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San Francisco takes a sniff at composting toilets

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Recycling: The contents of composting toilets  are collected in a basin, separating liquids from solids. After the waste hardens, it can be used as compost. - AP FILE PHOTO
  • AP file photo
  • Recycling: The contents of composting toilets are collected in a basin, separating liquids from solids. After the waste hardens, it can be used as compost.

A porcelain throne that turns its contents into fertilizer instead of flushing could revolutionize the way The City does business, environmental activists say.

Composting toilets, which do not use water, could provide relief for San Francisco’s deteriorated sewer system and its public defecation problem, said Eric Brooks, who brought the idea to the Public Utilities Commission.

“They could make sense everywhere there is a toilet,” said Brooks, chair of the San Francisco Green Party’s sustainability working group.

“They’re not just for outhouses in the mountains anymore,” he said.

After Brooks suggested the idea at several meetings, commission Vice President Art Torres asked staff to compile a report on the product that confirms — in a section titled “Odor Issues” — that today’s composting toilets are not the rank holes in the ground of backwoods lore.

Composting toilets, according to the report, work this way: Instead of emptying into sewer pipes, the contents are collected in basins, separating liquid from solid. Once the waste hardens, it’s emptied and brought to farms.

Correctly installed and operating composting toilets have a ventilation system and constant suction through the toilet to prevent noxious odors.

But commission spokesman Tyrone Jue pointed out several problems The City could face, including where to bring the compost, the health and safety of removing the stuff and the cost of retrofitting buildings.

“I don’t want to say it’s not possible, but we also have to think about these other challenges,” Jue said.

Though the commission has pooh-poohed the idea of permanent composting toilets, Tenderloin community organizers think a portable prototype could play an integral role in addressing a shortage of public lavatories in that neighborhood.

Clean City and the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District are working with environmentally minded Hyphae Design Laboratory to create a portable composting toilet they say would be less expensive to install and maintain because it would not need electricity or plumbing.

“We’ve been working hard to clean up the Tenderloin and this is another step,” said Gia Grant, executive director of Clean City.

If the project stays on schedule, the Tenderloin could have a new toilet by this summer. But because it will need approval from several city agencies, it’s possible things will get backed up.

sgantz@sfexaminer.com