SECTIONS OF THE BOOK SOLVIVA:
Table of Contents
|| Some current
realities || A
visit to Solviva
How I got on the path of seeking
better ways to live... || Wastewater
Greyburg or Greendale:
where would you rather live?
(A chapter from the
While designing my new home it became clear to
me that I did not want a standard septic system. I had learned
about the large amount of nitrogen that is contained in human
waste, and that standard septic systems do not process this
nitrogen but instead release most of it into the groundwater.
And I knew that the nitrogen does not biodegrade or diminish
in the groundwater, but instead travels unabated with the groundwater
to the nearest lagoon, pond or harbor, no matter how far away.
Once there, the first plants that react to the nitrogen enrichment
are the algae, which consequently multiply explosively, thereby
causing devastation to our ecosystems.
There are many telltale signs of nitrogen pollution:
thick masses of billowing algae "smog" covering the
bottoms of ponds, choking out desirable aquatic flora and fauna,
and killing the shellfish beds; slippery, smelly beaches covered
with slimy green algae at low tide; the horrible stench that
periodically envelops towns such as Vineyard Haven, caused by
masses of algae putrifying on the beaches around the harbor;
flows of living green and dead brown algae covering vast surface
areas of ponds; and large festering sores on beautiful tidal
marshes, choked by thick layers of dead algae.
This marsh in Oak Bluffs is being killed by thick
layers of rotting algae slurry.
James Pond: 50 or so
septic systems release nitrogen into this ecosystem,
previously clean and productive, now toxic and foul.
The owners of these
expensive shorefront properties often cannot use their
own beaches because of unpleasant algae infestations.
For many years these algae problems were blamed
on geese, ducks and swans, and on farms and lawn fertilizers,
but in fact these sources pale in comparison with the contribution
from septic systems.
Standard on-site septic systems are constructed
in accordance with the current laws of man, but these laws are
in serious violation of the laws of Nature. In Nature all waste
products - leaves, manure, dead animals - fall to Earth's surface.
They are then rapidly absorbed and processed by the different
decomposers who live in the top few inches of the skin of our
planet, including earthworms and pill bugs and myriads of microscopic
organisms. I am not advocating that we dispose of our wastewater
on the surface, because this exposes pathogens which could lead
to disease. But we can, and must, dispose of the wastewater
within the top 12 inches of the surface, thus making it possible
for the nutrients to be processed by living plants. I knew I
did not want to waste the precious nutrients contained in the
wastewater. I instead wanted to use them to enrich the surrounding
trees, shrubs and flowers.
Many people think that just changing to low-flush
toilets solves the pollution problem, but it is obvious that
this in no way reduces the amount of nitrogen injected into
the groundwater: although low-flush toilets do save water, requiring
only 1.6 gallons or less per flush instead of the standard 5
to 7 gallons, they still flush exactly the same amount of nitrogen
into the same standard septic or sewage systems and thus cause
just as much pollution. Back then I thought we simply had to
do away with flush toilets and replace them with various kinds
of waterless toilets.
I researched different composting toilets developed all around
the world, butdiscovered they all had problems such as mechanical
failure, flies, odors, great expense, or limited capacity. Some
had wide chutes leading to a composting chamber far below, evoking
terrible images of an unwatched toddler or puppy falling in,
head first. I did not want to have to padlock my toilet. Some
systems used so much electricity that it seemed that any benefits
gained were outweighed by the increased need for oil, coal or
nuclear-generated power. For instance, one composting toilet
required about 2 kwh/day for fan and heater, which is about
700 kwh/year (comparable to a refrigerator), which at our current
rate of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour is $105 per year. So I designed
my own composting toilet as well as graywater management system,
based upon what I had learned while living in the little cottage
in the woods.
When I went to the local board to obtain my building permit,
I was fully prepared to have to defend what I felt was my right
to build and test an innovative toilet system that I believed
would be better than standard septic systems from both public
health and environmental standpoints. I knew that regulations
are rigid in these matters, but I was prepared to "go to
the Supreme Court" if I had to. But to my surprise and
delight I was given the building permit without any questions
about septic plans. Apparently the permitting board figured
I would hook into the preexisting septic system because the
new house would be located adjacent to the one that had burned
down. Thus I had the opportunity (for which I have always been
grateful) to experiment and to discover that it is possible
to have a toilet that uses no water, that is easy to maintain
without odor or fly problems, and that costs very little to
construct. I also discovered that it is possible to have a graywater
management system that causes no pollution, costs no money,
greatly enhances the landscaping, requires no maintenance, and
has no problems whatsoever.
