toilet. And my favorite line from the ad is “Under ideal operating conditions a full 100 lb. propane cylinder will burn 16 maximum capacity loads.)

    “Honey, get another LP cylinder would you? I’ve got a triple load going here.”

    “Kids, get the fire extinguisher. Dad had chili and chocolate milk again and got a little too much methane near the pilot light of the toilet.”

    http://www.citizensafe.com/storgasintoi.html

  12. rastajenk says:

    “I seem to remember that human waste is high in heavy metal content”… I believe that should read, “Heavy Metal is high in human waste content…” :-)

  13. JBlogoNewbie says:

    FrancisB,

    I don’t have your problem. Mine was water through the nose onto my keyboard :(

  14. Captain Holly says:

    Using human waste as fertilizer is one of the main reasons people in the Third World have such high rates of infestations with roundworms, tapeworms and the like.

    The flush toilet is more than just a nice way to dispose of s*&t. It’s essential for human health.

  15. James Hudnall says:

    Great post! I had a few extra observations on the subject on my blog where I linked to you.

    http://jameshudnall.com/archives/001317.html

  16. Bill says:

    You can have my flush toilet when you pry it from my cold, dead butt.

    My daughter had a “dry toilet” when she was potty training. It was plastic, looked like a toilet, and collected the stuff in a little plastic bowl that we had to empty. Ugh. It was a joyous time when she graduated to the big flushable potty.

  17. Mark Harden says:

    Has anyone told Dave Barry about this? If he thought LOW-flush toilets were bad…

  18. mb says:

    wow you all are ignorant.

    in a third world country with limited running water, a composting toilet is an *improvement*. a step towards a proper sewage and water system.

    the current mechanism is often to take a dump in a ditch or straight into the river. do you really think this is better?

    also, compost (which sits and gets hot for a while) is an improvement over raw manure, as it self-sterlizes.

  19. ruprecht says:

    mb, the idea being mocked is the creation of a universal composting toilet for all regions, not just dry ones. It would be particularly bad in the tropics where they have both plentiful water and plentiful diseases. Why force dry toilets on regions where they will cause damage unless you are a fool for conformity, or do not value the lives of third worlders, or are ignorant?

  20. Stephen says:

    Mb, no need to start fingering anyone as ignorant. But, do think it through yourself. Composting toilets are useful in their place–but a dead end for solution to the entire problem. Capt. Holly is right. The issue is human health…which means infrastructure to provide indoor running water. Clean water for bathing, washing food, cleaning, and other issues of sanitation. All it takes is money and well known and tested civil engineerng art.

    It seems to me that “third world countries” have been called that for an awfully long time. Why is that? England in 1066 was the same. North America in 1606 was the same. Now, they’re not. Why not.

    Lastly, before you saddle any “world”–first, second, third, or fourth etc. with the joys of composting toilets, daily personal handling of human waste composting and the like, show your credentials. Do it yourself. Tell us how you like it.

  21. Greg says:

    Yes, mb, everyone ELSE is ignorant.

    I think the key point made up top, but maybe not said directly, was that building a water/sewage treatment infrastructure is the way to go. Doing less, such as dry toilets, would condemn these people to an early death.

    Not to mention that not every third-worlder lives a hermit’s life in the country. Crowded cities would have no use for compost. It isn’t much better in the country. In a large farming family, one sick person could contaminate the entire family if they had a communal privy whose contents had to be manually emptied.

  22. Greg says:

    mb, one other thing:

    “…compost (which sits and gets hot for a while) is an improvement over raw manure, as it self-sterlizes”

    That is so, way, wrong it ain’t funny. Compost gets hot because it is being digested by bacteria, which produce heat. Most infectious critters thrive in the sort of heat produced by compost. The sort of heat that kills infectious critters is produced by things like autoclaves, which use intense heat and pressure to destroy proteins.

  23. David Appell says:

    Anne, get your facts straight. Americans have been eating GM food only since 1996, not for “20 years” as you’ve written. Frankly, this makes me concerned about your accuracy on other issues.

