Revisited Website Review: CompostingToilet.com

Sure, you recycle. Maybe you’re in a carpool or use public transportation. Perhaps you’re even part of that growing segment of the environmentally aware who have started skipping every other breath, thereby halving the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of your piehole.    

But what about that biggest of all contributors to your carbon footprint? (Hint: It’s not coming from your feet but about a third of your body length higher, and in the back).    

Unless you’re among the dedicated few who package their bodily wastes in sealable containers, patiently awaiting the opening of the Yucca Mountain Repository, you may not be doing enough to reduce your harmful impact on the planet. You could either die right now, and do us all a huge favor. Or you could invest in the green technology of a composting toilet.    

These modern miracles of sanitary convenience are now available through a company called Sun-Mar, subject of this week’s Website Review.    

Sun-Mar.com has a very busy home page, as one might expect of a firm dedicated to how you do your business. There are links and pulldowns out the ying-yang, far more than I can cover in a single post. I’ll try instead to focus on the product and the people standing behind it, who hopefully avert their eyes as we symbolically take their futuristic commodes for a whirl.    

There’s a great introductory video that explains how the water usage of conventional toilets has a tremendous negative impact on our oceans, streams and wetlands. We see scenes of Niagara Falls as we learn that up to 7 billion gallons of otherwise drinkable water is flushed down the crapper every day. This doesn’t have to be. With the waterless device patented exclusively by Sun-Mar, you can now rely on a three-step composting system to save our world’s precious lifeblood while enjoying the convenience of using the bathroom in almost any semi-private setting.    

“Install one anywhere plumbing is not available,” we’re told. “In your closet, your boat house, your country cabin, your barn, even in a guardbooth.”    

(So the next time you pull up to the turnpike toll-taker’s cubicle and it appears to be unattended, maybe you just need to wait a couple of minutes for the worker to rise up and appear.)    

The home page also contains a lengthy essay on the history of the composting toilet and the company that makes it. It was founded almost 40 years ago by Hardy Sundberg, an enterprising Canadian who gave the firm half its name. His first effort was a primitive device that used a large fan, a top-mounted heater and mechanical mixers to agitate and dry what is euphemistically called the “waste pile.” Presumably the size of an Oldsmobile, this beast used only a single compartment for the three required steps of composting, evaporation and finishing and had numerous shortcomings, not the least of which was an earth-shattering stench.    

A second generation introduced in 1977, breezily dubbed “The Tropic,” dried the waste matter with a heater sealed in a compartment in the base. This solved the challenge of keeping the “waste cake” moist, so it wouldn’t dry to the consistency of an “adobe brick.” (Somehow, the appeal of both baked birthday desserts and Southwestern-style architecture have suddenly become diminished). A third prototype a few years later saw the advent of the “Bio-drum,” which further isolated offending matter from the production process, and of the so-called “central composting toilet system” that allowed numerous seats to feed a single vat kept yards away from the bathroom. Even though odors were now completely controlled on site, this was the model for people who couldn’t bear the thought that decomposition was happening in the same room they were brushing their teeth.    

Under “The Company” pulldown, there are links to articles written in the popular press about the advantages of Sun-Mar’s toilet/composters. As you might expect, most have clever headlines hinting at the hilarity involved in passing solid matter from your digestive system. “This Toilet is On A Roll,” says The Globe and Mail newspaper. “When Nature Calls” is from CottageLink magazine, “Head of a Different Blend” is from DIY Boat Owner, and “People of the Loo” is a review in the Toronto Star. Perhaps most intriguing of all is “Introducing Audrey” from County Life, a 1991 article about “people who give their toilets affectionate names like Audrey or Puff the Magic Dragon. What will you call your Sun-Mar?” Personally, I’d go with “John”.    

In the “Products” section, you can read about all the variations possible in the 22 different models offered. A caption next to several photos encourages shoppers to “pick the category at right that best suits your needs,” even though the pictures are actually to the left. (Obviously, the layout artist didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground). There are low-flush models that use a small amount of water as well as completely dry systems. Some are electric, some are non-electric and a few are even solar-powered. There’s the luxurious ”family” model complete with a footstool, there’s the slightly smaller “compact,” and finally there’s the “spacesaver” for the tiniest butts and the tiniest rooms.    

All of them look pretty much like conventional toilets, though a little beefier around the base. In the “Technology” portion of the site, we learn more about what’s going on down there. Fresh waste, provided by the user, is combined with a peat-based bulking material, provided by Sun-Mar. These then begin an “aerobic breakdown” — which is a chemical process, not a hip-hop-inspired exercise routine – in the Bio-drum. This drum is periodically turned by a hand-crank to aerate the mixture. The 90-plus-percent of poop that is water recedes into an evaporating chamber while the solids gradually accumulate in a finishing drawer. Every three to four weeks, odor-free compost can be removed from this drawer and put into your garden, shared with your neighbors or, if you’re like me and can’t understand any of the previous paragraph, flushed down your regular toilet.   

This section also includes the Frequently Asked Questions, of which there are quite a few. Do I add any chemicals? No, you don’t. What happens in the winter? The compost freezes. Does the fiberglass used in the commode smell? You’re worried about how the fiberglass smells? Do animals harm the system? “Compost is not something that is attractive to animals,” though you might want to build an enclosure in case your local bears never heard that saying about what they do in the woods. Is the fan noisy? They’re not as bad as they used to be, “just another example of how we are always improving your composting toilet experience.” Should males still urinate outside? No. In fact, the liquid is beneficial to the composting process.   

Finally, we’ll look at a very impressive collection of satisfied customers in the “Testimonials” section. Jacquelyn Morgan, owner of an “Excel” model that I hope no one mistakes for a spreadsheet, writes that she thinks of the company “as friends.” Russ and Heather Bencharski have a Centrex 2000 that they claim works much better than the propane (!) toilet they used to own. James Mauger says of his Compact version that it costs a fraction of a well and septic system, and that “using the bathroom at night no longer involves shoes, a coat and a flashlight” (!!). 

Some people are so happy with their toilets that they’ve sent in pictures of them, though thankfully while they’re not in active use. Kathy Escott says her unit inspired her to write a “snappy poem” that informs guests how to use it. The “whole Ryan clan” gathered around their prized possession to offer toothy smiles and a thumbs-up on their model. Robert Gagnon of Quebec sent a simple photo with the inexplicable caption “Notre premiere testimoniaux en Francais!” I’ll pardon his French and assume the best, that he’s going to see a movie premier at Notre Dame. 

Sun-mar.com is a well-constructed if somewhat over-produced site that contains a lot of information on a subject that I always presumed the less we knew about, the better. I’m vaguely aware that what’s being flushed down the can today goes through a sewer to a treatment plant where it’s processed before eventually ending up in my morning coffee, but most of that happens out of sight. When that same process is occurring right there in my home, and instead of going into my coffee becomes part of a tomato sandwich I’ll eat later this summer, it’s somehow a bit more disconcerting. I definitely appreciate that there people who can stomach this concept and do it with a smile. However, I think I’ll choose to save myself costs starting at $1,400, and stay with my traditional dump. 

Proud owners Susan and Patrick Radtke stand next to their composting toilet, whom they call “Arthur”
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