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Trailblazing Toilets: using composting toilets on the trail

Composting toilets can provide a more comfortable environment for visitors, while conserving water and soil, and keeping wastewater from leaching into ground and surface waters.
From the Spring 2007 issue of the American Trails Magazine.

By Alex Linkow

photo: toilet building
Composting toilet installed along a trail

These days, it's no longer enough for trail planners and crews to design and maintain first-class trails. Often, there is pressure to provide first-class restroom facilities as well. However, as you know, a variety of issues often make doing so difficult. For instance, trails in remote areas may be miles away from existing utility lines. And with no water, sewer, or electricity in the vicinity, constructing a large facility with flush toilets is often unthinkably expensive.

Other conventional options like portable toilets and vault systems come with concerns of their own. In addition to being unpleasant to use, these types of systems need to be emptied frequently, and in many locations, access is limited.

Todd Hafner, Director of Capital Development at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, in Fairfax County, Virginia, recently faced these issues when he was asked to provide permanent restroom facilities on a trail in a more remote section of the Gardens. After considering the location, he realized that installing flush toilets would cost over $100,000, far more than he had to spend. Luckily, he knew of a simple solution--composting toilet systems.

diagram of toilet structure

Composting toilet schematic drawing

Composting toilets are a natural fit in remote areas. In addition to using little or no water for flushing, these systems recycle the nutrients in human waste to be reused as fertilizer (where local regulations allow). Instead of sending waste to a central treatment plant or leaching it into groundwater, these systems contain waste onsite and treat it through natural biological decomposition. In the composter, solids and liquids are separated by gravity.

Organisms such as bacteria and fungi break down the waste and destroy pathogens, and over time solids and liquids are transformed into safe, stable compost end-products. Liquid end-product has the nutrient value of a conventional high-potency fertilizer and is often applied to flowerbeds. Solid waste volume is reduced by over 90% during the composting process. The remaining material is a topsoil-like solid compost, which may be used as a soil amendment.

For people new to the idea, the concept of turning human waste to fertilizer can seem odd at first, but humans have actually been doing it for thousands of years. In some places in the world, it is still an important method of fertilizing agricultural crops. And in Virginia, the idea of composting toilets was not new to Meadowlark's owner, the North Virginia Regional Park Authority, when they decided to purchase one in the spring of 2006. The Park Authority already had a composting toilet at another facility, and they were comfortable with the technology.

The system Meadowlark chose was the two-stall version of the Clivus Multrum M54 Trailhead. The unit includes a bathroom building with two stalls, as well as all of the composting equipment, and a ventilation system designed to keep the bathroom odorless. The dry toilet fixtures use no water for flushing, and further water is saved by replacing hand-washing sinks with sanitary soap dispensers. The Trailhead's compact size and ease of installation provides additional benefit.


The system is designed to serve campers attending a summer program at Meadowlark, as well as the Garden's regular visitors. While the summer camp program did provide the impetus to purchase the new system, the Gardens do attract some 140,000 visitors yearly. Nevertheless, up to this point, the bulk of its use came last summer, and by all accounts the Clivus performed well, as expected.

Park Manager Keith Tomlinson says it has been "phenomenally useful," noting that people are amazed that the stalls have no odor. And since the system reduces solid waste volume by over 90%, Meadowlark staff estimates that solid won't need to be removed for another 3-5 years, though it's unknown what will happen to the compost at that point. As for the liquid, the staff thinks it may end up being used to fertilize a nearby wildflower garden.

Across the country, IslandWood, an environmental learning center on Washington's Bainbridge Island, has used composting toilets on their trail system for the past 6 years. IslandWood owns a total of 255 acres of land on the island and within that area has built over 6 miles of wooded trails. IslandWood originally installed two single-stall Trailhead units on these wooded trails in the summer of 2001. In the spring of 2004, they purchased two more for the trails.

The Trailhead systems at IslandWood serve the 7000 kids and 7000 adults that visit IslandWood annually and help protect Puget Sound from the pollution that is typically caused by conventional waste treatment technologies. But composting systems are not just for remote locations. IslandWood also uses composting toilet systems in its educational studios, where people on tours of the facility are always interested in checking out the composting equipment in the basement. And according to Facilities Manager Dean Newcomb, the composting toilet systems have worked great. To aid the composting process in the remote and educational studio systems, IslandWood staff regularly adds red worms, which are harvested from an onsite vermiculture bin. As for maintenance, Newcomb says it's "straightforward and routine," even in remote locations, and to this point no material has had to be removed from the systems. That's more than can be said for the one remaining port-a-john, which Newcomb plans to replace with a composting toilet as soon as possible.

At Meadowlark, IslandWood, and locations around the country, composting toilets play a significant role in creating a more comfortable environment for visitors. And by conserving water and soil, and keeping wastewater from leaching into ground and surface waters where it can pollute drinking water and damage aquatic environments, these systems are helping to ensure that future generations of visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy the trails as much as we do.

Alex Linkow is Marketing Manager for Clivus Multrum, Inc. in Lawrence, Massachusetts. For more information call 800-425-4887 or visit

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