Red Mexicana de Ecoturismo


Baños Ecologicos in Baja California
by Carol Steinfeld

July/Julio 1999

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It's a classic Baja scene.

Sun-blasted cactus-studded desert meetswhite powder beaches and shimmering aquamarine sea. The small island, located off Mexico's central Baja coast on the Sea ofCortez, draws rapidly growing numbers of tourists from Loreto, as well as overnighting kayakers and area fishermen. However, the impact of this is becoming ever more apparent: Walk off the paths, and you'll find trash and toilet paper strewn through the rocks and dunes. Besides being unsightly and perhaps unsanitary, this increasing use of the shoreline as a toilet disrupts the ecosystem and can result in nutrients and potentially pathogenic bacteria entering the soil and water.

To provide a solution, naturalist/educator and kayak guide Colin Garland teamed up with Carol Steinfeld of the Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention (CEPP) to build a composting toilet on Isla Coronado. Colin, who leads groups of adults and high school students on kayak trips and hikes in Baja, decided that building composting toilets to manage this problem ecologically would be a good way for park users to reduce their impact and help preserve these natural areas. He plans to build at least one every year as a service project with both U.S. and local students. In addition to his guiding operation, Raven Adventures, Colin directs The Global Classroom, which introduces school students to wild areas worldwide and conducts service projects. Past projects include building a mudbrick school in Africa, installing a water well in Costa Rica and raising money to purchase and preserve several acres of land adjacent to Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloudforest.

Colin and Carol used plans for the CEPP Twin-Bin Net Composting Toilet, which were adapted by ecological engineering firm, Sustainable Strategies,for the island's usage, climate and available materials. While camped on the island, they completed the toilet in eight days. Two biologists from the newly formed Parque Maratimo Nacionale Bahia de Loreto (Loreto Bay National Marine Park) helped transport materials to the islandwith the park's truck and pangas (local boats). They, with other occasional volunteers, lent a hand with hauling cement bags, concrete blocks and gallons of fresh water (saltwater produces weak concrete), as well as mixing cement by hand. The hard work took place amid a backdrop of arcing dolphins in the sparkling Cortez, ravens soaring overhead, swooping frigatebirds and the sound of whales spouting. (Ah, Baja!)

The system, designed to manage up to 50 uses per day, features two vaults, each fitted with specially designed and sized aerators and an exhaust chimney to vent odors and expose the contents to oxygen, which thefast-acting aerobic microbes need to compost it quickly. One side is used at a time; when one composting chamber fills, the toilet seat is removedand exchanged with the other toilet stool's concrete cap. Baja's dry hot climate will ensure that composting occurs quickly; high winds at the site will help with aeration. When both sides are full, the bin that was first used is opened and finished compost is removed and trenched around plants. That side is then ready again for use. Built of super-reinforced concrete, it is hurricane-proof-and perhaps even earthquake-proof!

Bano The simple privacy structure features a local-style palm roof and woven fiber walls, and fits right in with the island's scenery. Managing human waste tops the list of concerns of officials of the park, which is comprised of several islands as well as miles of sea coast. The park's director was happy to learn that this composting toilet would be an improvement over pit latrines, which tend to smell bad, leach nutrients and bacteria into the soil and water, and require redigging periodically. The Baja peninsula of Mexico is reknowned for its birds and aquatic life -- there are more species of whales and dolphins in the Cortez than in any other body of water in the world -- drawing visitors from around the worldto watch migrating whales and enjoy the nearly rain-free weather. The need for ecological wastewater management to prevent disruption of the ecosystem is critical here, making composting toilets a good solution for use in homes and buildings on the mainland, too.

This coming winter and in the spring of 2000, CEPP and The Global Classroomwill be building composting toilets again in Baja, both the twin-bin system and an improved 55-gallon system for smaller-scale applications. Participants have the option of joining a one-week kayaking trip before or after the project through Raven Adventures. For more information about this and future projects in Baja, Costa Rica, Bali, Kosovo and other locations worldwide, or to contribute or participate, call CEPP at 978/369-3951, email to or write to The Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention, P.O. Box 1330, Concord,MA 01742 USA. CEPP also sells plans for composting toilets.

Baños Go Ecologico in Mexico

With more than 100,000 drying and composting toilet systems, Mexico may well be the ecological toilet capitol of the world. As it is in much of the world, managing human waste is a problem in Mexico. The most common method of disposal-discharging it directly to the ground and to rivers-has resulted in outbreaks of disease, including cholera, in some places. In response, several organizations in the country are advocating, demonstrating and installing drying toilets and composting toilets. These systems are a natural choice for Mexico, where the hot,usually dry climate helps these systems work faster. Drying toilets and composting toilets are different critters.

