Public calls for composting toilets

Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 1/30/18

Composting toilets proved to be the hot topic of the Jefferson County Board of Health’s Jan. 18 meeting as at least a dozen members of the public spoke out in favor of the composting toilets, while …

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Public calls for composting toilets


Composting toilets proved to be the hot topic of the Jefferson County Board of Health’s Jan. 18 meeting as at least a dozen members of the public spoke out in favor of the composting toilets, while board members acknowledged misconceptions that exist about their legality.

Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County public health officer, said that composting toilets are “perfectly legal” in the wake of updated rules in 2011, depending on factors such as whether the composting toilets are fully composting. Not all of them are.

Locke pledged that Jefferson County Public Health would work to make access to existing regulations and design standards for composting toilets and gray water systems more accessible to the public, including through links on the public health website.

“County residents who want approval for current or future systems are encouraged to submit plans through a certified designer,” Locke said. “County environmental health specialists are also allowed, by law, to design these types of systems, and we will investigate the feasibility of making this more available to the public.”


Al Bergstein of the Olympic Peninsula Health Care Forum cited his personal experience with composting toilets a decade ago at a friend’s cabin at Stevens Pass. He touted them as one of a set of “new ways to solve problems.” Rachelle Merle was so enthusiastic in listing the benefits of composting toilets that she ran over her allotted time to speak.

Merle noted the occurrence of algae blooms in the waters of Hood Canal and Chimacum Creek, and accused failed septic systems as the primary culprit.

“We’re searching for ever-better septic systems, when the perfect septic system does not exist,” Merle said. “Composting toilets work to reduce nutrient pollution when they’re operating correctly.”

Wetland biologist Paul Ruben recommended conducting scientific experiments to determine the best composting toilet systems, a suggestion that Tony Goldenberg agreed with by floating the idea for a period of studies with a five-year cutoff date.

“Give it a shot,” Goldenberg said. “I think it’d go a long way toward providing affordable housing. You could get more young people to stay in the county, and maybe more old people, too.”

Karen Wyeth cited a long-range study by Southern Cross University in Australia that prompted the issuance of hundreds of permits for composting toilets.

“This was for a subtropical area that’s very wet, just like it is here,” Wyeth said. “And these were self-built, self-maintained toilets.”

Carol McCreary of PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) extolled the potential for composting toilets to reduce the risk of pipe breakages during seismic disasters, which she asserted made it essential to seek out “a path to new water infrastructure.”

Rock Point Oyster’s David Steele and Finnriver Cidery’s Eric Jorgensen are two business owners who spoke in favor of composting toilets. Steele expressing concerns that current septic systems could compromise the health of shellfish. Jorgensen signaled his willingness to partner with the county.

“We already have an expensive septic system that we’d like to preserve,” Jorgensen said. “We want to work with the county to figure that out. But we support looking at alternatives. It’s difficult to imagine these things couldn’t work, since others have clearly made them work. I feel like we’re way behind the curve here.”


Jefferson County Board of Health member Sheila Westerman reported that of the letters the board had received on the subject, all were in favor of composting toilets.

Although Westerman conceded that Jefferson County might be “a little behind” on this front, she asserted the primary importance of protecting the environment, including its waters and soils, since the county includes not only freshwater and saltwater systems, but also a variety of soil types, not all of which lend themselves to gray-water systems.

Westerman suggested that Jefferson County Public Health staff research other counties that manage to utilize composting toilets while still meeting state code, so that Jefferson County can directly emulate their successes.

Jefferson County Commissioner Kathleen Kler pointed out that several citizens who’d written in had already conducted some of that research on their own.

When Locke pointed out that the legality of composting toilets is conditional, Westerman said, “It’d be nice to see these regulations online.”

When told that the regs do appear online, Ruben asserted that they were nonetheless “difficult to find.”

Locke later clarified to The Leader that he was addressing both composting toilets and gray-water systems.

“The site soil characteristics and waste strength are gray-water-related issues,” Locke said. “Composting toilets will work in most situations, irrespective of soil type or lot size, but what you do with the composted waste and excess urine varies in different applications.”

Locke explained that with some types of systems, there can be a land disposal option, while other types require transport to a composting or sewage treatment facility to prevent contaminating the environment with infectious waste.

At the meeting, Locke elaborated that the state has a list of approved composting toilets, but public domain composting toilets also exist that are not tested by the state. This could require local health jurisdictions to determine if they meet state standards.

“If we don’t review the public domain composting toilets, it’ll be hard for citizens to do it,” Westerman said.

“Local health jurisdictions can offer waivers, but those aren’t exemptions from the law,” Locke said. “Rather, they’re ways to meet the intent of the law, rather than the standard.”

Locke deemed such work vital to the public interest, because “the singular achievement of public health in the 20th century” was protecting humans from infections stemming from their own waste.

“We’re protected so well that I don’t think people understand how easily such infections can spread,” Kler said.

When Kler inquired about whether composting toilets require septic systems to be legal, Jefferson County commission chair David Sullivan clarified that building permits require both black- and gray-water systems, but not necessarily septic systems per se.

Mike Dawson, water quality engineer for Jefferson County Public Health, agreed with the members of the public who had identified failing septic systems as sources of pollution, and echoed their call for studies “which could lead to solid designs” for composting toilets.


Locke acknowledged that the county is not currently staffed to provide gray-water design services for the general public, whereas by contrast, composting toilets require relatively little design work.

“Commercial, aka proprietary, systems are effectively pre-approved and can be installed wherever people want them,” Locke said. “Public domain systems require some review to see if they meet the state’s minimum design standards. In both cases, people using composting toilets need a plan for the disposing or utilizing of the waste these systems generate.”


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