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Toilet Equity in the Grand Canyon

Several days ago, I returned from a 24 day trip floating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I could write extensively about how magical the Grand Canyon is but I’d like to write about testing a compost toilet method in the lower part of the Canyon. For anyone who has done any multiday river floating in the West, the “groover” is a well-known component of the required equipment for every trip. For years now, river runners have been required to sequester human feces in a container which can be disposed of into a scat machine or otherwise added to the fecal waste stream that goes to wastewater treatment plants. For 21 days, we used such a conventional system that consists of a toilet seat placed over a 20mm rocket box or other receptacle. After use each day, some chemical is added to the receptacle in an attempt to deodorize the toilet and the lid is placed to seal the contents while it is carried on the raft to the next night’s camp. Typically, river runners pee in the river as the preferred method here in the West to safely dilute urine.

Over the years, I’ve used many different kinds of river toilets and wanted to try something different for the last 3 days of our trip. I brought a toilet seat, 2 empty five-gallon buckets with lids and another filled with sawdust. Each afternoon after our day of floating, I set the toilet out in a private location with an optimal view of the surrounding Canyon trying to maximize sunrise and sunset views. I preloaded the toilet bucket with a layer of sawdust and let my group do the rest of the work. After each personal contribution, which could include feces, urine, toilet paper, menstrual hygiene products, and the cardboard toilet paper roll, a layer of sawdust was applied to the new pile. The system was well received with comments of “it doesn’t smell”, “there’s no splash”, “it’s nicer to poop on sawdust than poop” heard about the camp. We discussed how we could quantify the amount of sawdust, how much extra receptacle volume the urine and toilet paper would require, and the number of toilet receptacles necessary to do a full 21 day trip for 16 people. And instead of dumping the toilet contents into the wastewater stream, the contents of these toilets will be aerobically composted to safely return the intrinsic energy and macronutrients of human feces and urine to the Earth. An important added benefit of composting is that we won’t be contributing to potential coliform and other intestinal bacterial and viral contamination of surface water that can occur through the wastewater stream.

Our successful small group use of a compost toilet system on a remote river is the first step toward changing attitudes and practices around human feces management on a river trip. Toilet Equity is committed to standardizing and scaling the method for acceptance and use by the managers and larger river adventuring community.

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