THE SOLVIVA COMPOSTOILET
I created two compostoilets, one downstairs and
the other upstairs. The toilet consists of a polished mahogany
cabinet with a comfortable seat and a tight lid. Below is a
20-gallon plastic barrel holding tank.
The Solviva compostoilet
is absolutely odor-free, and causes zero pollution
Adjacent to the toilet is a hinged compartment
containing a cover material that consists of sawdust or shredded
leaves mixed with some compost. Thus, instead of flushing with
5 or 6 gallons of drinking water, a scoop of this cover material
is all that is needed to immediately eliminate any odors.
The sawdust or shredded leaves in the cover mix perform the
task of bulking and aeration. Also, their high carbon content
bonds with the high nitrogen in human waste, resulting in excellent
compost. The sawdust must be easily biodegradable, such as pine,
hemlock, spruce, fir, maple or oak, not rot-resistant wood such
as cedar, locust, teak, mahogany, or any wood treated with preservatives.
The sawdust must also be fairly fine but not powder-fine. The
consistency generated by a tablesaw is perfect. If leaves are
used, they must be finely shredded. Old leaf mold works well.
I do not recommend peat moss for compostoilets, because the
fibers absorb so much moisture and swell up so that air circulation
and oxygenpenetration is greatly reduced.
The best, and also the most convenient, compost to mix with
the cover material is the finished toilet compost, because it
contains the organisms that have evolved to best handle this
particular ecosystem. But to start with, any good compost will
The toilet barrel has a drain through which the urine flows
into a pipe that leads to the outside composting chamber. The
urine adds valuable nitrogen and moisture to the compost, both
of which speed up the composting process.
When the toilet barrel is three-quarters full (this takes about
four weeks for a single person), the whole barrel is removed
from the toilet cabinet and taken to the compost chamber area.
The toilet compost
seems almost sacred: imagine transforming human waste
into something so clean and beneficial
Gorgeous toilet compost:
while you are still alive!
This self-seeded squash
plant is obviously thriving in the toilet compost
This flower garden
has been thriving with annual applications of toilet
compost for more than 20 years
The easiest management system entails topping
this barrel off with compost from the most active compost chamber,
rich with earthworms and other decomposing organisms, and covering
securely with a lid. After a short period of time, about two
to three weeks in the summer and five to seven weeks in winter,
the contents of the barrel will be fully composted and have
the wonderful fragrance of good humus. After emptying the barrel
into the compost bin, it is clean and ready to be used again.
The changing process takes less than five minutes, and the different
aspects of the whole system smell like good earth. Zero nitrogen
enters the groundwater because the compost chamber is covered
by a roof to prevent rains from leachingthe nitrogen into the
subsoil and groundwater. The nutrients are all absorbed and
processed by the
various carbon materials and organisms
in the compost sponge, resulting in top-quality compost.
My two compostoilets and the compost chamber cost
just a couple of hundred dollars to build. The system has been
functioning perfectly for 17 years now, and there is no reason
why it would not be functioning equally well for another 100
or 5,000 years. There is no leach field that can clog up, as
in standard septic systems. There are no plumbing pipes to plug
up, as with flush toilets. There is simply nothing that can
go wrong, except of course by human carelessness. For instance,
if you don't use the cover material, it may smell.
If you do cover, it doesn't smell at all. If
you let the drum get too full, it is heavy to move. This compostoilet
can be left unused for months on end, or can be used continually
by one or any number of people. For large numbers of people,
the barrel simply needs to be changed more often, but, as I
said, that takes less than five minutes.
To some people the concept of a waterless toilet is really threatening,
especially to men. There have actually been times that men have
asked for the bathroom, and when told that it is a composting
toilet, they swiveled right around, and while avoiding eye contact,
said: "That's allright. I can wait." Whereas most
women go right in, stick their head in and say: "It smellswonderful
and looks so beautiful and clean. How is this possible?!"