  24. The Humanoid says:

    Having been stationed in the Army in Japan for over a year, and remembering the less-than-delightful all-pervasive smell of the “honey wagons” collecting and then carrying human feces to the fields for fertilizer in the rice paddies, believe me you don’t want to go to the dry toilet approach. If anyone really wants to recommend this use of human excrement for others,I suggest they try it themselves
    on a home vegetable garden. I dare them to eat the vegetables, and if they won’t, then they shouldn’t recommend it for others.

  25. jim m says:

    Indeed the whole point of the complaint against flush toilets is that these so called evironmentalists are against the developement of proper water and sanitation systems. Earlier this year there was a conference in South Africa and this very issue came up. They claimed that indoor plumbing was destroying the culture of third world people.

    Gee if the culture means dying a premature death then maybe it deserves to be destroyed a bit.

    No surprise that this was the same conference that gave Mugabi a standing O.

  26. Clivus Multrum says:

    How many of you have bothered to actually investigate this at any serious level?

    In the first place, disease caused by the use of human waste as fertilizer is due to the use of UNCOMPOSTED waste. The dry toilets that these people are advocating are composting toilets, not simply collecting receptacles. The collection periods for these toilets is measured in YEARS, not days. The compost is safe to use…it is not raw (and unsafe) feces that is being collected when it is time.

    I dare say that not one of you has even used a dry composting toilet…or perhaps, if you have you didn’t realize it. The Parks and Wildlife Service has been using dry-composting toilets in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan/Wisconsin’s Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park for several years with great success. Dry-composting toilets are suitable for a wide range of climates.

    There is way too much pseudo-science and disinformation about compost and composting being bandied about. Why don’t you do some research before you leap to making puerile postings about things of which you clearly show little understanding.

  27. Anne Haight says:

    David Appell over on Hud’s Blog-O-Rama (http://www.jameshudnall.com/archives/001317.html) correctly points out that 20 years is an incorrect figure for the length of time we’ve been actually eating GM foods. It’s really more like since 1995-96, which is when such crops were commercially introduced. Agricultural biotechnology, however, has been in development for about 20 years, and I think that’s why my brain coughed that up.

  28. dpatten says:

    Clivus,
    would you suggest these people use dry-composting showers? The point is that running water leads to better sanitation and cleanliness which leads to healthier people and longer lives. Composting toilets are a dead end when it comes to sanitation infrastructure. Also, you note that the composting takes place over years. That would require the toilet to be out of use for a year or two otherwise it would have a fresh load of crap on top when it is emptied. BTW I have used toilets in national parks far from plumbing before. The last being in Everglades national park on a chickee 45 miles from the nearest water pipe. Every single one has been a CHEMICAL toilet. Blue water.

  29. Lee says:

    Sorry, but old Clivus is right (and if you do a little research, you will recognize the humor in the name he selected). Composting toilets have been around for a long time and work great in most climates. The resulting compost is not dangerous or even very “icky”. They do save a lot of water, and clean water is in short supply in many third world countries.
    Find out a bit more about the technical aspects of the composting toilets before you start slamming them. I’ve used them, and they work better then you think.
    Lee

  30. Trove says:

    I’d rather bring the 3rd world into the 1st not leave them where they are with workarounds.
    These things don’t fix the problem they avoid it.

  31. M. Simon says:

    Flush toilets are better for cities. They also take up less space in buildings. Lowering capital costs.

    Every technology has it’s place. Composting toilets might not be so good in an area that floods.

