The Problem with Peat

Peat Moss by Doug Becker CC BY-SA
Peat Moss by Doug Becker CC BY-SA

I’ve been vocal about wanting to choose as sustainably as I can for my tiny home, and part of that is that I plan to use a composting system for my toilet, rather than install a black water tank.  I’ve commented enough times about my preference for Coco Coir over Peat, that a friend who is writing about compost toilets, asked me to provide him with info on it to include in his blog post. (which I will link when it is written.)

In starting to write about peat to him, I quickly realised that it would be hidden in a private message, when it’s probably a good post for everyone interested to read, and knowing that he wasn’t going to simply copy and paste my words for everyone, I figured it would be better for me to put them here, and then he can access them for his blog, but anyone else interested would have access to them too.

So here’s the gist on peat:

Okay, there’s a few things about peat… I’m going to give you a technical page and you can read the info yourself. Even if there wasn’t a sustainability issue, the properties of the peat itself make it sometimes a poor medium. It’s a great cover material when it’s fresh, but you can’t really always know how long it’s been sitting, and once it dries out, it’s irreversible and useless even as a soil amendment. I believe that for this reason alone it’s a poor choice.
Peat when dry, is hydrophobic, and you cannot rewet it to the point of being absorptive again. When you get it, you’re asked to rewet it first, and then squeeze out all the water, right? That’s because it is very absorptive before this point, hydrophilic, then it dries and becomes hydrophobic, here’s a very technical page to demonstrate this.
 Second, peat grows incredibly slowly, and while there are now some harvesting (mining) facilities that try to harvest lightly, the fact remains that more peat is harvested every year than what is replenished naturally.

 

Tourbière/ Peat bog by peupleloup CC BY-SA
Tourbière/ Peat bog by peupleloup CC BY-SA
There’s contention here too though, as a lot of peat is harvested from wetland ecosystems, and the harvesters feel that they are acting as conservation stewards. This could be partially true in countries like Canada, but by supporting the demand for peat moss, which as I mentioned already isn’t necessarily the best medium unless you’re certain of the quality of what you’re purchasing, you’re also supporting the harvesting practices that are less sustainable.
Most of the peat bog wetlands in Europe have disappeared due to overharvesting, yet in Canada, they are very careful to harvest slowly, sad truth though is, that they harvest too slowly for the demand, and have higher overhead, environmental costs, labour costs etc, so a large amount of peat is harvested in other countries where such care and stewardship is not taken. Any argument that peat is a sustainable ecofriendly activity needs to be seen in context of where that could be true, and if it’s true enough in one area to supply all of the demand that’s fine, but the fact remains that unless they wish to overharvest, someone else will do it for them.
Canada is really very good at mining the peat moss slower than it replenishes. They use this fact as evidence that they are good stewards, and in fact, they provide 60% of the peat to the North American market, but, the other 40% is not so sustainable, and if you’re only using how fast the peat replenishes, as this article uses, then you’re only getting half the story, because the peat bog itself doesn’t quickly re-establish itself.

Why does that matter?  Like all precious wetlands, peat-bogs purify fresh air and provide habitat for many species of butterflies, dragonflies, birds, frogs, and highly specialised species of native plants which may be endangered, and only found in the peat bog. These bogs also sequester carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when it is mined. Peat bog harvesters suggest figures that a peat bog will fully replenish itself within 5 years of harvest, and within 25 years, 95% of the original fauna will return, but managed bogs lack the biodiversity of the original bog.  Here’s a great article which details how important and delicate our peat bogs are, and a direct download link to a pdf written by Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University titled “The Myth of Permanent Peatlands” that details how the peat bogs never revert to their original state.  A quote from the article:

Peatlands degraded by mining activity do not revert to their former functionality; changes in hydrology and physical structure are hostile to Sphagnum re-establishment. Recently, degraded peatlands have been restored through the blockage of drainage ditches, seeding with Sphagnum, and application of a mulch layer to reduce water loss. When degraded peatlands are restored, the ability to hold water is improved but CO2 continues to be released by high levels of bacterial respiration, which represents the decomposition of mulch and other organic matter. It takes a number of years for the photosynthetic rate of new peatland plants to outpace the respiratory rate: until this happens, even restored peatlands represent a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere and thus contribute to greenhouse gas production.

