- Matt Mignanelli
Chrissy Wade didn't think there was anything wrong with the way her family lived on its off-grid farm in Waterville. The four — including two teenagers — inhabit a simple, wood-heated yurt on 56 mostly wooded acres.
They collect mushrooms and medicinal herbs and raise goats, rabbits and chickens. The family heats water on a woodstove for use in the kitchen and shower and draws its electricity from solar panels. They collect the waste from two compost toilets to be used as fertilizer on the property.
But about three and a half years ago, a state inspector — tipped off by a neighbor, Wade thinks — arrived to notify her that the family was violating state regulations because the home lacked a septic system. Wade said she was stunned.
"I couldn't believe he gave me a citation," Wade said. She's proud of her homesteading skills and has worked hard to create a living space that has a minimal impact on the land. That includes the simple, bucket-based toilets, which use no water. "I said, 'You should be giving me an award for the way I am handling my sanitation,'" Wade added.
That day, she learned that Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation requires any home built after 2007 to have a septic system, or some other system that keeps waste from exposure to open air, unless it is connected to a sewer system.
She also found out that under Vermont law, the waste from a home toilet can't be used to fertilize plants. Instead, it must be buried according to the special conditions of a permit from the state DEC — or thrown away in the trash.
Most of the developed world heavily regulates the handling of human waste, which, if left untreated, can harbor life-threatening pathogens, such as those that cause cholera and typhoid. In the United States, contaminated water has been blamed for outbreaks of disease caused by parasites such as cryptosporidia and giardia.
But Wade is strongly opposed to the idea of throwing the waste in the trash or burying it. She said her family is committed to a sustainable way of life at their property, Wading Bear Farm & Forest, and as a responsible homeowner, she should be able to use the compost as fertilizer.
"Most of us with compost toilets are doing it because we want to be eco-friendly and we want to enrich the soils of our land," Wade said. "We're not creating waste. This is organic matter that we are recycling into a beneficial resource."
Seeking more options, Wade contacted her local lawmaker and the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, which promotes the use of human waste as a resource. Earlier this year, six members of the Vermont House — including Wade's representative, retiring Rep. Lucy Rogers (D-Waterville) — sponsored a bill, H.586, calling for the state to create a group to study Vermont's wastewater management rules and develop best practices. The issue has been debated for years.
The bill never got an airing, but cosponsor Rep. Mollie Burke (D-Brattleboro) says she plans to introduce it again in the coming session. Burke said she likes the idea that compost toilets might allow people to build an affordable tiny home or yurt without the need for a septic system that can cost several thousand dollars.
"I certainly want to make sure we don't impact the environment in any negative way or be casual about disposal," Burke said. "But why couldn't we be more flexible about this and achieve the same thing?"
After that visit by a state inspector, Wade said she and her husband, Jason, borrowed $10,000 to install a conventional septic system. But they didn't connect the family's two compost toilets to it.
And while the legislation to create a formal task force has so far languished undebated, an informal one has sprung up, led by Wade, that meets online monthly to talk about Vermont's septic rules and how they could be altered to make life easier for homeowners with compost toilets.
The devices close a natural loop on the land, say Wade and many others who have joined her in trying to ease regulations. Proponents are passionate about making use of the product but leery of running afoul of the law, and many are hesitant to talk publicly about their own practices. Wade, who composts the organic matter in seven wooden structures near her home, said she wanted to avoid another visit from the state.
"I'm doing what I know is the safest way to handle the contents of my toilet," she said.
The Rich Earth Institute didn't return calls about composting, but its executive director, Ivan Ussach, wrote to several newspapers earlier this year to promote H.586. "Compost toilet systems can protect water resources, complete the nutrient cycle, and even help build climate resilience," he wrote.
Nobody knows how many Vermont households use compost toilets. Many types are available at building supply stores, including some equipped with heated chambers that turn waste into ash — convenient, if not energy efficient.
The simplest versions are often situated in ordinary indoor bathrooms, distinguished from their porcelain counterparts mainly by the fact that the toilet seat sits on a box of some sort. Instead of being flushed away, the waste lands in a container and is covered immediately with a scoop of sawdust. Ideally, it's then moved to a larger bin to undergo the slow decomposition process that removes pathogens. When it composts as it should, the end result is an odorless soil packed with nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
The problem — and the reason the state doesn't allow compost from toilets to be used as fertilizer or dumped in the woods — is that the composting process doesn't always go as planned.
Composting requires sophisticated management of air, moisture content and other elements, such as sawdust. Even if the composted waste looks and smells like soil, it might still harbor pathogens.
Homeowners who are inattentive or uninformed might dump that waste in the wrong place, imperiling the local drinking water supply, said Bruce Douglas, the programs manager at the state DEC's Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division.
"Even if someone was doing their ultimate best, you still wouldn't know," said Douglas, who takes part in the informal task force meetings hosted by Wade. "There are so many variables. You're not necessarily addressing all the pathogens."
Those contaminants can cause problems even if they're not introduced to a water source.
"Insects may land on it, then carry it and then land on the food at the barbecue," Douglas said. "At the household level, it's very difficult to get that quality control."
Wade agrees that the disposal has to be done right — but she said the people who choose compost toilets take the process seriously.
"We all want safe and healthy sanitation systems," she said.
Not all the compost-related challenges are limited to household toilets. John Medose, a regional facilities manager for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, has been grappling with a jumbo-size waste removal quandary since he arrived at his job in 2014. Many of the campsites in the region he manages use a type of compost toilets known as "moldering" toilets, equipped with chambers that allow the waste to age.
Some of those spots are reachable only by water.
In past years, state employees have had to pack up the waste in plastic bags and ferry it out on a small motorboat. But the method isn't viable, he said.
"For $12 an hour, people aren't going to do that," Medose said. He started hunting for a better way to dispose of waste from these facilities and learned that the department's remote campsites are exempt from some of DEC's rules, so the waste can be buried without a permit. Medose worked closely with a DEC soil scientist last summer who showed him how to use a soil auger, or drill, to avoid hitting the water table when seeking a burial site.
Medose is active in the monthly compost discussion group because he'd like to help others learn to compost waste, as well. Like Wade, he thinks requiring people to throw the waste into their trash is a poor use of a potentially valuable resource. And he thinks many homesteaders would embrace safe burial practices.
"We can be a model of showing how these best practices can work," he said.
Medose hopes to see more safe disposal options in Vermont's wilderness areas, where, as a longtime hiker, he has been dismayed by the amount of human waste he increasingly encounters trailside. Compost toilets or other alternatives could be an answer. "People should be able to hang out at their campsites without accidentally stepping in a pile of poop," Medose said.
For Wade and like-minded Vermonters, tailoring the toilet regulations is also a way to create opportunities for people who want to live simply and cheaply, as she and her family do. Burke, the Brattleboro lawmaker, said easing the waste-disposal regs could help address the state's stark shortage of affordable housing.
"It allows for a lot more diversity in our housing, for sure," Burke said. "It allows people to live in a more environmentally sustainable way and also a more economical way."