Where To Responsibly Empty Your Composting Toilet
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Is it time to empty out your composting toilet and you’re not quite sure what to do with the pee and poop in there? You’ve probably heard/read a lot of conflicting information about where you can and can’t empty your toilet. I did a bunch of research for our sake and felt it’s important to share my findings so people know what the options are for disposing of their composting toilet goods.
Where To Empty Your Pee Bottle
On several occasions we’ve placed our pee bottle in a canvas bag and brought it into a public bathroom (coffee shop, grocery store, retail store) to empty it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Pee is pee, whether it comes from a bottle or directly out of us.
Some people will scoff and say that defeats the eco-conscious efforts of owning a composting toilet because emptying a pee bottle in a regular toilet uses water. Yes, it does use water, but not as much as peeing in a regular toilet all day long. High efficiency toilets still use 1.28 gallons of water per flush (people pee on average 5 times a day)1. Our pee bottle contains 3-days’ worth of pee for two people by the time it needs to be emptied. This means that by both me and Jerud peeing in a composting toilet, we save 38 gallons of drinkable water in 3 days. (That almost equals our 40-gallon fresh water tank, which we make last for 10 days!)
Keep in mind that dumping urine in a toilet causes the bowl to flush without also emptying the tank. So, only water in the toilet bowl is refilled, not also in the tank. Sure, water is still used, but not nearly as much as peeing in any kind of flushable toilet.
RV Dump Station
RV dump stations are created to collect RV black and gray water. Since we don’t have a black water tank, the only time we use a dump station is when we need to empty our gray water tank. Sometimes we’ll also empty our pee bottle out at a dump station if it’s convenient. While we stayed in the Walmart parking lot in Whitehorse, Yukon, we’d walk over to the RV dump station to empty our pee bottle. It was a free dump station and a short walk from our rig.
Emptying pee outside in a public area is a method that upsets a lot of people, understandably. We tend to think of bodily fluids as gross things, especially when it’s not our own.
But here are some things to know before totally freaking out. While human urine isn’t sterile like most people think, it’s also not toxic.2 Low levels of bacteria are present in urine, but it’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s extremely unlikely to get any kind of communicable diseases through someone else’s urine. The chances of getting a rare disease like typhoid fever are way higher when using public bathrooms.3
The other argument against emptying pee bottles outside is that urine will kill plants. Urine is actually full of nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, which are main ingredients in plant fertilizers. A lot of gardeners use human urine as fertilizer on plants, and plants like beets, tomatoes, and cucumbers thrive on it. But too much nitrogen and salt (which is also in urine) can “burn” plants. As with most things in life – too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. I’m definitely not recommending anyone to fertilize random people’s yards or gardens, I’m merely pointing out (healthy) urine can benefit plants.
Bear with me for a moment as I sidetrack to talk about healthy pee: A healthy person has healthy pee. If someone has an UTI, genital infections, is on a lot of medication, or uses a pee wiping method that may cause fecal contamination (to prevent this, practice front-to-back toilet paper wiping methods) then don’t use their urine to fertilize edible plants. Also, don’t empty your pee outside if you think it may have fecal contamination!
Here are my dos and don’ts of emptying pee bottles outside:
Be thoughtful and respectful of others when pouring a pee bottle outside, for example: empty in places that aren’t used a lot by people.
Empty out a pee bottle on organic matter, like soil, that can absorb the liquid opposed to on a street, parking lot, sidewalk, or directly on leaves of plants. Last thing any of us wants is an area to end up smelling like a NYC subway station (which by the way are so much cleaner than when I was living there as a kid).
Play it safe and pour urine on bare soil or on a patch of weeds instead of desirable plants. We steer away from ornamental plants because they may have recently been fertilized or have particular needs.
Spread urine out in a wide area rather than pouring it all in one spot.
Empty out a pee bottle on a dirt road (where nothing can grow anyway) instead of in the woods. We practice this more when we’re in the desert. The salt concentration in urine can be especially harmful in arid areas that don’t receive much rain to leach the salt out of the soil.
If you’re boondocking in one location for a while, choose different locations to empty out your pee bottle. It decreases the changes of overwhelming organic matter with too much nutrients and also minimizes any potential urine odors.
