When comfort and conservation collide
by Mac McClelland
“HONEY, COULD YOU PLEASE bring me the tissues out of my bag?” I called from the bathroom in the rundown backpackers’ hostel. Dan and I had paid two extra American dollars for en suite facilities, and I’d sat down on the toilet without noticing that there was nothing to wipe with. Tiny ants patrolled the cracks between the sink and the wall and the wall and the floor. A few lizards took turns scurrying across the ceiling. I eyed them sharply.
“What for?” Dan asked through the door.
“What do you mean, ‘what for’?” I called back, laughing quietly in spite of myself.
From the moment our escape-the-States-before-the-careers-and-babies trip started, my intended and I spent a lot of time talking about toilets. We had recently graduated from college and set off on a splendid six-month vacation that would culminate in a Fijian wedding. We were free of mortgage and debt obligations. We had our youth. We had big dreams and birth control. Before we left, Dan had taken a Southeast Asia guidebook out of the library and given me a quick course in distant culture. I’d learned, among other things, that people in Thailand, our first stop, don’t traditionally use toilet paper. But I’d forgotten.
“They don’t use toilet paper here, remember?” he yelled from the other side of the door. He turned it into a song: “I already told you that, but you… weren’t… listeniiinnng!”
“Please just give me the tissues,” I pleaded.
He didn’t respond.
“Get me my tissues!”
“No,” he said solemnly. “Use the water gun, like you’re supposed to.” And I heard him walk away.
I looked around and saw a sprayer, like the one on my mother’s kitchen sink, hitched to the side of the toilet. I picked it up, aimed it directly into the bowl, and squeezed the trigger. A powerful stream of water shot out. Satisfied that I had conducted a successful test of the equipment, I directed the device at my crotch and squeezed again.
Fancy Western hotels in Thailand have amenities like toilet paper, and as crappy as our hostel was, it was at least fancy enough to have sit-down toilets. At the Bangkok train station, however, I had no choice but to leave my silly American pretensions at the bathroom door and squat. I managed to pee on my jeans and spill all over myself the plastic bowl of foul water that was provided in lieu of a water gun.
Dan smiled broadly as I walked through the exit, all wet spots and irritation. “You peed your pants,” he said, kissing me on the cheek.
“I’m never using a squat toilet again,” I told him. I waited for a moment, ready to fight, but he spared me a repeat performance of the “people who use squat toilets don’t get hemorrhoids because they don’t strain their anuses as much” lecture.
“And I’m carrying tissues from now on.”
“Oh, come on.” He laughed at me. “That’s a waste of paper.”
“Don"t give me that shit,” I said. “We use toilet paper when we’re at home. You’ve used toilet paper your entire life.”
He stopped smiling. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a better way.” He was suddenly earnest, prepared to explain poignant environmental truths to his liberal arts graduate partner. I was a soft hippie, the sort who recycles and turns off the water when teeth-brushing, and I wanted to do more. But I had been raised in all the comforts a yuppie could afford, and wasn’t as prepared as perhaps either one of us had thought I would be to abandon them. Dan readied his hands for the gesturing that accompanies his recitations on why he studied ecology and engineering, on the way that the marriage of science and conservation will beget the future of the Earth.
Though toilet paper was invented in China in the late 1300s, it was for emperors only, and everyone else around the globe used everything from corncobs to wool to newspaper to lace for the next five centuries. Widespread use of toilet paper didn’t catch on until New York’s Joseph Gayetty started selling it in 1857, with his name printed on every sheet. Now the U.S. alone uses 7.4 million tons of tissue per year—over 20,000 sheets of toilet paper per person, according to Charmin—and North America, which contains less than 7 percent of the world’s population, consumes half the world’s tissue paper products. By Greenpeace’s estimates, Canada would save nearly 50,000 trees a year if every household in the country replaced just one roll of regular toilet paper with the recycled kind.
Notwithstanding my recent problems, I actually thought that a quick, concentrated water bath was a great way to refresh one’s unmentionables. In addition to being more environmentally responsible, it seemed more sanitary. And classily European. But the water in Thailand is dirty and smelly, and I was sweaty and frustrated and wearing my own urine, so I put on my “we’re not talking about this anymore” face and said, “We’re not talking about this anymore. If the water here isn’t safe enough to drink, then it’s not suitable for spraying all over my naughty bits. From now on, I’m carrying tissues.”
When we arrived at the Brisbane airport in Australia a few weeks later, I rushed gleefully into the bathroom, where I was greeted by rows of dazzling sinks followed by dozens of sparkling sit-down toilets, each one bedecked by roll upon roll of toilet paper. I sat leisurely down in a stall, breathing in disinfectant, dangling and kicking my legs about like a child on the edge of a physician’s table while I urinated delightedly. After standing up and fastening my perfectly dry pants, I looked for the flushing mechanism. To my surprise, there were not one, but two buttons on the back of the toilet, one right next to the other. I inspected them for discrepancies, but they appeared to be identical. Just two rectangles on top of the tank, and no other handles or levers in sight. Baffled, I set my finger lightly upon the left, then the right button, wondering if one would be easier, and therefore more correct, to depress. But nothing happened. Finally, I opened the stall door and set myself sideways to it, prepared to flee in the face of any catastrophe, then pushed firmly on the right-hand button. The toilet flushed. I walked over to the sink and washed my hands, pleased that I had chosen my button wisely. I vowed never to disturb the other one.
Soon after, I came upon an advertisement for “half-flush” toilets in a magazine. Evidently, an Australian invented a toilet with two flush options in order to conserve the country’s often scarce water supply. The button on the left uses half as much water, just enough to flush down a couple of tissues. The button on the right induces full-blast flushing, to take care of solid waste. It was such a good idea that nearly all toilets across Australia were soon half-flushing. We eventually found that the buttons can be rectangular or square, and are sometimes shaded halfway or completely, denoting their respective purposes. Even though low-volume toilets—which use a third of the resources of older models—were mandated by Congress in the States in the early ‘90s, they still use twice as much water as the half-flush’s 0.8 gallons. Dan and I agreed on its splendidness, and decided that when we built a house, we would import our toilets from ten thousand miles away.
We quickly found work in an ecovillage just north of Brisbane with Jeff and Frances Michaels, who agreed to compensate us for our toils on their property with free room and board in their beautiful home. The tile floors were clean and cool, the linens spotless, the toilets flushing. Jeff and Frances informed us that though their plumbing appeared conventional, it in fact ran into an alternative treatment system. All their gray (sink and drain) water and black (toilet) water was filtered through a box containing some combination of sand and worms before being gravity-fed downhill to their orchards for irrigation. A friend of theirs had invented and installed the box, and Dan couldn’t understand exactly how it worked. The Michaelses didn’t really seem to either, but theirs was a lifestyle I could definitely support. This was conservation with style.
A week later, we reported to a farm on the southeast coast for a similar work arrangement. I arrived with a full bladder and immediately sought out the bathroom, where I found a hole in either end of the floor, one filled with a wooden plug and the other containing a toilet—a squat toilet, to my utter dejection. A sign on the door identified the toilet as composting and asked visitors not to urinate in it, and to throw in a handful of wood chips when they were finished. I urinated in it anyway, because I didn’t know where else to go, but asked about the proper protocol when I returned to the kitchen.
‘Sometimes you have to wee when you have a shit,” Brian Woodward told me over the breakfast table. His partner, Sally Middleton, smiled and nodded sagaciously. “We’re not saying you can’t ever urinate in it. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. But urine upsets the nutrient balance of the compost, so we ask that you keep it to a minimum.” He was originally from England and said the last syllable of “compost” as if it rhymed with “lost.”
Dan, who had taken a Design of Waste Management Systems course just before graduation, had been telling me about composting toilets. They often require no energy or water, cost almost no money, and allow waste to become a resource. Not only do they produce fertilizer, but they also reduce trash: 50 percent of all biosolids, the leftovers of domestic sewage treatment, end up in a landfill. But in order to work optimally—that is, kill pathogens and break down organic material into an easily used source of energy, and all without stinking—a complex balance of aeration, moisture, nutrients, and temperature needs to be achieved. The Woodward-Middletons used wood chips to help maintain airspace and control moisture in their pile, as well as provide additional nutrients for the microorganisms, but other materials such as sawdust, straw, and rice hulls also work.
“So where do you pee?” I asked Brian.
“It’s especially good for the trees, if you’d like to do them the service, Dan,” he said, turning his gray-bearded grin toward my companion. I waited, but he didn’t address me. I appealed to Sally. “Where do you pee?” I asked her.
Oh, we have a special toilet just for women, I hoped Sally would say, then direct me to an immaculate bidet down the hall. Instead she gestured vaguely around her. “Wherever,” she said, looking out the window into the yard.
I frowned, but everyone pretended not to notice. Dan started asking Brian questions about how their toilet worked. Brian explained that the second-floor bathroom was built on top of a huge wooden structure that caught the waste. There are two holes for toilets because one is used until the compartment underneath it is full, and then that one is closed up and they use the other one. The waste from the filled compartment gets transferred into a middle compartment where it composts further and is ultimately taken out and spread around the gardens. When Dan commented on the intelligence of this design, Brian said proudly that it was his own.
“We stayed with some people who had a worm box,” I offered.
Brian and Sally rolled their eyes. Brian thought that kind of black water treatment was inadequate, that it didn’t kill the pathogens in human feces, and wasn’t safe for watering plants, much less food plants. The Michaelses’ system had seemed easy and efficient. But apparently, not everyone agreed on the best way to go about being Earth-conscious.
The next day, I was collecting firewood with the Woodward-Middletons’ teenage daughter, Holly, when I announced that
I had to pee.
“So you guys just go in the yard, right?” I asked her.
She didn’t even look up. “Right.”
“I suppose I should go behind something then, huh?” I asked, smiling.
She raised her head and crinkled her eyebrows at me.
“I guess.” Like I was some kind of prude. “If you want to.”
