Hey folks, it’s getting intimate today. Let’s talk about a place we visit frequently during the day – but no one ever talks about: the toilet. Maybe that’s the reason why no one seems to notice that the flush toilet is maybe not the smartest idea of humankind. No one? Well, the Goldeimer people have been thinking about human needs type 1 and 2 since 2013. That’s why we today talk about dry composting toilets, the circular economy and a very fertile piece of land in Hamburg.

Why toilets are an ingenious and simultaneously stupid idea

The flush toilet is one of those inventions that has improved our quality of life sustainably. In my daily life I take a clean toilet for granted and don’t ever give it a second thought (maybe when it’s time to give the “dirty” bowl a clean). Safe and clean toilets and sewage systems prevent ground and tab water from getting contaminated and diseases such as diarrhea and cholera from spreading. Fortunately, I don’t belong to that half of the world’s population which has no access to (safe) sanitary facilities and which is exposed to these risks on a daily basis.

It’s pretty too bad, however, that the concept of the water closet isn’t really thought through. What happens when we flush the toilet? Up to 9 liters of water rush through the pipes to transport our feces to the next treatment plant. There, the water is filtered and the sludge is burned. This system has not only one but even two design flaws.

Alea Sophie is balancing a role of Goldeimer toilet paper on her head while making a bewildered face
I’m thinking about toilets

Design flaw #1

The longer I think about it, the more absurd it feels to me: We contaminate tab water – water we can drink – with đź’© and urine just to get the Schiet (that’s how we call shit in Hamburg) out of our homes. Cleaning the water at the treatment plant is a complicated process which uses a lot of energy. Just to pump the water back to our homes so that we can drink it (or flush it down the toilet again).

Design flaw #2

The second absurdity: we burn the sludge. Including all these valuable nutrients. An example: Our urine contains among other things phosphorus. Which we ingest through the food we eat, such as veggies. Which grow on fields which we fertilize with phosphorus. Which we extract at 1,400 °C in furnaces from phosphate minerals. Which we import from Africa, China and the USA. Where we mine it in elaborate processes.

Phosphorus is vital. For us humans and every other living being. And while phosphorus mining becomes more difficult and expensive and fertilizer with phosphorus will become scarce in the coming 20 years we keep burning sludge containing exactly that. That’s absurd! And we haven’t even talked about all the other valuable nutrients in our excretions yet.

(No) leaking loop

Our water closets are the perfect example of a linear system. It works, but it has not been thought through. Because it produces a lot of waste we need to take care of. And even if we recycle diligently, we needlessly waste a lot of resources and energy. The system “flush toilet” leaks valuable nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen.

In the circular economy waste is considered a design flaw. Basically someone didn’t do their job right. The goal is that no resources get lost. That doesn’t mean that every material will be reused indefinitely. But that it will nourish something new at the end of its life span and, therewith, stay in the loop.

This graphic shows the difference between linear systems, recycling, and circular economy. Left: An overfull garbage bin with some garbage laying on the ground. Above, two arrows pointing into the bin. Below the word “linear” is written. Middle: A full garbage bin. Above, one arrow with several loops pointing into the bin. Below the word “recycling”. Right: An empty garbage bin. Above an arrow with several loops pointing away from the bin. Below the word “circular”.

Do circular toilets already exist?

If you visit a random restroom in Hamburg, chances are high that you encounter Goldeimer toilet paper. But the main business of Goldeimer isn’t social and anti-racist toilet paper. Actually, the social business sells and operates circular composting toilets.

Those toilets are waterless and that’s why they are ideal for festivals. Absorbent wood chips in the bowl prevent bad odor. Back in 2019, before Corona, when festivals were still a thing, Goldeimer collected the contents of the dry toilets. Together with the shit specialists of Finizio they turned it into compost which meets all legal requirements for humus.

And in theory that dung could now be used to fertilize fields. If it wasn’t for the German regulation on fertilizers. And German bureaucracy in general. That’s what Goldeimer and Finizio are battling right now. To make it possible that the composted dry toilet shit can fulfill its purpose. But luckily, there is one place in Hamburg where plants already grow on festival fertilizer.

The Festival Forest at Alster-Bille-Elbe-PARKS

Well, right now it’s still a tiny forest. It grows on the site of an old recycling facility in Hamburg-Hammerbrook, It’s part of the Alster-Bille-Elbe-PARKS project which should create a green oasis between the rivers Alster, Bille and Elbe. A years ago it was an empty, gray lot. Now everything is green and blooming.

And exactly here, on a tiny field, the Goldeimer heroes can try whether human fertilizer is a good or shitty idea. For this purpose, they cut out a hole in the asphalt and mixed good Hamburgian (?) topsoil with human fertilizer. And planted lots of seedlings in May of 2020.

A green area at the old recycling facility. Goldeimer has planted a small forest using fertilizer made from the contents of dry toilets.
The festival forest at Alster-Bille-Elbe-PARKS
Schiet happens Goldeimer, dry composting toilets & PARKS - fertile soil - Greenschnack
Fertile soil

Is shit compost really that fertile? I had to check that myself. On one of the last warm Sundays in October we went to visit PARKS. We had a picnic next to the “forest”. Some shrubs have grown three meters high in the past one and half years.

The old recycling facility (called “Alter Recyclinghof”) is not only a place where the circular economy comes to life. It’s as well a center of life for many people in the area. The park is designed by neighbors according to their wishes. With plots for urban gardening, a skate park, a nice view over the water and cozy picnic spots. With workshops, concerts and fun get-togethers for and from the community. Right now it’s winter break, but next spring there will be new events. You can get more information on their Instagram profile: @alster_bille_elbe_parks

This tiny forest is growing with fertilizer made of the contents of composting toilets.
Nice place to relax
View over the newly designed PARKS on the lot of the old recycling facility in Hammerbrook
The old recycling facility is now a park

Will we all have dry toilets in the future?

I really hope so. But it will still take quite a while. Because the entire system needs to be changed. In my ideal circular world the garbage truck doesn’t come to pick up my garbage, but the contents of my composting toilet. Well at least everything I can’t compost in my worm bin.

Besides festivals I can think of a few places where a dry toilet can be very handy: in your camper van or community garden. Goldeimer sells dry toilets and the necessary accessories for fermentation and composting. Dry litter and microorganisms prevent that your waterless toilet starts smelling and make composting easier. And eventually, you have – quite literally – produced your own fertile humus.

Time for a toilet revolution

If this was a paper I had to write for university, I’d now write something like: “Based on the example of dry toilets of social business Goldeimer I have outlined the advantages of the circular economy compared to linear economic systems…” Luckily, I had to write my last academic paper three years ago. I’ll keep it short and simple:

The water closet (I really love this word) as we know it is a great invention but has some design flaws. It’s time for a toilet revolution: less water, more humus. Thank you, Goldeimer, that you keep fighting German bureaucracy to make waterless toilets suitable for daily business. And don’t forget to pay a visit to PARKS!

And now I want to hear what you think: Can you imagine a life without flushing the toilet?