Children love it. They just sit there and glow, and soon "need
to go" again. Leave it to kids to have the right instincts.
For many people, using these compostoilets has been a deeply
transformative experience, especially for those who have had
a chance to participate in the changing process. People are
elated when they see human waste transformed so effortlessly
into a truly lovable product.
Even with compostoilets, I still had wastewater
to deal with, namely that portion of the wastewater referred
to as graywater. This is all the wastewater except that which
comes from toilets. Current regulations sometimes allow compostoilets,
but generally require standard septic systems to handle the
graywater, although the size of the leaching field or pit can
be reduced by 40 percent compared to households with flush toilets.
Even these reduced septic systems require extensive excavations,
and usually cost around $10,000 to $20,000, and in many cases
In my new home I did not want to put my household graywater
into a standard septic system, for reasons of pollution, landscape
destruction, high cost, as well as waste of good irrigation
water. Instead, I designed what I call a "fully upgraded",
"bio-benign" septic system for purifying and utilizing
The graywater pipe runs from the house down a
short slope and ends in a shallow depression filled with wood
chips and leaves. Grasses and wildflowers and some sumac bushes,
Indian poke and a cherry tree already grew around this area,
and I added a Rosa rugosa bush, a dogwood, a Norway spruce,
and a white pine. These are my sewage treatment plants, and
it is a most beautiful area at any time of year. All the wastewater
from the house (occupancy ranging from 1-10 people) has exited
here in this same spot since 1981, and there has never been
any wastewater overflowing to the surface, no scum, slime or
odors, and no flies or mosquitoes. The wastewater just seeps
through the topsoil, and the roots of the surrounding trees
and bushes, grasses and flowers know just where to go to find
what they want. As the pictures eloquentlytestify, these plants
are not only surviving, they are indeed exceptionally healthy
and beautiful specimens.
These lovely Rosa rugosa
and Pokeberry, as well as various beautiful grasses
and wildflowers, are thriving from 20 years of graywater.
Dogwood happy with
This area has been
filtering graywater since 1981, and as of 1995 also
the blackwater from the Solviva flushtoilet composting
system. And the spruce, pines, dogwood and roses have
been exceptionally vibrant all along.
This is another area
of the Solviva Greenfilter flower gardens, here showing
a stand of 5-foot cosmos.
Now, you might think that I have been using only
special biodegradable soaps and avoided any toxic stuff. On
the contrary. I felt it was important to use "normal"
household substances, in order to know whether this greywater
management system could function in the "real" world,
where few people are willing to spend extra money for special
I have calculated that since 1981, the zone of influence
of my graywater management system has received and successfully
processed approximately the following:
45 gallons of chlorine bleach, 500 pounds of ordinary laundry
detergents, 8 gallons of detergents for washing dishes by hand
(I don't have a dishwasher, so I cannot vouch for such detergents),
15 gallons of shampoos (including dandruff
shampoos which, I have been told, cause havoc in standard septic
systems), 5 gallons of hair conditioners, and umpteen pounds
of toothpaste. In addition, I have dyed some 3,000 pounds of
wool in my weaving studio, using aniline dyes and approximately
50 gallons of vinegar. (Note to those who find it strange
that I use aniline dyes instead of "natural" dyes:
I switched to aniline dyes when I found out that the mordants
- salts of chrome, copper, tin and aluminum - that are needed
with most dye plants caused more damage to the environment,
my plumbing and me than the aniline dyes and vinegar mordants.)
Last summer this system was submitted to the ultimate test:
the bathroom sink clogged up for the first time, and, after
asking the plants to please brace themselves, I poured down
a whole bottle of standard drain cleaner, to test the system
with "real world" stuff. To my relief, none of the
plants exhibited the slightest sign of distress. But that's
really pushing it. Next time I will just use boiling water which,
I am told, works just as well to clear the drain.
