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The ultimate solution for Los Osos

How about a waterless composting toilet?

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Every day we are faced with events that require our participation, that require a choice, that require us to be one way or the other.

Every time that these occasions arise, we also are given the opportunity to change something about our response, our reaction, that will move us that much further along the path of growth as human beings; alive and aware of our intricate interdependence with all things of this world, and responsible enough to respect and care for the role of each.

To be aware and responsible means we must first acknowledge that we are part of a living system, and that there are certain foundation principles that direct that perpetuation of this system, of nature, of life.

To not acknowledge this is to live upon and consume the resources of others, without contributing equally in return. This is what America, and every other country wishing to be part of the "developed" world, has done.

Growth only happens through change, and we will not change by repeating the mistakes of the past.

In Los Osos, battles rage over the quest to reduce pollution of its groundwater and the adjacent bay from the community's aging septic tanks. A noble cause, to be sure, but the approach to solving it reflects the narrow focus of people unwilling to change, and to grow.

We know there are better methods of managing human waste than the old-school refrain of "build it big and central." Yet the majority of the LOCSD still wants to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Sewage treatment plants dependent on machinery will always be in danger of failing. The failure of sewer systems designed to treat the waste of thousands of people will be as destructive, if not more, than the community's septic systems of today. The spiraling costs and physical disruption that construction of the proposed sewer will demand negates all arguments that this is the best solution for the community.

Alternative solutions that are truly viable (from the French "capable of life") will enrich the community, not divide and destroy it.

Consider this: for a fraction of the projected costs of the sewer, for a fraction of the projected disruption to the physical infrastructure of Los Osos, for a fraction of the time needed before groundwater contamination can be mitigated, for a fraction of the energy costs and drain upon our resources, and for a fraction of the social disruption of neighbor against neighbor, rich against poor, there is another solution, one with a multiplicity of benefits.

And why hasn't this alternative been considered? The same reason why so many other viable solutions to society's needs aren't implemented. Fear. Inertia. Weakness. Small-mindedness. Lack of understanding. Lack of true leadership.

Are these the reasons upon which we want to continue to build our communities and shape our lives? Or are these the things we want to take as our jumping-off points, as our challenges to overcome? What nobler thing can there be, than to acknowledge our shortcomings, and to work forever more on remedying our mistakes and forgiving others for theirs?

To remedy a mistake not only requires doing something different, but doing something that makes sense. We know that choosing only one method to solve a need goes against all principles of nature and its inherent design for sustainability. We know that choosing a solution that only performs one function is also the antithesis of viable design. One central, technology - intensive sewage treatment plant for Los Osos is not the answer.

To find the answer for Los Osos to stop contaminating its groundwater with human waste in a viable fashion (i.e., one that supports life, not degrades it), we need courage, energy, open-mindedness willingness to learn, willingness to admit mistakes and a willingness to support each other on this new path.

What will work in Los Osos is working around the world right now.

The current governor general of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, is a staunch advocate of the system and Canada has award-winning buildings on university campuses and as well as residential areas that use this method. (See pollution prevention - Canadian success stories: www.ec.gc.ca/pp/en/storyoutput.cfm?storyid=69.)

Faced with dwindling water supplies, a community in New South Wales, Australia has installed over 400 of these systems: www.compostingtoiletworld.com/news/2004/11/composting-toilet-capital-of-world.html.

The Girl Scouts of Southwestern Pennsylvania included this system in the construction of their new learning center because they wanted to teach the girls about the future and "It was the responsible thing to do," said their outdoor programs director.

(www.gbapgh.org/Publications_cornerstone_summer_00.pdf.)

And these resources and links from Michigan Tech's Peace Corp Master's International Program: (http://peacecorps.mtu.edu/erda/links.htm) show how this biological technology is being implemented all over the world.

What we are talking about here is, instead of using energy and resource-intensive technology to dispose of human waste, convert that same "waste" into a valuable resource using only the power of biology. Microbial action in a closed, hygienic system transforms the body's outputs into rich compost beneficial for all kinds of plants, but most sensibly used for agro-forestry: for windbreaks, orchards, timber, and fuel crops.

Waterless composting toilets are a truly viable solution for Los Osos. The CSD could buy every home in the Los Osos sewer District 2 of these systems for less than $5,000 per household. For each of those 4,774 houses, the cost of implementing this treatment system is a little more than $20 million - at least $84 million cheaper than the CSD's proposal.

Let me say that again: $84 million cheaper than the proposed system. (Any new construction in Los Osos would then be required to install these systems at their own expense, minimal as it is.)

And the beauty of using self-contained composting toilet systems is that they could be installed tomorrow! There is no tearing up of roads for years while we wait for water pollution mitigation to begin; there is no eyesore, literal or psychological, in the center of town; there is no forced diaspora of lower income residents unable to afford the fees of a centralized sewer. And even better, the use of composting toilets would create not only a resource (valuable fertilizer) it would contribute to the local economy in ways that an old-school sewage treatment plant never will:

Its shear PR value would be priceless - Los Osos would become known as a national and global leader in sustainable community design, and people would come on pilgrimage to San Luis Obispo county to visit, study and learn from our enlightened ways.

A community of composting toilets would support composting toilet service companies- businesses that, just like any other appliance or home service industry, could be hired to come check on your toilet as needed, empty the compost bins for you and take and distribute the fertilizer to tree-growing enterprises.

There is nothing to believe here. Nothing to be persuaded of. Design based on natural principles is viable and sustainable. What it will take is vision, and courage and the willingness for people to lay down their past differences in service of the greater good.

Take this opportunity, Los Osos, to show yourselves, and the watching world, that you can become the caring people that you say you are. You have the attention of so many people. If you choose to reexamine your path now, to admit mistakes on both sides of the issue, to forgive each other, to vow to change and grow and work toward the true greater good, to find redemption in that work - then, as so many of the wise leaders throughout time have illustrated for us, you too will forever change the world for the better.

Ellen Ammener can be reached at ellen@earthflow.com.

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