Bio-toilets flush with eco-pride

Although it is not an act many people spend an exorbitant amount of time contemplating, flushing the toilet relegates about 8 to 13 liters of water to the sewer, a septic tank or some equally unappealing place.

However, a new portable toilet that has been developed by a Japanese firm does not use water. It instead uses cedar chips to break down waste. Its creators hope this nonwaste-producing toilet will, among other things, save water, offer a portable toilet alternative that does not emit offensive odors and help improve Japan’s forests through increased wood sales.

The Bio-toilet uses cedar chips to treat human waste, turning it into carbon dioxide and water in a matter of hours, said Tsugiho Takahata of Environment Conservation Study Place, which markets the toilet. “This product is based on the concept that when you mix sawdust with raw garbage and organic waste, it turns into organic fertilizer,” Takahata said.

The concept itself is old, but the application is new. Although this system has been around for a long time, “it was just three years ago that we discovered the best chip size and method, and only two years ago that we really hit our stride,” Takahata said.

Microscopic holes in the cedar chips function as “dwellings” for bacteria — the same type that live in the ground and gradually cause buried waste to decompose. When these specially treated bacteria-inhabited chips are exposed to the right environment, mixture of air, moisture and temperature, for example, they quickly decompose raw garbage and excrement.

Potential applications for the toilet include rural cottages, areas without sewer systems, construction sites, campgrounds and parks, Takahata said. “Electricity is all that is necessary to run the toilet,” said Munehiro Takayama, president of cedar chip manufacturer Asset Enterprises. The electricity is used to churn the chips and waste and maintain a temperature of about 20 degrees for the toilet to function at peak efficiency.

Forty-seven Bio-toilets have been sold in the last 18 months, Takayama said, adding that customers include construction companies as well as the government. One of the happiest customers and biggest advocates of the toilet is the Forestry Agency, which purchased its first Bio-toilet in March 1996. “We got the Forestry Agency to review it last year and they said they could use it and decided to install one at Tama Forest Science Garden Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute,” he said.

“In the past, we used rental toilets and had complaints about the smell,” said Shiro Doi, general affairs section chief of the garden. Every April, an average of 2,000 to 3,000 people per day flock to the 57-hectare garden to observe the 250 species of cherry trees. About 200 of the visitors use the toilets.

The new toilet has been lauded by garden staff and visitors alike. Staffers like it because it does not use water, and the annual deluge of blossom gawkers like it because it does not reek like typical portable toilets.