A standard septic system is incapable of breaking down most
of the undesirable substances contained in regular graywater,
but instead releases them into the groundwater. The Solviva
graywater system, on the other hand, greatly reduces contamination
of the groundwater by neutralizing these substances in an environment
containing a mutually beneficial combination of oxygen, sunlight,
composting organisms, humus-rich topsoil and plants. The system
is trouble-free and will most likely last "forever"
without any maintenance other than standard landscape trimming.
THE SOLVIVA COMPOSTING
Over the years I came to realize that very few
people will adopt compostoilets any time soon, no matter how
convenient, economical and clean they can be. This realization
made me quite pessimistic about the potential for stopping the
vast amounts of water pollution currently caused by standard
septic systems. So I decided to design a method of combining
flush toilets with composting. I am happy to report that I have
discovered ways to keep the flush toilet AND to keep drinking
water and aquatic ecosystems clean.
In September 1995, with capable carpenter and plumber, the upstairs
compostoilet in my home was removed, and a regular 1.6-gallon
flush toilet was installed. The toilet drainpipe empties into
an enclosed Compostfilter, a box, 3 feet tall and 4 feet
wide, built of wood against the outside wall of the house. The
top and the front of the box can open for servicing and inspection.
It is lined with plastic to prevent rotting of the wood and
the house shingles, and it is insulated with 2-inch rigid foamboard
to prevent freezing.
The Solviva flushtoilet composting
system has been transforming human waste and toiletpaper
into marvellous compost, healthy plants and clean effluent,
The box is watertight with a drain on the bottom
and is divided into two connected compartments. Each compartment
is half-filled with Biocarbon mix, consisting of the right type
and proportions of partially composted leaves and wood chips.
I also installed 3,000 earthworms which I ordered by mail from
a worm farm in Georgia, for $19.
I call this box the Brownfilter. The toilet waste
pipe has an elbow at the end that empties into the box. This
elbow can be flipped to empty into one or the other of the two
compartments. The solids, including the toilet paper, are retained
in the compost box, while the liquid quickly seeps through the
Biocarbon mix, exits through the drain and into a sloped pipe
that leads to a series of ground-level Greenfilters.
I started flushing into the first compartment as soon as the
installation was complete, September 20, 1995. Throughout the
first cold winter, even through subzero conditions, the temperatures
in the box stayed above 55 degrees F, without any heating source
other than the low-temperature (mesophilic) composting process
itself. My plan was to flip the toilet waste pipe over to the
second compartment when the first one was filled. However, to
my utter surprise, it never did fill up, because the process
of decomposition has reduced the volume faster than it has increased
by the additions of the daily flushings. Seven family members
were at my home for a week over that first Christmas, all using
this toilet because I wanted to provide a real stress test.
The system continued composting and draining reliably.
After my family left, I flipped the elbow of the toilet waste
pipe to drain into the second compartment, in order to get an
accurate reading of how long it would take for the solids to
fully decompose. To my amazement, I found that within one
week there was nothing recognizable left in the first compartment,
nothing but rich black earthworm castings and healthy earthworms,
which by this time had multiplied to hundreds of thousands of
all sizes. When warmer weather returned I found that full decomposition
was achieved in less than four days.
The truly astonishing fact is that the more I put into the
box, the less there is in the box. As I write this, in October
1997, 25 months have passed since the installation, with usage
ranging from one to seven people. This box has by now received
approximately 2,500 flushes, 140 rolls of toilet paper, and
35 cubic feet of leaves and woodchips (the original 12 cubic
feet plus periodic additions). The action of the earthworms
and other bioorganisms has reduced it all to about 9 cubic feet
of magnificent earthworm castings. Even with all my previous
experience I never would have expected this could be possible.
When in its normal closed state, this compost chamber is absolutely
odor-free. When you open it, it has a slight fragrance of
a well-kept stable. It has never generated any flies, and no
earthworms have ever ventured outside, probably because this
box is clearly Earthworm Heaven.
The liquid seeps quickly through this Brownfilter and runs via
drain and sloped pipe to a series of Greenfilters. The first
is a shallow growing bed filled with the same Biocarbon mix
plus sandy topsoil and healthy plants, lined with a waterproof
membrane, with a drainpipe that leads downhill to a second Greenfilter,
same as the first. From there the liquid drains into a 20-gallon
pump chamber equipped with a float switch-controlled sump pump
that periodically pumps 15 gallons of effluent into a perforated
pipe installed in the third Greenfilter. This is a flower bed,
and the pipe is installed in a layer of wood chips 6 inches
below the surface. From there the water perks through the subsoil,
where any remaining pathogens are destroyed.
