By Paige Mansveld and Graham Collingwood
Human waste is something that people don’t really want to talk about. However, for BC Parks, it is a stinking problem.
BC parks see over 21 million visits annually and everyone must answer when nature calls. As you can imagine, all that waste is going to have an impact on the environment. With the large number of visits that the parks are receiving annually, we need to come up with innovative solutions to ensure that we have a clean natural environment to visit.
The current situation is a bit smelly. For example, Valhalla Provincial Park uses pit toilets or barrels which catch liquids and solids. Eventually the pit will fill, be covered, and another hole dug. If the camping area is remote, barrels must be slung out via helicopter to be treated in a sewage facility elsewhere.
Human waste has an especially large impact on alpine environments because they are usually cold climates experiencing short growing seasons and slow rates of decomposition so what we leave there will be there for quite a while. Different composting toilet systems have been tried at high elevations but did not prove successful.
Part of the problems stems from how we go to the bathroom. Humans are the only mammal that number 1 on their number 2, so to speak. From this mixture, excess ammonia creates odor and toxic conditions in the waste, making it tough to break down.
Rangers in Valhalla Provincial Park are experimenting with a new way to deal with human waste in a low-cost, low-maintenance and more natural way. Known as a separation toilet, the system separates urine from solid waste through a conveyor belt system powered by a push petal or hand lever. These toilets have been installed in parks from Alaska to Argentina to deal with high traffic areas or landscapes that do not facilitate pits for toilets.
With the separation toilet system, the urine drains down into the soil to fertilize plants and feces moves along the conveyor belt by the park user pumping the poop pedal, and out of the back of the outhouse into a storage area. The solid matter is broken down naturally by worms and other invertebrates, leaving a smaller and much lighter non-toxic waste that can be used as fertilizer at the site. A breath of fresh air next to the old pit toilet.
Other composting toilet systems require a carbon-based bulking agent like sawdust to aerate and add structure to the compost pile. The bulking agent needs to be shovelled in and the whole thing mixed… an extra-messy, stinky step. The addition allows oxygen to penetrate the pile, speeding up the decomposition process. The separation toilet only requires our friends in the worm community.
If this new separation toilet proves successful, it would greatly reduce the volume of human waste impacting the alpine environment. A trial toilet is currently installed at Wee Sandy Beach on the west side of Slocan Lake just north of New Denver. Pending success, the rangers hope to install these toilets in the backcountry, which will greatly reduce the frequency of costly, noisy helicopter flights with a crappy payload.
Because there is no bulking agent, the waste is decomposed by worms and reduced by seventy-five percent! These toilets only need to be serviced every ten-thousand visits, requiring less maintenance. This system requires less maintenance in the short and long term and result in happy park rangers with no need for nose plugs.