British Columbia

How do B.C.'s eco-friendly outhouses work? With foot pumps and feces-eating worms

It’s not exactly a savoury topic, but outhouse maintenance is a big deal in the backcountry — and in some parts of British Columbia, dealing with human waste costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Rising number of visitors to B.C.’s backcountry pushes province to look for human waste solutions

There are about 20 of these urine-diverting toilets in the province, with plans to bring in more in the fall. (Submitted by Geoff Hill )

It's not exactly a savoury topic, but outhouse maintenance is a big deal in the backcountry. And in some parts of British Columbia, dealing with human waste costs tens of thousands of dollars. 

The number of visitors to B.C. nature sites and campgrounds is growing every year, prompting B.C. Parks to look for more eco-friendly and cost-efficient alternatives to the dug-out pit toilets of traditional outhouses. 

And the technology they're bringing in? Foot pumps and feces-eating worms.

The outhouses, which use urine-diversion toilets, work exactly as their name implies: they separate solid waste from fluids. This means less waste needs to be pumped out and disposed of because more than 90 per cent ends up back in the ecosystem. 

"The mixing of pee and poo is really quite new ecologically. It came about when humans put toilets into cities and castles," said Geoff Hill, director and founder of Toilet Tech Solutions. 

The Seattle-based company makes the eco-friendly outhouses for parks across North America, including the ones in B.C. The idea was based off a similar model used in Europe. 

There are over 2,700 pit toilets located in parks across the province and, as more and more people visit the sites, B.C. Parks is looking for alternative solutions for waste management. (Ministry of Environment)

The province has been looking for non-traditional pit toilet alternatives like composting ones for decades, says B.C. Parks, but recently settled on the urine-diverting technology. 

There are about 20 of these outhouses in the province right now, with the first ones appearing in parks a few years ago. Several more are being built this fall. 

The number of people camping, boating and taking day trips to B.C. Parks has steadily risen in recent years, rising from just over 25 million in 2016 to more than 26 million visitors last year.

Data from 2019 isn't available yet.

A model of the UDT, showing the foot pump and conveyor belt. (Submitted by Geoff Hill)

'Backcountry innovation'

Unlike a pit toilet that needs regular maintenance and frequent pump-outs, the new outhouses decompose human waste on-site. 

"B.C. Parks tends to be a leader for all of North America, they've always been on the edge for backcountry innovation," said Hill. 

The toilet has a conveyor belt passing under the seat, collecting the waste, which is controlled by a foot pump. Rather than flushing, the user steps on the pump a handful of times until the waste slides out of sight. 

Hill, who started the company that makes the outhouses for B.C., used to work as a guide and said he was “horrified” at how human waste was managed at some of the places he visited, with pathogens from the feces streaming off into nearby drinking sources. (Submitted by Geoff Hill)

From there, urine is diverted through a pipe and eventually ends up in the soil. With its high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, it acts as a fertilizer and is absorbed as a nutrient source for plants and microbes.

Solid waste is pumped by foot to a chamber where worms and other organisms decompose it — which is known as vermicomposting.

A urine-diversion toilet has a conveyor belt passing it under the seat, collecting the waste, which is controlled by a foot pump (Submitted by Geoff Hill)

"Just like every other mammal, every deer and squirrel turd that hits the ground out in great Mother Earth, bugs come up through the soil ... and they start eating the poop," he said. 

"The whole soil ecosystem, one of its main functions is to consume the detritus — which is plants and animal tissue."

The black residue left behind by the bugs and worms, along with things like tampon applicators and other garbage, have to be disposed off separately once every decade or two. 

An eco-friendly outhouse pictured at Garibaldi Provincial Park. Separating human waste and decomposing it on-site means much less to pack out — which, from more remote backcountry locations, can be very costly and involve air transport. (Submitted by Geoff Hill)

Long-term savings

Installing a new urine-diversion toilet isn't cheap: it costs between $20,000 to $50,000, according to B.C. Parks, compared to $5,000 to $15,000 for a traditional pit toilet. 

Although the initial cost is higher, B.C. Parks says it saves money over time.

A traditional outdoor pit toilet, located within a kilometre or less to a road, costs about $230 a month for routine maintenance, and a single pump-out runs into the hundreds of dollars.  

For backcountry locations deeper in the woods, which are harder to access and usually require air transport, operating costs are higher still. Flying out waste can cost up to $4,000 and some locations require multiple fly outs per year, according to B.C. Parks. 

"Over the long term, we are seeing both environmental improvements and operational cost savings," said Tyler Hooper, a public affairs officer with B.C. Parks, in an email.

Strathcona Provincial Park has three urine diverting outhouses and is bringing in three more in September, with plans for an additional five in the coming years. Kootenay Lake Park is installing a new one in the fall. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story contained incorrect figures for how many people visit B.C. Parks each year. In fact, the number has risen to more than 26 million visitors in 2018, from just over 25 million in 2016.
    Aug 25, 2019 3:31 PM PT

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