Trashtastic Tuesday: Nick Rosen’s Off the Grid

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Happy Tuesday, trashies. The following is a free  excerpt from British journalist  Nick Rosen‘s book Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America, published by Penguin USA this past August. The author has kindly shared this waste-related passage just for us.  More on the book and larger “off-grid” movement here.

Or, if you hate reading, you can watch this handy book intro video.

From Chapter 3

I should apologize to the reader for returning to the issue raised so eloquently by Bob Reynolds in his letter to the mayor: toilets.  It’s a big subject when you are off the grid—possibly the biggest.  Everyone who lives off the grid has lost count of the number of times they are asked in a coy, slightly amused way, “So what do you do about, you know, going to the bathroom?” And now the entire drama unfolding on No Name Key has come down to toilets and the acceptability of the forty-two septic tanks and one composting toilet currently dealing with the human waste from the forty-three mainly part-time small family dwellings on the island with its aging population of retirees and second-home owners.

There are just four alternatives that would satisfy the new federal rules designed to prevent the leaching of chemicals and other noxious materials into the soil of No Name Key and then into the water table. Sticking with the status quo is not one of them.

The first is to build a full-scale commercial sewage system to service the forty-three homes. It would require a grid-scale power supply, and once installed it would be able to service a near-infinite increase in the amount of human waste in the small community.

The second option is known as a “thin-pipe” sewage system. It would be operated by electric pumps situated on or under the Bebe Rebozo bridge, but powered from the mainland. The third is the alternative favored by Alicia: a modified version of the septic tank that would meet the new standards. The fourth and final alternative is the composting toilet. This is a well-understood technology that, if correctly managed, produces a harmless material, very similar to rich soil, and can be used to grow organic vegetables. The solar-power faction had tentatively proposed a composter at one point, but had been howled down by the other side.

The one functioning composting toilet on the island is built by Clivus Multrum, a market leader in composting toilets. Although the owner, a postal worker, was out of town when I visited the island, Jim Newton took me to the home because he wanted to show me the huge object, conveniently stored under the raised first floor of the house, which like many on the island rested on stilts in order to reduce potential damage in case of fl oods. This design creates a covered area under the house—a basement at ground level, so to speak. As I walked around to the basement entrance, I passed a huge array of solar panels perched on a wooden pedestal, and a set of four Rolls batteries—the Rolls-Royce of solar batteries. They are known to have a far longer life and to be three times as heavy and four times as expensive as normal deep-cycle batteries. Next to the batteries, a white tank holds the gray water from the house. Gray water is the term for water from sinks, showers, dishwashers, and the like. Once used for washing, it can be used to fl ush a toilet or water a garden.

While most composting toilets are simple, functional, and inexpensive, the Clivus Multrum is the Hummer of composting toilets, a vast and intricate object. The unit in the bathroom is a normal toilet bowl, and a basement of some sort is required because a long, wide pipe travels down from the toilet to an ugly, green-ribbed plastic container. This container stands as tall as a man and takes up fi fteen to twenty square feet of fl oor space, with several doors for different functions. One is used to put in worms; another is used to remove the compost once it has transformed into an earthlike substance. The process can take many months. This is the reason for the large size of the contraption.

“The effluent drops down through this tube”—my escort indicated the green tube entering the composter—“from the potty upstairs.” Jim walked ahead of me toward the silent, brooding object. Once I had raised my video camera, he turned to me gravely and said, “Are you ready? This is not going to be a pretty sight.” He gripped the handle of the smallest door. “Are you ready for this?” he asked again. I nodded. “Now, I’ll lift the lid, but I won’t hold it open for a long time,” he said. The cover came back and hundreds of cockroaches ran for the darkness across a black, tarlike substance that was, presumably, the effl uent. I instinctively looked away, and by the time my eyes returned a second later, Jim had slammed shut the door. How the cockroaches had got there I cannot imagine, as the whole system is sealed. Could it have been via the toilet bowl upstairs?

One other pipe, a narrower one painted white, exited the composter, snaking its way around the basement before disappearing up into the house. I asked what this was for. “It’s an air vent,” Jim told me. “It allows gases to escape, all the way up to the roof. In any system—my own septic tank—gases are produced.”

Jim’s whole body sagged at the thought of the gases being produced. “So instead of letting them out around your home on the ground level, the gases are transported through the pipe to the very uppermost area so they can escape into the atmosphere.”

“What if the wind is blowing the wrong way?” I asked.

“Yup,” he said, looking grim.

By then I had met at least ten of the leading actors in this drama, and although I doubted the sincerity of some of the witnesses, I was still unsure about the detailed rights and wrongs of the matter.

But I knew where to go for an answer…..

For more background, here’s a Salon interview with Rosen and  a HuffPo piece he wrote.

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