  32. megx says:

    re: composting toilets.
    I heartily agree that forcing the whole world to use composting toilets is a horrible, horrible idea and think that everyone else (with a few exceptions) made some very good points. I remember a few years back, when the Y2K scare was going around, doing research on survivalist websites on the Net. One such site sold goods and books on survivalist topics, and they sold a composting toilet (not chemical). One of the advantages touted was that, if let sit for three years the compost could be used on crops. However, I agree that using human waste as compost is very unsafe and would contribute to the spread of disease. Now, as for the Clivus chemical toilets, I’ve used those numerous times when going camping in state parks, and for those who have never had the joyous experience of using one let me tell you: they stink like hell. The chemicals used sanitize the waste in them, but it doesn’t do a thing for the smell except add horrid chemical smell to the already nasty fecal smell. There’s no way you could have one in your house.

  33. Mike Friedman says:

    Hate to break it to you guys, but you almost certainly eat plenty of fruit and vegetables that were fertilized with composted human waste.

    Almost all Third World farming communities do this – either using a gravity feed from the outhouse to a separate location or moving the outhouse periodically and digging up what’s under it.

    Moreover, this isn’t a significant contributor to human disease – composting generates high temperatures that kill most disease organisms. And unlike anthrax, very few of these organisms can live outside the human body for the months in between fertilization and eating of food.

    The real cause of most fecally transmitted disease is poor sanitation and lack of hand washing.

  34. rastajenk says:

    Well, then, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that a flush toilet might be in close proximity to a running-water sink, whereas a dry toilet might not be? Not automatically, of course, but probably?

  35. mb says:

    Sorry for the inciting ‘ignorant’ comment. But given the posts (and some of the responses which basically agree with me) I still stick to it.

    What is my background? Nothing official, but I’ve been to third world countries. They have no money. They have water, but it’s often polluted and even in SE Asia it’s only plentiful 6-9 months a year.

    The best thing many ‘westerners’ can do is to build three simple things: pumps, which bring up relatiavely clean water. cover the sewage ditches in town and teach people not to chuck everything in them. and build proper toilets. a small town is lucky if they get a centralized pump and toilet built. forget electricity or sanitizing system etc, this is a significant step up from shitting in the same river you drink out of.

    and composting toilets are used in the USA and Canada in remote locations, along with pumps and covered sewers. in low density remote areas, they’re quite effective. yeah, they stink (though if maintained properly, not too badly). but it’s still the best option.

  36. mb says:

    on the other hand, the people in the article may be mildly nuts. it’s hard to tell if they are really advocating removal of flush toilets because they don’t like them, or because they think sewage treatment plants are bad, or because they believe people won’t build the requisite sewage treatment plants.

  37. Anne Haight says:

    I was not attempting to suggest that dry toilets are a bad idea, per se. In parts of the world where the current solution to a toilet is hole in the ground, the street gutter, and/or the local river, obviously a dry toilet is an improvement.

    It is clearly a useful device to introduce when you’re dealing with worse conditions. Where water is scarce it would make human habitation easier until water can be regularly supplied.

    But to imply that the dry toilet is the culmination of human technology in waste disposal, and that the flush toilet is no longer a valid option, is plainly ridiculous and there must be an agenda at work that has nothing to do with being environmentally friendly or helpful to underdeveloped nations.

    Naturally it is unlikely that they would make headway in removing flush toilets from places where they are already established, such as in most Western countries.

    But to use this as a substitute for the flush toilet in places where it does not yet exist, and to make it a technological dead end, is insidious and wicked. The lack of a flush toilet can make it easier to argue that a sewage and plumbing infrastructure is “unnecessary”, prolonging the squalor of unsanitary living conditions and basic human comfort.

    Also, the dry toilet is labor intensive. That’s time better spent on other things, such as being productive on the farm, in the factory, or some other livelihood.

  38. akaky says:

    all of these things may be true, but i am keeping my flush toilet; i will krazy glue it to my ass before some green dip makes me return to the outhouse

  39. Macker says:

    NTM les Europeans! What a crappy idea.