So where peat gets really ugly, is in the areas where it isn’t mined in any way sustainably, and with no thought to the harm it does to the environment and endangered species it threatens. Peat isn’t only used for gardening and compost, in some areas of the world, it’s burned for fuel.  China’s peat industry supplies fuel for power plants, and mining the peat in peat swamps there has contributed to habitat loss for countless species, as well as degrading pastureland for their own animals. In Indonesia, peat rainforests occupy valuable land for plantation owners who wish to harvest palm oil.  The peat is drained, the forest is cut down and most often the peat is burned, making Indonesia the 3 largest producer of carbon emmissions in the world after China and the US. In areas where the peat is deep, it is mined and sold for profit.  This rainforest destruction, and the peat fires, is the number one threat to endangered species in the area, including orangutans. While peat harvesting is a very small part of the Palm Oil deforestation issue, ecosystems that contain peat remain very precious around the world.

Whooping Crane with transmitter by Don Faulkner CC BY-SA
Whooping Crane with transmitter by Don Faulkner CC BY-SA

The Whooping Crane nests in North American peat wetlands.  Siberian Cranes nest in West Siberian peatland. The Black Necked Crane is an icon of peat wetlands in China. There’s endangered fish (the Betta Persephone native to Malaysia and suffering due to peat swamp habitat destruction) native plants threatened, and serious damage done that isn’t reversible in practice, both to biodiversity and to the carbon in the atmosphere. All for an inferior quality product that sometimes is beyond use.

Sawdust toilet by Eli Duke CC BY-SA
Sawdust toilet by Eli Duke CC BY-SA

For a better alternative, you can use locally produced and milled sawdust as a byproduct of a wood milling or furniture building industry.  Choose a wood species that isn’t going to impede growth of plants once you compost it. Walnut contains a compound called juglone, (info here) that is a toxic poison to many other plants, especially tomatoes.  While you can compost the walnut to the point of destroying the compound, it’s best to test your compost by trying to plant tomato seedlings in it before you decide to put it in your garden. The longer you compost this cover material the better, lest you cause all your plants to wilt and die. Cedar is another wood that has toxicity issues with other plants, (info here )it contains phenolics which impedes growth of seedlings.  It makes an excellent mulch in areas where you wish to prevent weed growth, but because of its high Carbon to Nitrogen ratio, it is very slow to decompose. Be certain to add a lot of nitrogen to this compost pile, and even to the garden itself if you haven’t fully composted the wood shavings before use. (good thing our toilets will provide much of this)

20090728-145925 by StretchyBill CC BY-SA
20090728-145925 by StretchyBill CC BY-SA

Coconut Coir is very useful, if you don’t have a local source of wood sawdust. When coconuts are harvested, long fibers from the husk are removed and used in manufacture of things like rope, brushes, doormats, plant pots, even as upholstery stuffing.  What is left, is unusable small pieces of husk, which is taken and milled to a uniform consistency and used as a soil amendment in place of peat, but it also makes an excellent cover for a compost toilet. It’s a renewable product, as a byproduct of another industry, and using it solves a waste issue in the countries where it is produced. It absorbs moisture better than peat (which sometimes doesn’t at all, as noted in the first link above) and it withstands compacting better, you’ll find it is highly compressed when you purchase it. If you are composting with worms, coconut coir is the very good bedding for them, because it can retain moisture while allowing air to pass through, preventing the worm bin from becoming anaerobic. (plus the worms eat it for grit so you won’t need to add any) Coir pH runs 6-6.7 so it won’t alter the soil pH of a neutral garden, peat moss runs acidic, so ornamental plants may benefit from it, but coir is still a very good soil amendment.