- Unless you have permission, don’t empty it on someone’s property. (Obvious, but I had to say it.)
- Don’t empty it down a storm drain. Pouring anything down a storm drain is actually illegal.4 Storm drains empty directly to waterways such as creeks, rivers, etc., NOT the sewers. Unlike items that go down a residential drain, contents in storm drains don’t receive any kind of treatment like going through a sewage treatment facility.
- Practice Leave No Trace and pour out your pee bottle (or pee) at least 200 feet from water. Urine is bad for natural waterways because the nutrients in urine can upset the ecosystem balance causing eutrophication. Eutrophication is “the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates) that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen”.5 We may think, “It’s only one pee in this large lake. It can’t really harm anything!” But what if everyone thought that?
- Be a good neighbor and don’t empty out your pee bottle near other rigs boondocking.
Where To Empty Poop From A Composting Toilet
As I talked about in my post Why Your Composting Toilet Doesn’t Actually Compost Poop, humanure from a composting toilet hasn’t actually composted so it’s still full of bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. Bacteria like those can cause all kinds of illnesses and that’s why it’s not OK to empty your poop container out in the woods. (Let me clarify here: we don’t all have E. coli and salmonella in our poop. But from a sanitation perspective, it has to be assumed that poop does.)
People talk about burying the contents of their poop bucket in the woods. That is a potential option, but not a very realistic one. Leave No Trace recommends digging a cat hole 6 – 8 inches deep to properly deposit your shit in. That depth is for one poop. A hole a lot deeper would need to be dug to properly bury the three weeks’ worth of poop that comes out of our toilet. Don’t forget the content includes mixed in coco pith, peat moss, or saw dust – so it’s a good size pile. If you’ve ever gone backpacking, you know how difficult it can be to dig a 6- to 8-inch cat hole.
When we first hit the road, we preferred to empty our toilet in public pit toilets at trailheads and campgrounds. But we eventually realized that wasn’t the best approach. It’s a lot of work to empty out those pit toilets and it adds additional cost to an already under-budgeted park service. On top of that, despite the precautions taken to prevent any groundwater contamination (of E. coli and salmonella), it still happens.6
Nowadays, Jerud and I dispose of our shit by putting it into a trash bag and tossing it into a public garbage can. Despite what most people think, that’s not illegal.
I called Waste Management, who handles more than a quarter of the trash collection in the US. The representative I spoke to said it’s fine to bag and toss humanure in the trash. He also pointed me to their FAQ page. There I found the question “What are unacceptable material items for roll-off containers,” and the answer is:
Hazardous waste, dirt, industrial waste, chemical products, oil filters, herbicides & pesticides, radioactive material, solvents, paint (except completely dried latex paint cans, no liquids), other flammable liquids, aerosol cans, propane tanks, motor oil, transmission oil/lubricating/hydraulic oil/oil filters, contaminated oils (mixed with solvents, gasoline, etc.), antifreeze, appliances, petroleum-contaminated soil/lead paint chips, tires, batteries, computers, monitors, televisions, microwaves, fluorescent tubes, railroad ties, medical waste, asbestos, animals, barrels, all liquids.
Human waste isn’t considered hazardous waste according to not only Waste Management's definition but also the federal government's. This makes sense – think about the all the dirty diapers and dog poop bags that go in the trash.
Amy of Café Mom worried it was against the law to put dirty baby diapers in the trash after a friend told her it was. Amy got ahold of the EPA and was told, “disposable diapers fall under the category of municipal solid waste, which means the material is safe to be disposed of in a US municipal solid waste landfill,” in addition, “modern landfills are well-engineered facilities that are located, designed, operated, and monitored to ensure compliance with federal regulations, which aim to protect the environment from contaminants, which may be present in the solid waste stream.”
She also contacted the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery for a local answer (she lives in California). Amy was told by their spokesperson that “the contents of a diaper are considered solid waste, not hazardous or medical waste”. In addition, diaper bags are mixed in with other trash during pickup so it’s “not a concentration of a huge amount of human waste at any time”.
