Human Waste Management in the Mountains

A Re-Cap of the Acceso Pan-Am Webinar

Last week, our Executive Director, Taylor Zehren, participated in a webinar discussion panel about backcountry human waste management. The event was part of an online series about environmental and climbing advocacy hosted by Acceso PanAm, “Mate, Charlas y Todo lo Demás.” Other discussion topics have included climbing management, land access issues, and regional perspectives throughout Latin America. 

 

We received some great questions from people around the globe and got some insightful input from all our panelists. So, in case you missed it…

GEOFF HILL

Geoff dropped out of pursuing a career in mountain guiding to do his PHD on alpine waste management. He conducted extensive research and experiments on human waste in North America and Europe. He founded and runs a toilet company called Toilet Tech Solutions which has implemented over 260 remote site toilets. He also works for an engineering company (HDR) in the design, construction, and operation of municipal sized composting and anaerobic digestion systems. 

What is the benefit of urine diversion?

Humans are the only mammals that pee and poo in the exact same physical location. By separating liquid and solid waste, like with a TTS unit, we are allowing a more natural treatment process. The urine, which is made up primarily of NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) and water and is self-sanitizing, can be filtered out through a drain field. The solids can be held in a decomposition vault where they eventually turn to a sort of dark humus. This means less volume to treat in cases where waste needs to be transported off site. Not to mention, we avoid the formation of ammonia that creates the familiarly gross outhouse stench.

How do you calculate the amount of waste that is going to be produced for the decomposition vault?


Poop per person is approx 50g per toilet use, including toilet paper. Urine is about 150g per toilet use.
 
Not everyone poops per toilet use.
 The size of the decomposition vault can then be calculated based on annual visitation. 

How much maintenance is required?

There are four primary maintenance jobs for the units: some annual, some quarterly, some monthly or weekly. That said, the frequency of maintenance depends on usage. There are some sites that are used 10x daily and others, such as Angel’s Landing in Zion, that get 1,000x daily uses. Maintenance tables can be provided for specific sites.

Is there any problem with putting urine into the environment? What about the plants and mammals?

Urine is discharged 1’ below the surface, so it does not affect mammals on the surface. The National Park Service has also approved draining the urine out to rockier environments. We observed one desert site with high visitation volume where some bushes were killed. It can be a good option to pipe greywater or rainwater into the urine field. It is also possible to do filtration, settling, and nutrient removal if necessary.

STEFFAN
GREGORY

Steffan has been guiding in the US professionally since 2010. He has volunteered with Patagonia Waste Management since 2015. Steffan is a founding member of the Zion Climbing Coalition. He is a passionate rock and alpine climber, and split-boarder.

What challenges have you encountered working in South America?

No matter where we are working, each project presents challenges. For example, in Argentina we have run into issues with importation of the TTS units. In Chile, we had a series of shipping delays that slowed the installation. At some sites, we have had challenges with maintenance and communications between land managers.

How do you handle transportation of materials in the backcountry?

We’ve used a range of modes of transport for installation materials at our project sites. In some cases, volunteer efforts have made human portering sufficient, while in other cases we have supplemented with animal porters or helicopters.

What would be the recommendation of your treatment system for a high mountain environment?

Each site presents unique characteristics that indicate which treatment system is the best fit. Some important questions to answer include: What is the environment’s soil, temperature, percolation, vegetation? What is the land management situation? Is the land public or private and who are the stakeholders in a potential project? Is there someone on site to maintain the system? How many visitors reach the area per year? Are there high seasons for visitation? What kind of activities are the visitors doing there? How is access to the area managed?

Have you had compliance issues with the units?

Overall, we have seen few compliance issues with the TTS units. Sometimes we get the commonplace bathroom wall drawings. But, as far as trash goes, the area that the conveyor belt feeds into has a small opening that makes it difficult for large pieces of trash to go through to the vault. I think this makes it intimidating for people to try to pedal other objects through. Sometimes we get wrappers, but those are easy to remove during annual vault maintenance.

TAYLOR
ZEHREN

Taylor (our Executive Director!) is an avid climber, trail-runner, skier, traveler, and explorer dedicated to putting purpose behind her adventures. Following three years living in Latin America and a Fulbright scholarship, she returned to the states in 2019 to co-found Do Good Shit. She has applied her experience in scientific research, experiential education, outdoor recreation, and environmental advocacy to this new project: a mission to improve human waste management in outdoor recreation sites and their surrounding communities around the globe. 

What about the use of worms?

A lot of people don’t realize that the worms that we usually associate with vermi-composting, California Red EarthWorms, are not naturally occurring and could be considered invasive in many ecosystems. However, when the solid waste is separated and decomposed in appropriate soils, the naturally occurring microbes and invertebrates sufficiently assist in the decomposition process.

Is it possible to burn toilet paper? What about from the vault?

We do not recommend burning toilet paper. It presents a hazard of starting a forest fire. For example, 33% of Torres del Paine National Park burned down in 2011 after a tourist attempted to burn their toilet paper. As far as burning toilet paper from the decomposition vault of a urine-diverting system, the paper begins to decompose and is very difficult to burn after sitting in a humid environment for months.

Are climbers usually reluctant to discuss the topic?

Many people prefer to keep the subject of waste “out of sight, out of mind”. However, at DGS we believe that through our efforts, marketing, and education we can break down some of these barriers. Having on-the-ground community partners is an essential step to get local project support, ensure longevity, and get conversations flowing. 

Where will Do Good Shit be working in the future?

We have projects lined up around the globe, from Nepal to Argentina and back to the West Coast of the US. Our team is always open to new project ideas and collaborations – so don’t hesitate to reach out with questions!

Check out more of the Acceso PanAm “Charlas” here. Some discussions are hosted in English, others in Spanish and/or Portuguese.

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