  40. Kragen Sitaker says:

    It’s great that so many people want to spread the convenience and sanitary benefits of flush toilets to the whole world, but we’re gonna need a hell of a lot of desalination plants to supply all those toilets. And a hell of a lot of energy to run those plants. And don’t forget about the sewage plants — according to statements on the Web site, Milan and Brussels, among other non-third-world cities, are still discharging a lot of raw shit into the waterways. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could achieve results just as convenient and sanitary with less resource-intensive methods than flush toilets and sewage plants? Maybe people downstream from Bucharest would appreciate eating less raw shit.

    That’s what it appears this conference is about. Not persuading people to use a chamber pot.

    Sheesh. What’s with you people? How did you learn to *write* without learning to *read*?

  41. Macker says:

    And who’s preventing us from building more desalination plants? It’s the freakin’ leftists and environmentalists! They got to the politicians for almost 30 years now and look where they’ve got us….
    They want you to think the technology for the stuff (or anything beneficial to society) is based in the 1960s….which is a bunch of bulls hit.

  42. TL says:

    I had one of these toilets when my house was built.I was forced to have one because of the new jersey pinelands act.It smelled real bad. Could not have partys because these toilets can only take so much water, after that your down there collecting water in a 4oz bottle.I wrote the pinelands and told them that it was unhealthy for my daughter as the smell was making her sick. Pinelands wrote me back saying that it was the law.A year went by (almost to the day)before the state of NJ declared that the dry toilet was unhealthy for people.I removed my dry toilet after three months use.I didnt wait for the state to tell me one way or the other If you want your house to smell like a horse farm be my guest.

  43. dj says:

    You’re gonna desalinate water to run a flush toilet?

    Still I haven’t ever seen a non-flush toilet that didn’t stink, which implies that they’re not in the house, which implies going outside in the middle of the night, which implies freezing your nuts off in the winter. Oh! Remember honey pots?

    Well, we just may have to. All these posts imply that you or anyone will have a choice in the matter. If the water stops coming out of the pipe, then you have one last shit. Then you either go get water and carry it back to your toilet, or you go shit somewhere else the next time.

    You gonna use carried water to flush your toilet? I doubt it. Not after a couple of weeks of carrying all your water.

    Still I’ll wait until the water stops coming out of the pipes until I install a composting outhouse.

  44. dj says:

    Hey! Just to provoke another war, what about toilet paper? How about giving up toilet paper? most of the world just uses their fingers. That’s why it was such a bad thing to be left handed (which I am). It means you clean your ass with your right hand – the one you shake hands with.

  45. Critical Section says:

    Thursday, September 04, 2003 11:00 PM

    Haight Speech: Depriving the Third World of Flush Toilets. It sounds like a headline from the Onion, but this is serious, as is the International Dry-Toilet Conference. And no, I am not making this up….

  46. Minorstatistic says:

    The mixing of human waste with large volumes of water is about the worst technique imaginable for waste management, creating as it does a toxic soup ideal for pathogen regeneration and, if not contained and treated, contamination and the spread of disease.

    The price of containment and treatment is vast amounts of potable water flushed away, thousands of kilometers of sewage networks and huge financial and energy costs treating the toxic waste.

    Given the differences in many developing countries urban environment, dry systems are often cheap, hygienic, efficient, autonomous solutions.

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  48. Jan says:

    You’re an idiot. Do you shit in your kitchen sink? If you knew anything about toilets and wastewater (it’s my profession) you would realize that composting toilets are the only sane way to handle human wastes. Putting shit into water spreads cholera, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. Keep your shit out of your water – it’s only common sense no matter where you live. And, by the way, a Clivus Multrum composting toilet does not stink.

  49. Jim says:

    I’ve been working in Haiti for close to 3 years now. Even in Port au Prince, before the earthquake, flush toilets were not common. First you need a reliable water supply, then the appropriate infrastructure, including water distribution and waste treatment. Who do you expect to pay for all of this? Desalinization? Very expensive, and again, who will pay? You? Your fans? If you’re willing, awesome. Start a campaign to raise the money to accomplish what you think should be done, and see where it goes. As for the supposed hazards of composting toilets, check out the work being done at oursoil.org.

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