Dear Umbra,

I grew up in a house built in 1812. Until 1962, we still used an outhouse that was built with the house. My mother said that when she was a girl (in the 1920s), a man used to come around and clean it out each year, but it was never done in my memory. The seats were built about 10 feet over the debris and it never seemed to fill up. We did put lime (the kind you buy for your garden) in it. Some people now use outhouses where they camp, but I have heard that they are outlawed in New York state. My question is: Why would this be? I would think that outhouses would be a lot better for the environment than a toilet. You don’t have to use water in them and when one fills up (like the ones made now do after 15 or so years, depending on how deep your original hole is), you just fill it with dirt and dig another hole for the outhouse.

Corinth, N.Y.

Dearest Anita,

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Your body, beautiful on the outside, is filled with bacteria, parasites, and heavy metals on the inside. In a pit toilet such as the one your family had, your body sheds these pathogens and pollutants into a deep earthen hole, where they slowly degrade, together with the other material evacuated from your digestive tract. Critters come in and digest the material, which moves slowly into the surrounding soil, some of it absorbed and some of it simply leaching merrily along. In a worst-case scenario, the material, not yet fully absorbed and transformed by soil organisms, enters the groundwater and eventually becomes part of an aquifer.

As you can imagine, increased population density, increased awareness of water pollution, and high water tables have led many places to strictly regulate pit toilets, and in some cases to ban them entirely. You are right to point out that flush toilets are quite a silly idea, what with taking potable water, filling it with waste, flushing it down a pipe, and then cleaning it again before it re-enters the porcelain throne. There should be a middle ground between these two water-pollution-prevention techniques. And, of course, there is.

If you are interested in re-instituting an outhouse-type of arrangement, I suggest you look into composting toilets. I mean, investigate composting toilets. Aerobic composting, in which organic material heats up and breaks down into its component parts through bacterial, chemical, and fungal activity, transforms the source material from which it is made. Composting toilets work on the same principle as a good yard compost pile, changing human waste into a soil nutrient, or at least into an innocuous heap. Modern composting toilets range from swanky to low-tech, solar-powered to plastic-bucket-based. There is something for everyone, and you can learn about all the options in Joseph Jenkin’s Humanure Handbook. The Composting Toilet System Book, from the Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention, is also on the must-read list.

I can anticipate the reader letters already, so let me be clear that there is a healthy debate about the best, safest use for composted human waste: for vegetable garden compost, for ornamentals only, or for nothing. I trust you, dear readers, to become informed about the pros and cons and make your own decisions. Just know that some of your decisions may not be legal, and that sometimes it’s better not to contact the sewage district with questions.

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