Porta Potty Rentals Portland
Article by Tucker Cahill Chambers

Ecological sanitation, on the most basic level, is the provision of access to sanitation services, principally toilets, that facilitate clean living and mitigate environmental damage. But the term implies more than that, for ecology not only describes the interrelationships of the natural world at large but also our relationships to one another as individuals and communities. In this sense, ecological sanitation has a more global reach and carries it with it the ideas of dignity and mutual respect. Dignity in that all people ought to enjoy the comfort, as well as the opportunity, provided by reliable access not only to a bathroom but also a clean and healthful environment. Mutual respect in recognizing that our most fundamental choices—what we eat, how we travel, how we dispose of and treat our waste—affect other people and places. This provides a framework through which we can analyze our lifestyles—how do they contribute to or corrode our dignity and that of our fellow humans, and how do they affect our world and all the things in it? It is in this light that I would like to share some insight and ideas regarding ecological sanitation as a business in the western United States.

I will recount some experiences that have led me to these conclusions. I initially encountered ecological sanitation in a little town in the south of France, where I lived on a an off-the-grid cattle and mule farm atop a windswept and water-scarce plateau. The host family made every effort to consume conscientiously and close resource loops wherever possible—ecology and sustainability were the engine behind all of their decisions. Naturally, we used dry toilets and composted the humanure. The more I learned about the ecological benefits of dry toilets, particularly in the context of my own water-stricken home of California, the more interested and excited I became to participate and help promote a change in our relationship with waste, all kinds. Once back in California, I set out to start a composting toilet business, seeing it as both a great and novel opportunity as well as a vector for educating my local community. It has certainly been an enlightening road and I was fortunate enough to come across the good work of SOIL one day while researching open-air composting operations around the world. SOIL is a non-profit container-based toilet provider in Haiti who operates one of the world’s few scaled-up outdoor humanure composting sites. In 2015-2016, SOIL treated three hundred seventy five (375 tons) of human waste, turning it into more than forty (40) tons of healthy compost to be used in supporting local agriculture.

 Haiti Ecological Sanitation

“In 2015-2016, SOIL treated 375 tons of human waste,
turning it into more than 40 
tons of healthy compost”  

Before I learned what SOIL was doing in Haiti, I had never thought too seriously about the problem of global access to sanitation. Learning more about the challenges the world faces in this regard, with as much as a third of its population living without access to a toilet, I realized that ecological sanitation was about much more than amending the resource-thirsty systems and habits of the developed world — it has just as much to do with promoting and providing responsible sanitation options for everyone. After all, ecology is not only about our relationship to the natural world, but also our relationship to one another. Even in the highly-developed Bay Area region of California, access to sanitation is by no means a given, a fact made evident by the recent public debates around homelessness and the free provision of services like showers and toilets to so-called tent cities. So, with my interest in dry toilets redoubled, I reached out to SOIL to see about coming to visit their container-based collection and composting operation. They were kind enough to invite me to their office in Cap-Haitien for a week.

Both at the main office and at the composting site, the majority of the SOIL team are Haitian, which speaks to the organization’s commitment to establishing a truly sustainable operation that is well integrated into the community it serves and supports. Given my interests, I spent most of my week working at their composting site in order to see how the process was managed. Dawning hospital scrubs, a face mask, gloves, and rubber boots, I worked alongside the men and women who unload and empty the humanure into large bins; wash and sanitize the buckets; process and prepare the cover material for each household; and manage the composting from initial deposit, through several turnings, to final sifting and storage.

I also spent a day with the collection team, going around the city to gather full buckets and drop off empty ones. My visit coincided with a heavy rainstorm which ended up flooding many of the city’s streets, including a good portion of the neighborhoods serviced by SOIL. Even with flooding waist high in some areas, the SOIL collection team made good on their commitment to provide reliable access to ecological sanitation. The container-based toilet design proved its utility in the heavy rain, keeping the human waste from contaminating the environment while still giving people a place to comfortably relieve themselves.

Haiti Sanitation

All in all, my visit to Haiti was eye-opening and inspiring. One of the more thought-provoking aspects of the trip was the amount of plastic refuse littering the streets and waterways of Cap-Haitien. Many products regularly consumed in the city are packaged in plastic, and without integrated public trash and recycling services, most of the waste ends up accumulating in the environment. This made me think how our practices of consumption in the developed world, and the models and merchandise that we export, deliberately or not, can have enormous effects on the quality and cleanliness of life for other people and places—again, the questions of dignity and mutual respect. SOIL though is a great model for an organization that is leveraging an otherwise malignant waste stream to create economic opportunity and promote healthier, cleaner living in its community. This model, I realized, is immediately applicable anywhere because waste is ubiquitous and there is across-the-board room for improvement.

