Published in the Sun 9-4-2011
Clarence Skrovan apologizes that his coffee maker uses an eco-unfriendly plastic packet for each cup of coffee, increasing his carbon footprint. We laugh and decide he deserves this small extravagance because he is, after all, using Green Mountain electricity and purified rainwater to brew his morning caffeine. (Yes, he still has rainwater.) Clarence is a preventive medicine physician and served as the medical director of the Williamson County Health Department from 1977 until 1992. He then became the regional director for the state health department until his retirement in 1997, so he knows a thing or two about public health. His wife, Susan, a pediatrician, left an academic position in Houston to open a practice in Granger. Clarence grew up in Granger, where he and his friends were certain that “it was best to be Czech.” He didn’t speak English until he started first grade, and you can still hear a soft Czech brogue in his voice.
When Clarence and Susan bought their small house in 1974, it had no indoor plumbing. The previous residents had been “doing their business” in the fields surrounding the house. To wash dishes, Susan had to run a hose from a standpipe in the yard into the kitchen. Clearly, their first remodeling project was to put in some sort of toilet. Rather than waste precious well water flushing human waste into a septic system, they decided to install a waterless Clivus Multrum composting toilet, a decision which caused some consternation among Clarence’s public health buddies.
The toilet is the focus of my visit here this morning, so all three of us head into the bathroom. On the wall over the toilet is a large red and white sign, provided by the Clivus Multrum company, stating that “This toilet uses no water or chemicals” and thanking us for helping preserve the environment. I open the lid and peer down into the bowels of the toilet, seeing pretty much what you would expect to see. (For the faint of heart there are updated models that hide the view entirely.) I have a very sensitive nose but there is not a trace of odor, thanks to a tiny ventilation fan that pulls air from the bathroom into the toilet and expels all objectionable gases out through a vent in the roof.
“Clivus Multrum” means inclined composting chamber. The floor of the chamber is sloped, allowing liquids to drain to the bottom and evaporate, leaving the solid waste dry enough to decompose into an inoffensive material. The chamber is located under the house and is accessible through a hatch in the mudroom floor, directly behind the bathroom. Also in the mudroom is another chute which the Skrovans use to throw food waste into the composter. Some people also add sawdust, straw, or lawn clippings to composting toilets, which promotes faster and less smelly aerobic decomposition When all the children lived at home, Clarence had to clean out the chamber every two years. Although he admits that the end product was never quite as much like soil as he might have hoped, he used the compost on his fruit trees as a valuable fertilizer. Now that only two people use the toilet he hasn’t had to do anything at all for five years.
As public health physicians, the Skrovans never felt comfortable putting the “humanure” directly onto a vegetable garden where it might come into contact with raw vegetables. That practice has certainly been accepted in other parts of the world, but Americans are understandably squeamish about it. In Australia, where they are serious about water saving technologies, a 1993 study found that no viable intestinal parasites were found in 118 samples of human waste from sixteen unheated composting toilets, even though parasites were known to be present in the people using the toilets. However this result may require having two composting toilets and letting one of them sit for several months without adding any new material.
Clarence seems genuinely disappointed that composting toilets haven’t really caught on among his friends, but actually they are increasingly popular at parks and in remote areas. Composting toilets preserve valuable nutrients to be used as fertilizer, save water, and save the energy required to pump and purify contaminated water. It makes a lot of sense to keep the poop separate from the water supply.
Postscript: I went to visit the Skrovans because of their toilet, but came away with a more important message. Two doctors could have chosen a more luxurious lifestyle. Instead, they chose to try new technologies, and to fill their modest home with things they built themselves, with memories, and with love. Susan is ill, but she manages her illness with dignity, and Clarence assists her with tenderness. This is the crux of the sustainable lifestyle: that we place our values on the things that matter.