State Expands Use of Composting Toilets

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Composting toilets have been a fixture in Rhode Island for about 15 years.

The first nature-friendly system was installed during a major renovation of the Miquamicut State Beach pavilion in the 1990s. Today, there are some 20 composting commodes at state parks, beaches and campgrounds. So far, none are being used in state office buildings.

Lisa Lawless, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), designed the converted system at Misquamicut, which retrofitted a septic system to a composting model.

"The public loves them and our park people, for the most part, think they are great," Lawless said.

The waterless system also is great for the environment, saving 1.6 million gallons of municipal water annually. It also helps eliminate year-round plumbing maintenance and vandalism to pipes, which was common during the off-season. In the summer, wood chips containing a bacteria are added to the collection tanks to speed up decomposition. A venting system keeps the tank aerated. Unlike port-o-potties, the tanks never need emptying. One slight drawback, Lawless said, is that the tanks require weekly raking during the summer and some items like cell phones and bottles require removal.

Newer "trailhead" units are replacing old toilets and port-o-potties around the state. These self-contained stations also don't need emptying or even raking like the one in Misquamicut. Several are vented with solar-powered fans and can be moved if needed. They cost up to $53,000 apiece, which is largely funded through grants, Lawless said.

"They are completely self-contained, they don't need any water or put out any pollutants," she said.

Lawless also helped set the state standards for installing commercial and residential composting toilets. She knows of one residential system so far — at the Clingstone House outside Newport Harbor.

Get your own composting toilet

There are several types of composting toilets, such as the bulky, self-contained units that house a collection chamber within the toilet. Others, like the one's preferred by DEM, divert the waste to a central tank built under the floor or in a basement.

Both work well with little or no water. The central collections models are best for bathrooms with a large number of users or at homes or commercial buildings that want a more substantial system.

"As long as the architecture can accommodate it we can put it in," said Lisa Truchon of Clivus New England, the designer and builder of DEM's composting toilets. The North Andover, Mass.-based business also has installed sustainable systems at McDonald's restaurants, as well as the public library in Little Compton.

In addition to Misquamicut State Beach, here's where you can find DEM composting toilets in Rhode Island:

Arcadia Managment Area, Hope Valley, 2

Burlingame State Park, Charlestown, 4

Beavertail State Park, Jamestown, 5

East Beach, Charlestown, 4

Pulaski State Park, Chepachet, 1

Little Compton Public Library, 1

George Washington Campground, Chepachet, 1

East Matunuck State Beach, South Kingstown, under construction

Division of Forestry check stations, 3