There are ethical concerns surrounding the manufacture of the coir pith as well that you should be aware of. The production of the coir takes water, and in countries where water availability is limited, using water for industry can be seen as a negative. While a lot of places are now aware of this, and collecting and reusing the water, there is room for improvement.  There is also the question of poor labour practices, and while you can get fair trade and ethical coir, sometimes it’s difficult to determine as brands are not always clearly marked. Working conditions not only can be low wages, but there’s also a safety issue with regard to the small particles. Here’s a very in depth analysis of the sustainability and supply chain issues surrounding it, (direct download)

I still see the use of coir as the superior option due to the environmental issues surrounding the use of peat.  While one can work towards better industrial standards for water use and labour practices (Sri Lanka and India, two major manufacturers are deemed to have “adequate” labour practices, but there is always room for improvement) it’s difficult, and likely impossible to restore peat bogs to their natural state.

I can research the company I choose to purchase coir from, and find one that suits my ethics.  I cannot say the same for peat.  I also can choose to use a byproduct of a local industry via wood sawdust, likely for a very small cost (if any at all).  The cost to the environment by using peat, is far more than I’m willing to pay.

Thea

creative commons licence for the above photos

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The Poop on Poop

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We all love a good poop post, especially in the Tiny House Community!  Whenever there’s any discussion about poop, there’s always a lot of people joining in.

Common questions are always about composting toilets, and if they’re gross, which is the best one, and how to make your own.  People offer reviews, advice, and a lot of them get horrified!  EWWWW POOP!!

This post is a little different. It’s about the poop part of it. What are you gonna do with all that poop?  How long is it going to last?  Is it harmful? Am I gonna die if I don’t put it in the sewer??

Okay, disclaimer, I’m one of those poop fanatics that read everything I can on compost toilets.  I join in all the discussions about poop, and my husband and I talk about various poop related things. I just bought a new poop scoop today to take hiking with me for crying out loud!

Okay, so there’s this overlap with backpacking and composting poop that I’m going to lay out right here, so that you’ll understand why poop matters to me so much.  When I hike, I poop. When other hikers hike, they poop too.  We realise that if we don’t take proper care of our poop, it is first, going to sit there and look gross, second, it can hurt the environment.  So, we follow some rules that help with both counts.

First, we poop 200 meters away from the trail, the campsites and any waterways.  The idea is first, to prevent too much poop from being where people might be, and second, to prevent any pathogens from getting into the water where other people might be wanting to get their drinking water from. Talk about gross! (Even if I filter it and treat it, I don’t want your poop anywhere near it!)  It’s also becoming more and more common to pack out our toilet paper because it just takes so darn long to decompose.

How is this relevant to compost toilets?  Let me tell you! First of all, we use toilet paper in a compost toilet too, and people are always asking what is the best kind, and how long do they take to compost.  What’s compost if not decomposition? Second, people with compost toilets are always asking if it’s safe to dispose of the compost or if the compost is dangerous.

416492772_c525c5d639_nFor the toilet paper, people often suggest using things like family cloth, and washing it yourself.  Sure, why not, right?  In a tiny house, with not a lot of space, you’ll have a bucket full of poop and beside it, what, another bucket full of poopy cloths?  If it’s your thing, that’s great, but I don’t see it being my thing. I’ve done my share of washing poopy diapers, but as soon as my kid could learn to use tp and wipe his own bum, you can bet I swapped out.  (the horrors, I know, I’m such a terrible person, feel free to judge me)  I do use a Diva Cup rather than pads and tampons, so I’m not feeling any guilt here over it.

