Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Pristine Outhouse a Compost Outpost

Special to The Globe and Mail
September 4, 2006

VANCOUVER -- In the heart of trendy Kitsilano, a stone's throw from the boutiques and restaurants of West 4th Avenue and barely concealed by a fence and blackberry brambles, stands an outhouse.

And not just any outhouse.

This is an elegant wood hut made by a master builder using hand-milled utility poles. The pristine interior houses a sleek white toilet with contoured sides. Luxurious Japanese-made bum warmers lie on the plastic seat.

Contrary to municipal standards and modern sensibilities, the toilet tucked amid a lush compost-demonstration garden on city land at West 6th Avenue and Maple Street, lacks plumbing.

Instead, it has an elaborate compost contraption, heated by a small electric coil and ventilated by a small fan.

Users sprinkle a cup of peat, straw and hemp from a nearby container onto deposits, then turn a crank at the front of the toilet to roll everything into the base, a large pullout drawer.

Most waste evaporates, and what's left breaks down into compost that Michael Levenston, executive director of the non-profit City Farmer environmental organization, empties once a year and spreads on an ornamental roof on the garden's shed.

There's a lock on the outhouse door, so the toilet is used only by staff and garden visitors willing to abide by the rules: "Please place toilet paper in toilet after use but do not add other hygiene products; Please sprinkle a cup of shavings from the green container on solid waste after use; Please mark on the calendar an X for liquid waste or an O for solid waste after using the toilet."

"This is the only job I've ever had where my boss asked me to record my bowel movements," said Laura Plant, an agriculture scientist. She worked part time at the garden for 10 years, and has monitored the Xs and Os on the outhouse calendar to keep track of the toilet's capacity and how much water is saved by using it.

Ms. Plant said that with each use, the compost toilet prevents six to 12 litres of treated, drinkable city water from being flushed.

Agronomist Arzeena Hamir, who worked part time at City Farmer, said using the toilet was "very comfortable. There was no smell. It's perfectly fine."

Cottagers and boat owners have long used compost toilets, but they're rare in modern cities.

A new public compost toilet in Vancouver's Strathcona Park has received intense media and public interest.

A highly engineered system at the University of British Columbia with 10 compost toilets has attracted worldwide attention.

The Toronto Arts Council is installing a compost toilet in Dufferin Grove Park as an art project and a comment on Toronto's controversial export of sewage sludge.

Mr. Levenston, executive director of City Farmer, said that when he installed the toilet eight years ago, he feared the kinds of common problems reported by cottage dwellers and boat owners: explosions, overflows and spills. But except for the one time a construction crew filled the toilet too quickly, and it had to be closed, the toilet has worked uneventfully.

Surprisingly, there is no smell.

"You could have it in your house," Ms. Plant said.

The parents with toddlers, strolling couples, dog walkers and runners passing by on a decommissioned rail line would never dream that a relic of rural Canada stands merely a few feet away.

The toilet is hardly a secret -- the exterior is on a webcam at -- but it has remained almost unnoticed by city dwellers -- and officials.

"It's not something they approve of in building codes," said Mr. Levenston, who has no official licence for the outhouse.

"I called the health department, talked to officials and said we would try it out and use it as a test. It's a one shot."

Sewage disposal and water shortages are increasingly on the public mind.

Victoria is wrestling with a provincial order to stop discharging 129 million litres of raw sewage a day into the ocean.

The booming tourist resort of Tofino, B.C., is in crisis this holiday weekend, as hotels and restaurants were forced to close temporarily in late August because the water reservoir ran out during a drought.

"Toilets are huge water wasters," said Freda Pagani, an architect and the retiring director of sustainability for UBC.

She said flush toilets make sense where there are sewer systems and abundant water, but she advocates compost toilets to save money and preserve water in new developments.

"Really, there's no health hazard at all," Ms. Pagani said. "There's not any reason to be nervous about composting toilets."

Mr. Levenston said the City Farmer garden is meant to help people think in useful ways about problems such as water waste.

"Everyone is interested in the environment and freaked out about it, but when they come here, we can give them something positive to do."

Ms. Plant noted that urban dwellers commonly compost yard and kitchen waste, so compost toilets could be the next step.

"It's like food-waste composting. It doesn't solve all your water problems, but it cuts back on waste."

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September 14, 2006

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture