A growing number of environmentalists are now advocating the expanded use of compost or dry toilets worldwide to combat what they see as an international water crisis.
Proponents of dry toilets, set to convene at the first annual international Dry Toilet 2003 conference in Tampere, Finland, August 20-23, warn of "environmental disaster" if developing nations aspire to flush toilets so prevalent in the industrialized world.
Critics of the upcoming conference say the widespread use of dry toilets in the developing world is nothing more than a "celebration of primitivism" and call the flush toilet the "greatest public health advance in the modern era."
A waterless dry toilet, which generally costs about $2,000, collects human urine and feces and requires emptying by humans on a regular basis. Advocates claim the resulting matter can then be composted and used as fertilizer for food crops.
Larry Warnberg, a featured speaker at the conference, said China and other developing world nations cannot aspire to mimic the U.S. and Europe's reliance on modern flush toilets and the resultant sewage infrastructure.
"That is a wrong turn, and it will just be an environmental disaster. The same is true in Brazil and Africa. There are better choices," Warnberg told CNSNews.com. Warnberg, who will speak to the conference about "Reducing Regulatory Barriers to Composting Toilets," also markets manuals on how to build a do-it-yourself dry toilet.
Warnberg calls his toilet designs S.C.A.T., which stands for Solar Composting Advanced Toilet.
Warnberg laments the widespread use of flush toilets in the industrialized nations of the U.S. and Europe, and he does not want to see the flush toilet adopted by the developing nations in Africa and South America.
"I think it is a mistake to inflict that convenience on a developing county and cost without realizing what the consequences are," Warnberg added.
'Celebration of primitivism'
But critics bristle at the notion that the developing world cannot aspire to the standards of the industrialized world.
"The dry or compost toilet might suit those who wish to drop out of highly developed industrial society, but to advocate them as a solution for developing countries is totally unacceptable and represents little more than a celebration of primitivism," said Ceri Dingle of the British-based charitable education group Worldwrite, which focuses on development issues and sponsors international student exchange programs.
"Thirteen percent of Africans have a sewage connection; that is, a flushing toilet leading to a sewage system, while for North America, the figure is 100 percent and Europe 92 percent," said Dingle. "This is what the developing world aspires to, not make do and mend."
Dingle's group sponsored a campaign on June 7 that included a march by "volunteers from developing countries who want their desire for piped water, flushing loos (toilets) and modern facilities taken seriously."
"The preoccupation with dry toilets is also an anti-human prejudice based on complete panics and irrational fears about planetary water shortages," Dingle added.
Dennis Avery, director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute, agreed with Dingle and was blunt in his defense of the modern flush toilet.
"It's one of the greatest public health advances in the modern era. It's not only convenient, but it is also safer" Avery told CNSNews.com. Avery said the public benefits from the lower incidence of diseases like cholera and typhoid since the widespread use of modern flush toilets and sewage treatment systems.
The flush toilet is not even responsible for significant water usage, according to Avery.
"You can't solve the water problem by taking care of something that is only 5 to 10 percent of the usage," Avery explained. Agricultural use of water accounts for about 70 percent of worldwide water usage, and industry accounts for about 23 percent, according to Avery.
'A matter of education'
Dry toilet advocates claim the devices have advantages but concede there is the issue of routine emptying of excrement from the toilets.
Warnberg's website explains that the dry toilets need to be emptied at 6- to 12-month intervals, "depending on loading," and his design includes the use of earthworms to "provide mixing and aeration."
Warnberg concedes the emptying procedures may make some people squeamish. "It takes more responsibility than a flush toilet, there is no getting around it. Some systems are easier to use than others. It's largely a matter of education," Warnberg said.
But one past user of a dry toilet chronicled his negative experiences in an essay published on this website called "The Trouble With Composting Toilets." The essay, written by Dave Keenan, details his problems with insects and odors that his dry toilet produced in his home.
After having decided that "Thomas Crapper's flush toilet was a fiendish invention," Keenan bought a dry toilet and initially "basked in the warm glow of having done the right thing for the environment" before encountering a problem.
"No matter what I tried over the years, there were always times when one could not lift the lid without several flies lifting off and heading for the kitchen," Keenan wrote.
"Even if I was to be convinced that there was little health danger from flies coming out of the toilet and landing on food, e.g. drosophila (fruit flies) go straight for the fruit bowl, how would I convince my guests that it was ok?" Keenan added.
After four years of living with the dry toilet, Keenan gave up and installed a flush toilet in his home.
"So, from my experience, I cannot recommend composting toilets to anyone, unless they have a serious water shortage, and they live in a non-urban area, and they locate it outside their insect-screened house envelope (on a verandah would be fine)," he wrote.
'Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous'
Another purported benefit of dry toilets is the ability to use the composted excrement for fertilizing human food crops.
"A proper dry toilet system with the recycling of the urine and the feces as a compost product, brings more productivity to crops and improves the land quality," Tittiina Repka, conference secretary of the upcoming Dry Toilet conference, told CNSNews.com.
Repka believes cultural taboos in many parts of the world will have to be changed for people to accept using their feces and urine as fertilizer for food crops.
"People seem to think that human [manure] is something really dirty and should not go into any kind of food circulation systems," Repka said.
But not everyone sees the use of composted human feces on food as a panacea.
"It's dangerous, dangerous, dangerous. You are talking about all kinds of bacterial issues; human manure has human pathogens in it." Avery countered.
Despite claims by advocates of dry toilets that excrement is safe for use as fertilizer if it's properly composted, Avery remained skeptical.
"In labs, under ideal conditions, human manure can be safely disinfected. But manure in the hands of average people out there day after day, time after time, you are taking about enormous risk," Avery said.
"Can you imagine a block full of homes, each of them dumping their wastes in their backyard this way; the odor, the disgust, the public health risk?" Avery asked.
Dingle of Worldwrite does not see the need to even contemplate using your homegrown feces for fertilizer.
"Since chemical fertilizers have massively increased the productivity of commercialized agriculture, there is no evidence to suggest we even need to concern ourselves with preserving and using human waste since we have developed much healthier alternatives," Dingle said.
Avery predicted that dry toilets would ultimately go down the drain.
"If you didn't have to handle [composted feces], if you didn't have to put this on your food crops, if you didn't have to accept the odors and the filth and the disgust, maybe it then it would sell," Avery said.