That being said, it’s also not as straight forward as I just made it sound. In addition to calling Waste Management, Inc., I also called Republic Services, another trash collection company, and several county landfills. The response I got from them varied from city to city. Those who said they don’t accept waste from a composting toilet couldn’t tell me how that content is different from a bag full of baby diapers, adult diapers or dog poop bags when asked. So, I called and emailed the EPA. Eventually I heard back and was told that “the disposal of a composting toilet is regulated by the local government” and they included a link with each state's environmental agencies.
This led me to make a lot of phone calls. Each agency I called I told them this about our composting toilet contents I'm trying to dispose of:
It content is dry materials only
There are no chemicals added to the content
It's about ~5 gallons of solid material that's a mixture of human waste and organic material such as coco pith and sawdust
The content is not fully composted
I called NC Environmental Quality and spoke to the section chief of solid waste. His response was that tossing a bag of humanure in the trash is fine. The quantity of poop we’re tossing out isn’t large enough to be of any environmental concern. The Air Head solid container can hold 5 gallons worth of stuff, about half of which is just coco pith. It would be a different situation if a trash company was picking up a whole dumpster full of poop, or if we were really sick. But a bag of poop now and then isn’t a problem. He said trash companies can refuse to pick up poop, but they have a permit to accept sewage sludge. Just make sure it’s properly bagged before disposing of it.
I also got in touch with North Dakota Department of Health (solid waste department) where I was told that contents from a composting toilet is considered "Class B biosolids" which is the same category that baby/adult diapers are in. The Texas Department of Environmental Quality told me that there aren't any specific laws or regulations against tossing a bag of composting toilet poop in the trash for the landfill. The engineer I spoke to said that landfills see far worse stuff than poop. I also spoke to representatives from environmental agencies in Arizona, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Colorado, and Wyoming - they also said that as far as they are aware there are no rules or regulations against tossing a bag of human waste in the trash. They did specify that the waste can't have liquids in it, it must be in small quantities (~5 gallons), and it must be securely bagged.
The next question naturally is how safe are landfills to our environment? This is a whole separate topic that I'm not going to go into. The simple answer is that landfills are regulated to minimize any negative environmental impact. But as with everything in life, the reality of the situation isn't black and white.
But, after all the Googling, phone calls, and conversations, we’ve come to the conclusion that emptying our composting toilet into trash bags and then public trash cans is really the most sanitary way to do it. Since we hate using plastic bags, we use 100% compostable trash bags. A 13-gallon size bag is more than big enough and these bags have a thickness of 0.87 Mil. This way we can continue our eco-conscious efforts all the way to the landfill. Side note about the trash bags: I haven't been able to find compostable trash bags in ~13 gallon sizes thicker than 0.87 Mil. The Primode trash bags we use work fine, but the toilet handle pin sometime catches the trash bag as we empty and puts a small tear in it - causing us to have to double bag it. (It sucks that we have to use two compostable trash bags, but we think two of those is still better than using one traditional plastic trash bag.)
If it's required/suggested/recommended that the trash bag has solid waste only, what do you do if you don't have a toilet that diverts liquids from solids (example: living in a van)? I found out about a product called Poo Powder from Kerri of @asolojourner. This powder is great for toilets don't separate the pee and poop because it needs liquid to activate the powder. Once activated, the powder turns into a gel form and encapsulates the entire content. According to Carrie at Clean Waste, the powder creates a 99.9% barrier against pathogens like E. coli, MRSA, etc. when it encapsulates the material. It doesn't kill pathogen, but Carrie said that one of the components in the powder does slow down the growth of any new pathogens.
The other method we’ve used and really prefer to get rid of our poop is adding it to an actual composting pile. When we were staying with friends on a farm, they started a poop composting pile. Only humanure was added to this pile and after it was properly composted, it would be used as fertilizer. This is obviously the ideal way to finish up what we started in our composting toilet.
Keep in mind that tossing a trash bag full of poop for the landfill isn't currently an issue because it's only a tiny percentage of the population doing this. Perhaps one day this issue will reach a tipping point and then there will be rules and regulations on how to properly dispose of composting toilet waste.
I hope this has helped clear up any questions or confusion about how to properly get rid of the contents of your compost toilet. Happy peeing and pooping!