I always hear people saying to use the RV toilet paper, because it’s designed to dissolve quickly in water.  That sounds great, it’s one of those things that because it’s the suggested choice in one area, it’s gotta be the best choice for all, right?  Well, at a steeper cost per sheet than regular toilet paper, and a penchant for being less than comfortable on your bottom, does it really decompose faster than regular toilet paper?

Well, no, no it doesn’t. It might be your best option in a black tank where you need it to dissolve into the water, but out where it’s not submerged in complete wet, it performs poorly against regular 1 ply toilet paper. At around 80cents a roll for RV paper (scott brand at Walmart) compared to 60cents a roll for 1ply (scott brand at Walmart) and more weight per sheet for the regular 1ply, if your bottom doesn’t thank me, your wallet will.  How bad is 2ply though?

You can see this performance on this backyard science page which shows regular 2ply will decompose rapidly, this direct download to a pdf from Biodegrade Facts says 2-5 months, and has other nifty figures for the curious. You can see reading these documents how 1ply degrades so much faster, especially when in contact with soil like material, like it would be in your compost!   Even still, is 2ply totally a no go? 2-5 months later, I’m still composting the poop, so I don’t know about you, but I’m going to just keep my butt happy, and keep using whichever roll I like.

2546718654_64c3c7c231_mOkay, but what about that poop then, isn’t it going to kill us if we put it in our backyards?  I mean 200m from anything is a long way away, that’s a half lap on a full track! Is the poop that dangerous?  Turns out not really, that’s just erring on the safe side. There’s a study (another direct download pdf) that shows that 1m away is about how far away from poop anything could be detected as coming from it.  What’s more, it shows that not burying the poop makes it decompose faster. While that’s not going to change any behaviour of backpackers (we really don’t want people pooping everywhere without hiding it) it is good news for people composting, where the compost is often laid above ground, and sometimes the poop isn’t really mixed under the compost medium.

I won’t bore you with recapping the Humanure Handbook (read free on their site with a direct download) but I will say that if you’re composting the way they suggest, pouring your pile of poop and compost medium on a regular compost pile, and following their directions so that it gets hot, then first, the heat from the pile is going to kill off any pathogens in the pile, and second, things aren’t going to migrate very far FROM the pile either. I highly recommend the book. It has lots of really cool tables showing how long it takes to kill everything that could be dangerous in your poop, if it were in your poop in the first place! Really engrossing reading! (pun intended)

2305808096_b87c5550a2_mIf you’re super concerned about it, then take my suggestion and WASH YOUR DAMN HANDS BEFORE YOU EAT!  Oh, you do that already? Then why are people so damned concerned about composting poop then?

Good points of composting the Humanure way:  For one, it’s compost, you can grow things with it. You can safely use it on any kind of plant including vegetables. You’ll use less water if you’re not flushing, and you won’t need to have a septic system or a sewer line. You don’t have to worry about the toilet backing up, unless you get one of those crazy assed contraption compost toilets full of parts that are really expensive and it breaks on you!

Bad points? The ick factor. That I can’t help you with. You’ll have to get over it yourself. One I can help with? What to do with all that poop if you don’t have a compost pile.

So what can you do?  Well, you can dispose of the compost in someone else’s compost pile for one. (just ask first)  You can put the compost into a vault toilet, which you can find at a lot of campgrounds. (you can also empty portable chemical toilets into these, gross!) You can store the compost in a lidded bin for a year or two and let it compost that way. (there’s no way to know if some parasite eggs might still be viable in here, so if you have parasites please don’t use this on your garden vegetables, you could reinfect yourself.  Oh, what? you don’t have parasites now? then your compost is probably fine, but the ick factor and the not knowing, might still make you want to put it on ornamental only plants) You can bag the compost up and throw it in a landfill.  Not ideal yes, but given the alternative, it’s still less of a problem than using a sewer.

So there you have some talk about poop that maybe you haven’t seen on other posts.  There’s a ton of great ones out there, here’s some link love to my faves:

All the Reasons Flush Toilets are Gross and Why I Love My Compost Toilet

Composting Toilet FAQ and Debunking Myths be sure to read the other articles on this site regarding compost toilets.