Actually I’d quite prefer to do it right here next to you since that seems to be all right, I thought as I walked toward shelter. What a relief that we are both empowered enough to feel comfortable huddling and pissing around the yard together.
After squatting behind a small barn, I pulled my pants up, aggravated that I didn’t have any toilet paper. But of course I didn’t have any toilet paper; I was standing in the middle of someone’s lawn.
Dan and I knew some environmentalists of the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” persuasion, which conserves water and is only slightly distasteful in that the bathroom can reek of ammonia after a while. But Sally and Holly were so enlightened that they didn’t waste trees or water when they peed. On the contrary, they blessed the land several times a day with their nutritious excretions.
Lying in bed that night, waiting for Dan to return from the shower, I flipped through the pictures he’d been showing me in his travel journal. In it, he kept track of where we went, who we met, whether he liked the food. After turning several pages, I was shocked to find a draft of his wedding vows. Throughout my life, my thoughts on marriage . . . I lingered just long enough to realize what it was, then turned a few more pages, my circulatory system pumping hard, and made a mental note to start working on my own vows. I will say something, I thought, about the way he lets me eat off his plate even if he asked me before he ordered if I was hungry and I said no, so he only got enough for one person. Something about how we still stay up late some nights talking and giggling like grade school children, even if we have to get up early in the morning. As I considered the reasons we were perfect for each other, despite my disbelief in destiny or fate, I continued paging through his sketches absentmindedly. Until I came upon a picture of a toilet.
For a second, I didn’t recognize it as a toilet, since the drawing involved the cross-section of a large box that had been divided in thirds. There was a hole in the top of each of the two outside compartments, with an arrow pointing to each hole. They were labeled, simply, “toilet.”
“So, you really like the composting toilet here,” I said as Dan walked into the room with a towel around his waist.
“Yeah, I think it’s a good design.” He dried off his face and hair, his voice muffled from behind the towel. “I probably would prefer a regular toilet to a squat toilet, but they both have their advantages, you know?”
Oh, I know.
“Do you intend to have a composting toilet in our house?” I asked, breezy, casual.
“Potentially,” he said, bending over to wipe some water droplets from his calf. “You’ll want to grow some herbs and vegetables, and it would be a great source of cheap, natural fertilizer. Besides, it’s really the most efficient way of dealing with home waste right now.”
“What about leachfields?” I asked, remembering him telling me once about on-site septic systems that treat household waste and require the biosolids to be pumped out every few years.
“Those can be good systems. And so can Living Machines.” Dan had spent his undergraduate career building and maintaining the miniature ecosystems that purify wastewater using natural processes. “I’m not saying I know exactly what we’ll want to use, but composting is definitely a viable option.”
That’s a good point, I could have said. It wasn’t like we were building a house in a week. Or even in five years. Instead I lowered my voice and sneered, “There is no fucking way I’m getting a composting toilet in my house.”
Dan stared at me for a second. “Your house?” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“What happened to the half-flush toilet?” I demanded. “A half-flush toilet and a water gun thing so we don’t waste any paper?”
He shook his head. “That is a good idea, but we can do more. Think of all the water that’s used to flush toilets every day—even half-flush toilets. If you eliminated the flushing system, it would probably save billions of gallons of water.” His voice got a little louder, and the gesturing began. “Think of everyone in the world who uses a toilet. If they all instituted composting toilets, the environmental impact would be huge. Even if just you and I do it, it will save…” (I saw him firing quick math in his head, which I generally found extremely endearing: the average person flushes four times a day at five gallons a flush, times two people, times 365 days…) “over ten thousand gallons of water a year!” He was amazed at the idea of it. “Why do we continue to mix waste with our most valuable resource—water—only to spend huge amounts of time and money separating the two and wasting the fuel potential of the waste in the process?” He slung his towel over his shoulder and looked at me.
I couldn’t answer this question. And, of course, it was one of the better ones I’d heard. But I was intractable.
“I am not getting up in the middle of the night and wandering out into the yard to take a piss,” I told him. “I am not having my daughters, or their girlfriends, running around outside weeing on the lawn! Even if you could balance the nutrients so that I could actually pee in my own bathroom, I hate digging my hands in that bucket of wood chips every time I go in there.”
I pointed my finger viciously at him. “And the system is not exactly odorless!” Well, not exactly, but pretty much. The Woodward-Middletons were quite effectively maintaining their compost so that the area around the toilet smelled only vaguely of earth and people. But I was tired of squatting around fields, not wiping or rinsing before pulling my underpants back on.
I was sick of trying to simultaneously keep my balance and go poo. I wanted to live as easily as Jeff and Frances. I didn’t want to be told that what I really wanted—a flushing toilet that I could sit down on—was irresponsible, amoral, close-minded.
The reason I am in love with Dan, the reason I believe we can live graciously together until we die, is that in response he simply climbed into bed with me, nuzzled his face in my neck, and gave me a squeeze. “Okay, buddy,” he said. “All right, pal. We’ll see what kind of options we have in a few years when it’s time to build a house.” Marriage, like conservation, is a process of negotiation and compromise. So even though I knew he meant, I’ll talk you into it eventually, I squeezed him back.