Thus, all the wastes flushed down the toilet are transformed
into excellent earthworm casting compost and irrigation water
that benefit the landscaping. The nitrogen is absorbed by the
Biocarbon filter materials and the plants and does not leach
down to contaminate the groundwater.
I have also conducted other experiments with different versions
of my Biocarbon filter, one for treating effluent from a standard
septic tank, the other for treating septage and sludge pumped
from numerous different septic tanks, including restaurants,
businesses and homes. In the case of the septic tank effluent,
lab tests showed a 90 percent reduction of the total Kjeldahl
nitrogen, from 86 ppm to 8.1 ppm, and a 96 percent reduction
of the ammonia-nitrogen, from 77 ppm down to 2.5 ppm. In the
case of the Biocarbon septage treatment filter, total nitrogen
was reduced 88.2 percent, from 152.34 ppm down to 17.81, while
BOD was reduced from 607 ppm to 59 ppm, and COD from 640 ppm
to 85 ppm. In both cases the flow-through took less than 10
minutes, and the foul odor was totally removed.
These results are nothing short of astonishing, to sanitation
professionals and lay people alike. The Solviva Biocarbon filter
systems demonstrate that we can manage our wastewater in ways
that cause 90 percent less pollution than systems currently
required by the state, and, in many cases, at far less cost.
Because of these successful experiments, I applied for a permit
from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
(DEP), to install Solviva Biocarbon wastewater filters in the
"real world". After eight months of agonizing permitting
procedures, the DEP finally gave me permission to install 15
pilot projects in Massachusetts, allowing a daily flow up to
10,000 gallons for each system. The first system has just been
completed and is up and running, at the Featherstone Meetinghouse
Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, and testing will begin soon.
The second system is in the permitting process, for the Black
Dog Tavern, a busy restaurant right on the Vineyard Haven harbor,
that produces 4,000 gallons of wastewater per day. We are hoping
to soon get the required permits, for the simple reason that
there is not even the slightest possibility that the Biocarbon
filter system could cause more risk to environment or public
health than the current septic system. This project will tackle
the most serious wastewater problem in town, and, if proven
successful there as it has in the smaller experiments, will
demonstrate that business or residential on-site septic systems
even in the densest areas can be retrofitted with Biocarbon
filters. This will render unnecessary the central sewage treatment
facility currently being planned, and as a result the town will
save millions of dollars. (For updated information, go to "
Based on my accumulated experience, I believe sanitary, trouble-free,
nonpolluting wastewater management is achievable in urban, suburban
or rural environments, whether in hot India or cold Alaska.
The Solviva Biocarbon filter systems can save thousands for
a family, millions for a community, billions for a nation, as
well as prevent the use of toxic chemicals, compared to septic
and sewage systems built in accordance with today's regulations.
In addition, important fertilizer resources and water are saved
and made available for beautifying the landscapes.
I have developed designs for city high-rise buildings, in which
low-water toilets flush into Brownfilters set in 30-cubic-yard
roll-off containers located in the basement. These Brownfilters
retain and digest the solids, while the liquid is pumped through
a pipe leading to Greenfilter flower beds in a nearby park.
If no green area is available close by, the filtered effluent
can flow into the city sewage pipes, greatly reducing the load
on the central sewage treatment facility. The Brownfilter roll-off
containers are removed periodically to one of several composting
facilities, which also process all other compostable wastes
produced by the city, such as food wastes, leaf and yard wastes,
diapers, low-grade wastepaper, and shredded construction wastes
(together comprising some 70 percent of the solid waste stream).
Here the high heat of thermophilic composting processes, combined
with solar heat, can render the wastes into safe, sanitary,
organic compost fertilizer with a market value of millions of
dollars per year (Big Apple Black Gold, Boston Black Gold...)
| Call to Action |
Wastewater Management (chapter
from the Solviva Book)