A "composting toilet" manages a biological decomposition process whereby organic materialis transformed by aerobic bacteria into a soil-like product, "humus," that can be used on plants. Through composting, the nutrients are oxidized into a form that plants can use. Time, as well as the heat produced by the composting process, kill any pathogens. Because it relies on aerobic bacteria, a composting toilet will always feature an air-intake and anexhaust chimney, and ideally some kind of internal aeration assist device like a grate or a net.

A "drying toilet" uses high-alkaline additives, such as lime or lots of wood ashes, to kill off all biological activity and potential pathogens. The end-product removed from these systems may be too alkaline for some land-use applications. These systems have no aeration features. This also produces dried excrement that can attract flies when re-hydrated. A newer development in this field is using special toilet stools to divert urine before it is mixed with feces. Urine is usually sterile in healthy populations and contains 90 percent of the nutrient content of excrement. Separating the two reduces the likelihood of odors and flies. Also, the urine can be used as a plant nutrient-Swedish studies show that urine hasthe nutrient value of chemical fertilizer. However, few programs are making use of this. Some examples of programs:

Espacio de Salud (ESAC), a small nonprofit organization in south-central Mexico, promotes double-vault drying toilets with urine diversion. ESAC organizes installations and construction cooperatives in collaboration with architect and entrepreneur Cŝsar Añorvŝ, developer of an attractive urine-diverting toilet stool. Like most double-vault systems, one side is used at a time. Ashes or caustic lime is addded to the toilet every day or so. The dried excrement is removed after one or two years, and occasionally used on farm fields. The diverted urine is usually drained into the earth next to the toilet, although ESAC is now working on some schemes for utilizing it. ESAC provides training and follow-up in construction, use and maintenance of the toilets. Inspired by ESAC's success, the Mexican government organized the installation of 90,000 drying toilets in the state of Oaxaca, with a commitment to build 30,000 more annually. A plan to install 1 million dry toilets throughout Mexico is also in the works.

However, ESAC reports that these government-sponsored dry toilet installations are not always well received as they are usually constructed without the homeowners' request, and with inadequate, incorrect or complete absence of instructionsregarding their proper use and maintenance. The toilets are best accepted, used and maintained when they are voluntarily adopted by homeowners who fully understand the need for the systems and receive maintenance support from a local organization. ESAC hopes central Mexico's growing numbers of decentralized neighborhood composting centers can take on the role of servicing the drying toilets,and perhaps collect the urine for farming.

Grupo de Technologia Alternativa S.C. (GTASC), a for-profit cooperative, calls its wastewater systems "SIRDOs," an acronym which translates to Integrated System to Recycle Organic Waste. SIRDOs are basically three types of composting/dry toilets and one saturated (wet) system to service graywater and flush toilets. GTASC has installed 1,000 SIRDOs in 16 states of Mexico. GTASC's composting toilet designs include a polyethylene inclined-vault toilet (Clivus style) with a window in the rear to collect passive solar heat, and air- intake holes. A two-chamber version of this is also available (think double mini-Clivuses with solar windows). It includes a toilet riser with a chute flap inside that is directed to one side or the other as the vaults fill up. Another model employs two plastic interchangeable containers used witha urine-separating toilet seat, which diverts urine to a rock-filled soakpit. These composting toilets are made of recycled polyethylene by women's cooperatives. The third model is the classic concrete two-vault toilet system. The "Wet SIRDO," a central system which can be used with flush toilets, is essentially a packaged treatment plant.

The ReSource Institute for Low-Entropy Systems (RILES) organizes the installation of site-built Clivus Multrum-style (sloped-bottomsingle-vault) toilet systems, usually through nongovernmental organizations. As of this printing, more than 600 have been built in Mexicoand Nicaragua for both homes and some eco-tourism accommodations. RILES trains builders through an apprentice program in installation, design, public policy and outreach. The owner pays for materials and labor. In Mexico, about 225 ReSource systems have been constructed on the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, and another 200 or so in otherstates. Other groups installing composting and drying toilets in Central America include the Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention (CEPP), CEMAT, UNICEF and the U.S. Peace Corps.Perhaps, one day, Mexico will serve as the world's model for sustainableand ecological management of wastewater.

Carol Steinfeld is a freelance writer, tech transfer specialist, composter and the co-author of The Composting Toilet System Book, recently published by CEPP and distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing. She has assisted with composting toilet installation projects in Massachusetts and the western Pacific islands, as well as Baja. Buying it directly from the publisher helps fund composting toilet projects: Send $29.95 plus $3.30. Priority Mail postage to CEPP, P.O. Box 1330, Concord, MA 01742. The author can be reached via email



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