After a few weeks in California, I went to North Dakota to help build composting toilets for the Standing Sioux Reservation pipeline protests, orchestrated by tribal leaders and the non-profit Give Love. I arrived at the onset of both a snowstorm and a sanitation crisis in the camp. Because of the subzero temperatures, the portable toilets provided for everyone were pulled (when the liquid-filled tank of a chemical portable toilet freezes, it is no longer serviceable). At the time, the composting toilet facilities were still under construction and there was no public option for going to the bathroom. Glacial temperatures, close quarters, and general lack of access to amenities contributed to increasingly unsanitary conditions in the camp. The experience of not having a place to responsibly and sanitarily relieve myself, my first such experience really, coupled with having seen its performance under storm conditions in Haiti, was important in making me realize the true potential of ecological sanitation, for it has no functional temperature limits, is not reliant on costly and cumbersome machinery like pump trucks, and can be implemented quickly.

Porta Potty Activism

“the portable toilets provided for everyone were pulled”

The toilets at the protest camp were up within a few days and amongst tears wept and hugs given,
word was spread to everyone that toilets were once again available and that they would be, come
rain, sleet, or snow. For many people, this was their first experience with composting toilets and I
did not meet anyone who was not pleasantly surprised at their cleanliness, odorlessness, and ease of
use, and not to mention their ecological component, whose independence and implications were
much more in line with the ethos of the camp than a for-hire chemical portable toilet business.

Porta Potties NoDAPL

“For many people, this was their first experience with composting toilets
and I 
did not meet anyone who was not pleasantly surprised”

Just as I was newly inspired upon returning from Haiti, when I came home from North Dakota I felt
freshly invested in ecological sanitation and excited to help make it a more salient reality in
California.

Even so, excitement is not enough. As I discovered over the summer while trying to start a potable
composting toilet business, there exists, rightfully, an entire universe of regulations around human
waste treatment. Rightfully because it is an important subject of public interest and concern, with
enormous consequences in terms of pollution, public health, environment, energy use, etc. That
said, tradition and terminology within local, state, and national regulations make introducing
ecological sanitation models difficult. This is due principally to two related factors: momentum and
burden of proof.

Momentum refers to the institutional and technological momentums that favor traditional treatment
of human waste, namely at large-scale centralized facilities that serve as the mediating nexus
between webs of water-based sewers and the environment (e.g. lakes and streams), which receives
our partially-processed waste. By most measures this traditional model works quite well, and we are
very fortunate to have it, but all the same it is ripe for improvement. Water-based sewers and waste
treatment carry huge economic and environmental costs and in many cases they inhibit efficient and
effective recycling of the water, organic matter, and minerals they process, while leaving suspect
quantities of metals, antibiotics, and other anthropogenic chemicals partially or fully intact. This
needs to change, but because of our marriage to this traditional system and the ever-increasing
demand for water and sewer access in growing urban areas like the Bay Area, it is difficult to
imagine devoting public interest and resources to alternatives. After all, the system works fairly
well.

Burden of proof refers to the regulatory hurdles that need be jumped, under the scrutiny of a litany
of authorities, in order to be able to experiment and explore alternative treatment options like direct,
open-air thermophilic composting of human waste collected from composting toilets at an
appropriate scale. Because of the effects of the momentum described above, regulation tends to
favor traditional systems of treatment, to the potential exclusion of viable alternatives as the
regulations are written with traditional, centralized water-based sewer systems in mind—facilities
requirements, transport, scale, testing, etc. To overcome these hurdles requires nuanced navigation
of several layers of overlapping regulatory authority and in the absence of public funding, private
investment. But private investment is difficult to attain for this incipient industry because it lacks
standing and affirmation in the regulatory universe, which makes in turn setting up an effective
business model to encourage investment difficult. The story of the chicken and the egg. The
viability of a composting toilet business depends in large measure on the cousin industry of
composting facilities equipped to properly process the waste; and the viability of such composting
facilities depends on the possibility of businesses capable of providing them with sufficient waste to
process at scale. And this paradox is embedded in the concepts institutional momentum and burden
of proof discussed above.

However, there is hope and evolution is happening. In California, regulating authorities recently
granted approval for the first officially sanctioned large, in-vessel composting toilets to be installed
for public use, at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center. John Wick (of the Marin Carbon Project)
has paired with a team from UC Berkeley to monitor pathogen and antibiotic elimination in outdoor
thermophilic composting of human waste, with the approval of regulators in Marin County,
California. And organizations like Nature Commode are doing their part as well to help introduce
what I believe to be an integral part of our ecological futures and to make the regulation and
cultural mindset evolve accordingly.

Next Article Coming Soon: On The Worthiness Of Better Bathrooms: Porta Potty Rentals Undergoing A Market Transformation

Why Ecological Sanitation Is An Important Market Development Opportunity