And a review of my favourite toilet: Composting Toilet Options

Review of “Best Tiny House Composting Toilets”

Whee, a toilet post!! Tiny House Mana!!

I just want the sleeve, I'll add my own bucket!
I just want the sleeve, I’ll add my own bucket!

I’m reviewing this page here: Best Tiny House Composting Toilet

Okay, here’s my thoughts toilet by toilet.

Dry flush? 15-18 uses per cartridge, at 20 bucks a pop, that means your poops are going to cost you a buck and a quarter each! In my house, I think I’d be refilling it every 4-5 days. That’s maybe 70-95 times a year I’d need to dump it. That’s got a very high environmental footprint, it would be better to put your poop in our drinking water and let it get cleaned with the rest of the city’s, then offset that pollution with all the money savings you have some way. But the toilet itself is at least pretty, would be an expensive alternative to a loveable loo, if you wanted to put a bucket in it and still look like a toilet.

The EcoJohn… that’s a new one for me, and at the price… (1800$) it’s easy to balk at it. Basically, it appears to dehydrate your poop at a high enough temp to kill bacteria before you compost it. So… it says that helps eliminate smells, but I would REALLY want some reviews from people about cooking their poop because we’ve all heard the horror stories from people who have the incinerating toilets! Other than that… the bacteria in my own poop, I really don’t worry about. I don’t have any diseases that could be dangerous to anyone, and I don’t have any worms, and would be composting in a pile hot enough to kill this off anyway. So adding in what might be a smell producing issue, at such a high cost, I’m a little meh on it without seeing reviews about it. But again, looks like a nice enough toilet that you could sub it for the lovable loo if you want a toilet looking toilet. Also has good instructions on how to deal with the pee hose.

Lovable loo… well, that’s the ugliest one they could find huh? I’ve seen these dressed up to look great, but still waiting for some kind of porcelain sleeve to be produced that fits a regular bucket, but makes it look more like a regular toilet. Other than that, price is right!

Nature’s Head… This is such an ugly toilet, but it is a lot smaller than some of the other competing toilets, that I’d consider it. I’d prefer a hose that you don’t see for the pee, that can drain into the ground directly, or at least into a larger holding tank, outside the home, just for those times that you MIGHT not catch that it’s full. Also… not to get too graphic, but I imagine that to NOT be a very pretty toilet after use, skid marks are highly likely, and when you’re on your period… you’ll fill that bucket just rinsing the damn thing to keep it clean. What they see as a benefit to the flapper, I see as a daily chore to wash. I also don’t like all the nooks and crannies that are just going to make it harder to clean, and stirring my poop?? why?? I’m sorry, but that’s just weird, and unneccessary, though if you do want this version. (and oddly enough, it’s a decent enough version, its’ still on my list as a possibility even with its drawbacks, though the ecojohn may outclass it for me now that I’ve seen it) then go to the Gone With the Wynn’s site for information on getting it with the discount their fans get.

SunMar… This is just big, and expensive. It’s great that you don’t have to empty it as often, and that it looks like a toilet, but I’m not sure I really want something that large. Try looking at it with a person beside it, it’s a lot bigger than it looks in that pic. What’s nice though, is that it really is one of the better toilets for how the composting is done. If you live somewhere that you need an approved toilet, this one should pass before a lot of the others will, especially if you get the kind with the unit you install below the house. Still not a fan of churning my poop though.

Santerra X… really, even on their hotlink, they don’t give enough info about how the toilet works to really have anything to say about it other than, WOW 3000$???? Think I’ll pass unless it renames itself to Irona and also cleans my house.

Here’s a much better bucket toilet picture.

see more of this toilet here: http://gungy.livejournal.com/96891.html
see more of this toilet here: http://gungy.livejournal.com/96891.html